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Four hours, four paragraphs

Last updated on: September 16, 2005 18:54 IST

For almost four hours on Wednesday night, journalists from both India and Pakistan, accompanied by a handful of American subscribes (including CNN International anchor Jonathan Mann) awaited the outcome of an equally long encounter between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

At first, we were cordoned off in the Villard Ballroom -- venue for the India Abroad Person of the Year 2004 event -- at the New York Palace hotel after being frisked by a member of the New York police force.

After a couple of hours in the Villard Ballroom, where few Indians and Pakistanis made an attempt to know each other, we were taken 10 at a time through one of the New York Palace kitchens to an elevator, and then on to another holding room, where the journalists -- maybe a hundred in all -- hung around for another couple of hours, cold, hungry and thirsty. No one used the rest room because if you left, you were not allowed back in.

The ones who didn't go to sleep amused ourselves exchanging stories about previous India-Pakistan encounters, speculating what curved balls the flamboyant Musharraf would throw to unfaze our reticent prime minister.

We stirred to life when members of the leaders' A-team finally began to arrive a few minutes before midnight -- External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh in his now familiar fez; his counterpart Khurshid M Kasuri radiating good cheer; Pakistan's National Security Adviser Tariq Aziz (most of the Indians didn't know who he was, so Natwar helpfully introduced Aziz to us); our Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran (whose eloquence and insight I have come to admire first in Washington, DC, in July and here in New York); T K A Nair, the prime minister's dynamic principal secretary (as media shy as his boss, but a brilliant soul) and Sujata Mehta, joint secretary in the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Service officer I gather entrusted with scrutinising the fine print.

On the other side, sat General Jehangir Karamat, once Musharraf's predecessor as Pakistan's army chief, and now his ambassador in Washington' Navtej Sarna, the ministry of external affairs spokesman and author of the fine novel, We Weren't Lovers Like That.

Natwar, Kasuri and Co seem to be in good spirits, leading us to the conclusion (how off the mark we were) that some landmark agreement had been reached. The only unsmiling visage on view was our National Security Adviser M K Narayanan, who joined the party later. The usually good humoured Narayanan -- whose eyes have a naughty wrinkle and whose style is at least 30 years younger than his stated age of 71 -- looked rather withdrawn and tired. It was perhaps the first sign I had that both sides had sparred a bit before joining us in the room.

When both leaders arrived, I was surprised to note that the general was only slightly taller than Dr Singh. I always thought he was one of those tall hutta-kutta faujis. He looked quite like the chap we see on the television news channel NDTV's puppet show Gustaki Maaf. Dr Singh clearly looked exhausted. It was 0015 on Thursday morning, three hours and 45 minutes after the general arrived for dinner.

After the general read out the four paragraph joint statement, we clamoured for clarity from both men. Musharraf seemed inclined, but no sooner had a Pakistani journalist posed a question about Dr Singh's statement that the map of India could not be redrawn, a rather irritated prime minister called off the proceedings and declared that the joint statement had said all they wanted to say.

Musharraf looked like a schoolboy deprived by the coach of his chance of showing off his bowling. He looked wistfully at us -- maybe there was even a small shrug -- before he left the room.

Secret Service agents then shut the doors, leaving us to vent our frustration at Dr Sanjaya Baru, the former editor of The Financial Express, who serves as Dr Singh's media adviser.

Sanjaya, unmoved by our pleas to give us the inside story (provoking a couple of tantrums), helpfully read out the joint statement again for those of us who had lost track of it when the general first read it out.

The inside story would have to clearly wait another day.

But as we phoned in our stories to Mumbai, we heard of how Musharraf held forth at dinner about this new restaurant in Lahore called Kakoos, which he has already visited thrice to savour the cuisine. The first time he visited the establishment, the general was struck by a portrait on the wall, depicting a man in khaki dragging a woman by the hair. The general promptly protested to the restaurant's owner. No soldier would ever do anything of that kind, he declared. 'That is no fauji, Generalsaab,' the owner replied, 'that is a policemen.' Whereupon every member of the Indian delegation grinned broadly at the only policeman in the room, M K Narayanan, member of the Indian Police Service, 1958.

More on the Singh-Musharraf encounter, as soon as we find out more!

Heptanesia Mumbaikar