Thursday, July 23, 2009
Thank You Mr. President – A forenoon with Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
My friend Dagfinnur called me, ‘Hey, Satya, you will be meeting the President tomorrow morning at 11.30 am. I will pick you up at 11.’
‘President’, I said, ‘the Alpine Club President?’
‘No, Satya, the President of the country.’
‘How much time do I have with him?’ I asked the most stupid question possible at the moment. Similar to asking an organizer who had invited me for a talk to know how much time I had on the dais.
‘Twenty minutes, may be, tops thirty, if you are lucky. He is an extremely busy man.’ Dagfinnur cut the line.
I ended up spending almost an hour with Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson while pocketing (come on, what do you think about me!), eating a plate of really nice sandwich and biscuits washed with the aroma of the finest Oolong (Upper Fagu, if I am not mistaken) tea. This is the story.
It was one of my very rare speechless moments. I took nearly a minute to recover my vocal and mental chords. Well, Satya, I said to no one in particular, you are moving in to high places finally. And then, it hit me, I did not even know how Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson looked; forget about knowing anything else about him.
I have of course met the Presidents of several countries earlier, including of my own. But they have all been approved and scheduled by pre-arrangements following the strict protocol for such matters and they have always been in an official capacity and manner. Never had I met the Head of a State on a personal front and in such a short notice, which was totally against all protocol. By the virtue of my occupation as an Indian Naval Officer, there was no way I could meet the President without informing my Office and getting a security clearance for the same. But then, I had been invited by the President of the country where I was temporarily residing, did I have the right, will or the courage to refuse! It was and is a cold country, one of the most scenic on Earth and at such places mind acts differently, so I waved the thought that I could actually be court-martialed back home, and plunged into the World Wide Web to find some nuggets about Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland.
In Google Image search, I found myself staring squarely (in most pictures) at a jolly good looking fellow, tall and lean by any standards, smiling at me through gold rimmed spectacles. What struck me first (or it should to anyone) was his smile. It was not broad enough to split his face but genuine enough to curl his lips and touch his eyes. He seemed to be enjoying himself, no matter where he was, what the situation he was in or whoever stood by him. I also noticed in the backdrop of most of the pictures taken in the President’s house, the golden gilt-edged painting of a volcano with Viking saga sail ships in the foreground with the Icelandic flag on to the right hand corner. Hmmm… I wondered perhaps I too would get myself framed there. I also learned that Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is one of the longest serving Presidents in the world, with the country choosing him for the fourth consecutive term to the office and in all possibilities he would continue to be chosen for quite some time. He was definitely a charmer and his people loved him as did people of many other countries, since very high on his global agenda was a genuine concern for social and geo-political issues affecting the mankind. He wanted to do good and tried his best to make others do the same. A most unlikely politician, I mused. He seemed to be on close terms with India and had been and still is very close to the Gandhi family. He knew our PM and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi on first name basis. But, well, I did take everything with a pinch of salt as Google has been known to err in the past.
With a fuzzy mind (which is my natural state for most of the times) I looked for something to make myself remotely presentable. Of course I carried no business suit or tie or Gucci shoes to go with. My only climbing trouser, with several rip offs, which by that time had already climbed several peaks in Iceland, without a divider seemed my best bet. To go along with it, I had a somewhat clean Millet climbing shirt, which had only about 100 odd crease marks and not too much dirt. Footwear was my biggest worry. I certainly could not wear my 3 kg heavy climbing boots, though they are the finest in the world, a new innovative Millet climbing boot that I was doing trials for and was assisting them with the usability-designs. I could not wear my Scarpa GTX hiking shoes, since they had crampon cuts in the front and were dirty beyond redemption. They would leave such dark, deep and indelible marks on the Presidential carpets that his housekeeper might actually send me the laundry bills later. Once Sherlock Holmes said (I don’t remember in which episode) that when you have weighed all other options then the only one remaining, no matter how absurd, how improbable it was, is the one you must adopt. This thought, on that muddy morning was excited within me by the sight of the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes in Icelandic in my friend’s house where I was residing. So I looked at my dog-eaten floaters, with open toe, and buckles hanging from all sides and sighed, ‘Well, even for Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson I guess this would be a first.’ Having no option is also an option; I learn this every day of my life, hanging with my fingers from impossibly high places.
As for the rest of my appearance, I did not care much. Though my face was horribly sun-burnt and I was literally invisible after sunset (the Arctic Summer in Iceland at the time, thankfully, offered only two hours of twilight and no dark hours at all), I hadn’t lost any of my outward charm or inward brilliance and I was confident that if the subject of discussion did not veer away from my area of core competence, then I could handle even a Gestapo interrogator with finesse and aplomb. So I was ready, as I would or could ever be, when I heard the familiar honk outside. I snatched a copy of my Everest book (my intended gift for the President) and ran outside.
Dagfinnur looked at me with an indeterminate smile, which could mean anything under the sun. But then he is a polite man and a friend. We further picked up Dr. Thorsteinn, another friend and one of the top Icelandic glaciologists, with whom I was collaborating on several projects. Bordered by two such charming friends my spirits buoyed but observing their neat attires (especially Dagfinnur, alumni of Harvard and Cambridge, who wore a crisp business suit) I wondered if I should have hired a suit for an hour after all.
The long, black and neat road took us out of the Reykjavík city main and we drove into a kind of estuary with seagulls and Barrow’s Golden eyed ducks ululating the air with their wings and shrill cries. The President’s refuge at Bessastaðir was a sprawling villa (though in India’s Presidential palace scale, it might only look like a spec) done up in neo-Edwardian style with white walls and red tiled roof. Lapping water, crystal blue and windswept, surrounded the villa on three sides; a most Feng Shui’scally favorable house as I could judge. Neat maze of dark bricks made up the driveway. Square latticed windows punctured the walls at regular intervals. It was a simple but winning design. The occupant had taste and elegance but did not wish to make it obvious.
A burly fellow (could be the valet, concierge, security service, cook… who knows!) let us in with a happy smile. Icelander’s always have a happy smile; else they don’t smile at all. We signed in the visitor’s book (I noticed the names preceding mine and counted no less than 50 head of States – what else do you expect!). The fireplace pedestal of the waiting chamber prominently displayed a shot of Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson with Dr Manmohan Singh and fly and Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, all smiling happily into the camera. After a brief lull, the burly fellow opened the inner door and bid us to enter. As I stepped in, the President of Iceland, Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson stepped forward and gripped my right hand in a warm and firm shake.
‘I am glad you could come, it’s nice to see you.’ He said. As I fumbled for an apt answer, I looked straight into his eyes and wondered how someone of his stature could be so polite with someone in my position! Either he did not notice my attire or approved of what he saw. He eyed the Nikon wrapped around my neck, ‘We will have the official pictures later, let’s first go in and get to know each other.’ He ushered us in as if we were his dearest and personal friends, holding the door open to the study and following us in last. I was getting a crash course in diplomacy. We sat at a long rectangular wooden table that seemed to have been a part of the first Viking boat that landed on these shores 1200 years ago. Thousands of books, including the entire Icelandic Saga bore down upon us from all sides. The President took place at the head of the table and bid me to the chair next to him.
Over the next hour or so we discussed about the Himalayan Glaciers, global warming, forming a Himalayan Council, my climbing and explorations and several of his humanitarian projects across the globe. I was batting on firm ground and I guess I gave all the right answers, since he seemed pleased. Then he asked me to submit a paper on one of the Himalayan Glaciers. Towards the end of our discussion he posed me several politically sensitive questions (I did not doubt his genuineness about them; for such questions he could have placed a direct call to the Indian PM or the CIA but he wanted an honest and candid answer from a common citizen of the country that was extremely dear to him). Playing numb or dumb would not work, I guessed, and no ways was I going to give him my genuine thoughts on such controversial subjects. I am governed by the Official Secrets Act and was not at liberty to discuss military or political issues with anyone on earth. Diplomacy was way out of my league. In fact according to most of my friends, I am blunt beyond salvation. So I told him what our nation as a whole and our politicians in particular thought about such matters. He understood and smiled back and suggested that he might call up the Indian PM in the evening. In my most roundabout and concocted fashion I conveyed that he may discretely avoid mentioning my name to anyone at all.
It was an illuminating discussion and the hour spent with Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson seemed to be over in a blink. What really brightened my day was that he literally asked me to continue my work in the Himalaya concerning global warming, glacial melts and climate change. He emphasized that I had a major role to play in the joint Indo-Icelandic efforts in the area. He was happy to know that I would be retiring from the Navy soon. I was happy too for all sorts of reasons.
Thereafter I had my place in front of the golden gilt-edged picture where I presented him my Everest book. He promised to read it and display it prominently in the study. I could have hugged him just for that, but refrained for the sake of dignity. He came right till the door and bid us goodbye with another warm and hearty handshake and a big bright happy smile which showed his sparkling teeth to advantage.
‘Wow that was something.’ I muttered as I got into the car and had a final look at the diving tarns and croaking ducks. The house door had shut behind us and now it looked impregnable and uninhabited like a fortress. Only the Icelandic flag fluttering high up on a pole showed that the President was in assembly. ‘He is like that,’ Dagfinnur commented as the car purred into action, ‘I think he liked you.’ He added. Yeah, sure, I liked him too. I said silently.
While the breathtaking landscape flashed past my window, I leaned back in my seat and heaved a contented sigh. I have no idea if all the Presidents in this world were like Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson but they ought to. Grounded, concerned, genuine and really passionate about what he believed in. He did not merely believe in animated speeches but also got down and got dirty, worked with the people and his heart beat for all the under-privileged people of the world. His nation exceeded the boundaries of Iceland and it encompassed the entire world, the poor and suffering world in particular.
He traveled incessantly to raise awareness and funds for social issues and channeled necessary resources into the right direction. He is a rare phenomenon and charisma in today’s world of dirty politics and self-centered egoistic agendas. We definitely need more like Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and he needs more people like him. He alone has made huge difference to alleviate many nations’ sufferings and humanity at large, but he needs now torchbearers to take his flame forward. I don’t think that Mr. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson will ever tire or retire from what he feels so passionately about. I saluted him from the deepest recess of my heart and thanked him for teaching me a fundamental dictum of life: if you are passionate about something and genuinely feel for it, then just do it and keep doing it no matter what the rest of the world thinks or says; success will be yours and your heart will be full of happiness and the faces around you will be full of smiles.
Thank you Mr. President.