When I first learned that I was among the group of AIF Fellows meeting President Clinton, just like the rest of us, I was in complete disbelief. But as the day to meet him came closer, we received an email about the details of the forthcoming meeting with him. In the email, we were informed that the National Center for Performing Arts (NCPA), a lovely performance venue at the southern end of the Marine Drive promenade in Mumbai, was to be the location of our rendezvous with the President. Having lived in Mumbai before, I immediately knew that the NCPA would serve as one of the most sophisticated and dignified venues to meet such an eminent personality.
After a marathon multiple-flights journey starting at 8am from Amritsar, Punjab and ending at 2:30pm in Mumbai, I knew I had very little time to get dressed for the occasion which was to commence at 6:30pm across the city from the Mumbai Fellows’ apartment in Bandra. We all got dressed as quickly as possible, trying hard to contain our excitement, which kept building with each passing minute leading up to our arrival at the NCPA.
At the NCPA, the AIF Country Head, Dr. Hemanth Paul, greeted us. He received each one of us personally and I remember that when I introduced myself to him he said, “Ah, Manleen! I know you. You’re the one who’s famous!” I was both shocked and intrigued at the same time, but I left my intrigues aside for the meanwhile, hoping to address them later in the evening. Dr. Paul was kind enough to first direct us to some hors’ de oeuvres and wine before meeting with the President. These few extra minutes we had to while away before the photo opportunity turned into a wonderful interaction with Dr. Paul. We all told him more about ourselves and our work and got to know him a little bit more too in the process. When he spoke with me, to my relief, he finally explained that I was “famous” because he had read the coverage of the 1947 Partition Archive, the non-profit I work for, in The New Indian Expressa few weeks ago. I appreciated his gesture and thanked him for being so kind. In the time that we were waiting for the President, Dr. Paul, Ryan and I had a fascinating discussion about violence and how victims of trauma tend to recollect the time immediately preceding the trauma as being perhaps the most peaceful time in their lives. In our conversation, Dr. Paul shared with us that his wife is from Punjab and he feels a personal connection with the work I am doing for 1947PA.
Soon enough the wait was finally over and we were asked to step backstage at the Jamshed Bhabha Theater to form a line for the photo opportunity with the President. At this point, all of us could feel the nervousness finally kick in. We were in line behind the side curtains, but from a crack or two, we could see others ahead of us on the stage, preparing themselves to meet the President. Finally, the moment arrived. As we saw President Clinton approach the stage, we immediately felt a large dose of charisma added to the air around us. The President was being escorted to the stage by whom I assume were people from his security detail. It had only started to sink in that we were going to meet him when we were called on stage. We walked on to the stage and he greeted each one of us with a kind smile and a firm handshake. We all gathered around him for a few group photos. After the photos had been taken, he turned to all of us to express his strong faith in AIF’s Fellowship program and just how delighted he was to meet us here in India. He then briefly told us about how he had flown in from Dubai to Mumbai and we all shared a laugh over how his plane had a cracked windshield that needed to be repaired before flying out. Jilna, an AIF Fellow placed in Bhuj in Gujarat (one of the sites of the devastating earthquake in 2001) mentioned to him that the people there still remember him and his visit to Bhuj following the earthquake. When Jilna said that, I could see a sudden sadness descend into his eyes. He paused, looked to the ground for a few seconds and then looked up again at Jilna and said, “Tell the people of Bhuj, I still remember them too.” A poignant moment it was, indeed. He was just as I had imagined him to be: approachable, dignified, sensitive, utterly charming and of course, with a lovely sense of humor.
After the photo opportunity we were escorted off the stage and into the seating area of the Jamshed Bhabha Theater, where the Indian bank Kotak Mahindra had organized a presidium (essentially, a leadership speaker series) and the President was to deliver the inaugural address to a crowd of business leaders and other stakeholders about the story of the Clinton Foundation and efforts of the Clinton Global Initiative in improving lives of people across the world. He spoke of how after he left office in 2001, he wanted to continue to work for causes he truly believed in albeit now within the capacity of being a former President of the US. He spoke of how Indian pharmaceutical companies had helped in producing more affordable medicines to fight HIV/AIDS. He repeatedly emphasized the foundation’s primary motivation as being the need to help development efforts that were already underway in the world by doing them “faster, better, cheaper and [in a way in which they would] benefit more people.”
In the Q&A session that followed his address, after responding to questions relating to challenges in the field of development, the President was asked to respond to the people hoping to see him ‘back in the White House.’ He chuckled and said that the indirect question of Hilary running for office in 2016 had been posed very cleverly. All of us in the audience also joined him in light laughter. In his response to the question, he said that he has always believed in her capabilities, how he couldn’t think of a better person for the job of the President of the United States and if she decides to run for office in 2016 (to which he humorously added that either he didn’t have the answer or even if he did, he wouldn’t tell us!) he would support her in all his capacities. In the entirety of his address and his responses to the questions following the address, I could see not only the strong leader President Clinton is, but also the supportive husband and loving father he is too.
In his address, President Clinton gave us all so much more to think about the reality of the challenges socio-economic development organizations and initiatives face across the world today. But besides this, he gave us AIF Fellows an even more special gift that night. At the very beginning of his address, as he acknowledged the efforts of the American Indian Foundation, he asked us fellows seated in the front row, to rise from our seats so the audience could get a glimpse of those who represent AIF’s efforts in India. We rose and the audience gave us a round of applause. I remember turning over my shoulder to look at the crowd seated behind us. It must have been a crowd of around a thousand people made up of the biggest and most influential names in the Indian business world. It was a moment that is now etched in my memory forever. Not even in my most unrealistic of dreams had I thought that one day I would be invited to a gathering of such distinguished people, let alone have them acknowledge my presence and association with President Clinton and his efforts in such a memorable way.
After his address, we were treated to a sumptuous dinner of Indian, Italian and South East Asian cuisines. A very fine variety of Bordeaux and single malt pre-dinner at the bar and classic tiramisu post-dinner at the dessert table made for a perfectly epicurean evening as well. We toasted to our Fellowship program and to President Clinton, who continues to be one of the most inspiring figures in our lives and in our work. Quite fittingly, we ended our night with a walk by the Marine Drive where some of us took off our shoes and enjoyed the ocean breeze as it generously agreed to add to the pleasure of our evening. I and a few other fellows bought strings of Jasmine flowers and took in their fragrance as a beautiful reminder of how fine the evening had been. The barefoot walk by Marine Drive was a delightful end to an already unforgettable night.
Having had lived in Mumbai before, I couldn’t possibly leave without meeting friends, some old and some new. I had crepes for brunch at Suzette with my dear friend Natasha and a new friend Fawzia. But before leaving for the airport, I had to make a pit stop at Le 15 Patisserie, a place that sells the best French macarons I’ve had in India (there aren’t very many places that sell macarons in India anyway, but still Le 15 is my favorite). I picked up a few boxes of assorted macarons for friends back in Punjab and a box for myself. A week later, I’m still savoring a macaron every day. It’s serving as a sweet reminder of my memorable trip to Mumbai.
On my journey back to Amritsar, fellow Fellow Blessing Okorougo was on the same flight as me till New Delhi. When we were de-boarding in New Delhi, a fellow passenger turned to us and said, “You’re the fellows from the Kotak Presidium in Mumbai, right?” Blessing and I looked at each other smiled and turned to the man and said, “Yes, we are!” Post-Clinton meeting celebrity moment? Check.
On a more serious note, I must say that thanks to the AIF Fellowship program, I can today say that the exposure I have had to not only great thinkers, but also great doers in these eight months in India so far may never be replicated like this again in my life. I know I will continue to meet impactful people, but the impressionable age I’m in right now will have passed by then. Truly, my experience of the AIF Fellowship will remain an integral part of the foundation of leadership skills upon which I wish to help build a better tomorrow for as many lives as I can in India, America and the rest of the world.