I was in Hyderabad in my brother’s office, desperately trying to find something to do when I received a mail from an editor at Outlook asking me if I would like to interview the President of India. Boy! Okay, fine, I said: I would love to do it.
I was sent my air tickets on 16th December and was told that there would be another girl with me for the interview. I sat down with a friend, Kalyan, on 16th night and came up with a list of possible questions. I came to Delhi by the 8:30 AM flight on 18th and met Aditi at the Outlook office in Safdarjung Enclave. We were briefed about the year-end youth special issue and the relevance of our interview. The entire office seemed to be excited about it. We were introduced to everyone in sight and once told that we were the ones who would meet the President, they would invariably be impressed (or at least managed to appear to be so).
Sheela Reddy, an Outlook correspondent who had been to Rashtrapathi Bhawan and met Dr.Kalam sometime last year was still thrilled about it. Her eyes gleamed when she described her visit in great detail. We consulted her and the deputy photo editor, T. Narayan (who had also been there), on what to wear for our rendezvous. By evening, Aditi and I finalized about 20 questions. Then came the instructions for the D-day: The interview was scheduled at 12:15 PM on 19th Dec, in the Study at Rashtrapathi Bhawan. As photography wasn’t permitted in the study, no one would accompany us from Outlook. I was to record the conversation, if allowed to carry the recorder; we were supposed to take notes anyway. We were to meet at the petrol bunk near Moolchand flyover at 11.
The night was long. With all their excitement, the Outlook guys had succeeded in making me feel tense…at least when I was alone in my bedroom at the guest house. Anyway, I slept; and woke up on time.
I got a call from the office at 10 saying that there would be a briefing with the press secretary at the Rashtrapathi Bhawan at 11. So we were to meet at the office at 10:30. I reached office a little late and found Krishna Prasad (the editor concerned) and Aditi waiting on the road. "Be calm. Be yourself. All the best," were Krishna's parting words. We got into Aditi’s car and drove off. Krishna had handed Aditi another set of instructions, neatly put on paper: "Meet S.M.Khan, the President’s press secretary. Do not be intimidated. Do not show him your list of questions. Just tell him they are concerning the youth and that they are your own. He might be present during the interview. Ask Dr. Kalam if you can record the conversation."
We reached the venue by 11. Through the fog we could see the majestic dome of the Rashtrapathi Bhawan. The guards at the entrance crosschecked our names with a printed schedule sheet and let us in. It felt like entering a fort. After parking the car, we were led to the reception, where a lady asked us if we were there for the mulakaat. We then deposited the recorder and went through lots of detectors, meeting lots of security personnel on the way - guys in black safari suits who would smile at us and uniformed security guards who straightened up when we looked at them. It was cool.
Walking through beautiful courtyards and corridors, we reached Mr Khan’s Cabin. He was very different from the picture that I had formed. After the initial introduction, we talked about LSR, IIT Kgp, about his work as press secretary, etc. He inquired about our questions to the President and seemed to be really interested in college-bunking trends in LSR. I figured his son at SRCC probably bunked a lot. But Aditi is a hardcore regular. She had even attended college before coming for the interview. Anyway, Mr Khan was kind enough to allows us to take in the audio recorder for the interview. He told us the interview would start at 12:30 and go on for 20 minutes.
We were then taken to the visitors’ room. Like most other rooms in the Rashtrapati Bhawan, it was beautiful, had a high ceiling and a non-functional fireplace. In addition, a photograph of Dr Kalam hung on the front wall and there was a statue of the poet Thiruvalluvar on the right. A turban-wearing butler came in with a large tray with pastries, cakes, biscuits, lemonade etc. All the crockery and cutlery had the National Emblem and ‘Satyameva Jayate’ embossed on them.
The President’s ADC (Aides-de-camp) Flt.Lt. Nishikant Singh walked in at 12:40 with a warm smile and said, ‘Ask the President whatever you want to ask’. He escorted us through the most royal corridor I have seen - a white ceiling with an intricate design, marble statues and flower vases on either side, a dark red carpet and concealed lighting - and darbaans in traditional costumes and security guards. It was something like what they show in Titanic.
‘This way’, said the ADC. We entered the Study and there was Dr APJ Abdul Kalam at the opposite corner across the room. W greeted him and took our seat across the table, on which there was a computer and a few books. There was a tall glass window to his left through which one got a view of the Mughal Gardens. We introduced ourselves and he recognized my dad, as they were together at DRDL. He was as we had expected - warm and friendly, and we started with the questions.
The interview went on for 50 minutes, in spite of waiting guests. At the end, the President gave us autographed copies of Ignited Minds and instructed the ADC to arrange for a tour of the House and the Mughal Gardens-and the ‘hut’ where he relaxes and thinks. The Arjuna Hall (where the Arjuna Award ceremony is held) has the Central Dome above it; the Ashoka Hall has a large painting of a warrior on the ceiling; the Banquet Hall has huge paintings of all past Presidents; the Museum exhibits gifts received by the various Presidents - a marble table with embedded stones that change colour when you press them, a four kilogram eagle made of solid gold presented by a Nigerian President, a four-feet tall ship made of only cloves gifted by Indonesia’s PM and a large silver throne, to name a few. There was also another hall full of English paintings and a children’s gallery. After the tour, we had lunch at the ADC’s Dining room and met Mr Khan as was required.
From a close aide, we came to know the President’s opinion on brain drain. He does not mind engineers and doctors going out, as we do not have jobs for all - they can help the country even while staying abroad, he thinks.
It was 5 in the evening by the time we came out. It was a fantastic experience. And the interview? Well, we got to know the President at a personal level. As expected, we did receive general and vague answers for controversial questions, but I am definitely more optimistic about India now. One man cannot walk around and change the country. We need more optimistic people; people who can dream. We need the ‘Young Movement’ that he talks of. I think it’ll happen…