As the security officer began nudging the media to the door, a puzzled Chinese journalist turned to me and asked "what was it the Indian side said?"
"Karma," I replied, repeating National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon's opening remark to Chinese state councillor Dai Bingguo as they joked that they had not imagined meeting again years later as special representatives on the border talks. "Er, what is k-a-r-m-a?" she asked, her pen paused uncertainly.
It was a slightly unexpected ambience for a tense subject. On Monday evening, I was the only Indian journalist getting a fleeting glimpse of how the fate of one of the world's longest and bitterly disputed Himalayan borders is negotiated.
The meeting took place in a placid, secluded sprawl of whitewashed official villas tucked beyond Tiananmen Square off Beijing's main avenue.
Dai Bingguo, one of Beijing's most powerful policymakers, entered first and went into a huddle with his staff behind closed doors. Dai re-emerged just before the Indians arrived. There were more smiles than you would imagine in the few minutes of the scene we saw.
As India and China tussle over sensitive disputes, officials on both sides are banking on the atmospherics. Separate conversations with two Chinese strategists indicate that Beijing is mainly intent on fixing the 'atmosphere,' improving public opinion of China in India, and finding room for the relationship to grow with Premier Wen Jiabao's visit to New Delhi this month.
The border talks though making 'steady progress,' are years away from settlement. The debate on mutual sensitivity of core concerns has hit a wall. Any compromises on core debates will be made with nuanced shifts instead of public statements. Both Indians and Chinese are echoing each other to cautiously tone down expectations of Wen's visit. "Both governments are making efforts to sort of create a good atmosphere," said a strategist, summing up bilateral relations a day after the border talks.