I ’ve always believed that it’s the small little kindnesses that matter more than the big grand gesture. At some point or another, all of us are capable of huge generosity. But the more meaningful acts of thoughtfulness, of timely praise or simple thanks, an encouraging smile or a well-recalled memory, don’t happen easily. You can’t put them on. They either come naturally or they don’t happen at all.
This is what makes Aung San Suu Kyi so different. She has the capacity to make ordinary people feel special.
On Thursday, when I had the good fortune to meet her on three separate occasions, I witnessed at close hand this caring side. In the morning at 9, when she walked in for an interview, I introduced my colleagues. Normally my guests are uninterested as they hurriedly and distractedly nod at the assembled crew. Suu Kyi was very different.
With each introduction she seemed to commit the name to memory, repeating it clearly as she shook hands. When I got to the last two, who were at the far end of the room, I pointed to Suraj and Nikhil. “Which is which?” she asked. “They won’t forgive me if I mix them up!” The laughter that followed instantly broke the ice.
Later, at lunch at Meira Kumar’s, with an assortment of ministers, leaders of the Opposition, artistes and authors, she paused to chat with every one she met. In each case she had a small intelligent question to ask and seemed to listen intently to the answer, frequently smiling or laughing to show her evident enjoyment. She had time for everyone who made the effort to go up and talk to her.
Afterwards she made a point of walking across the garden to the musicians who had been playing at the corner, ignored or taken for granted by the other guests. Her ‘thank you’ may have caught them by surprise but you could see it left them elated.
As I watched her, two qualities were evident. The first is what she is and what she is not. She was never effusive but always warm. Never pompous but always dignified. Never familiar but always friendly.
The other was her genuine interest in the people she met, even if it was fleetingly and knowing she would never see them again. At no point did her eyes glaze over with boredom. Nor did she look over their shoulders to identify an escape route. Instead, she seemed to give each person her full and undivided attention.
At dinner I discovered the true secret of her charm: patience and consideration. And every one of the other 75 people remarked on it.
We were Salman Khurshid’s guests at Hyderabad House. As soon as Suu Kyi was seated at the long formal table an endless stream of fellow diners came up to her requesting autographs and photographs. Practically every mouthful she ate was punctuated by someone producing a menu for a signature or asking her to pose for a picture!
Yet not once did Suu Kyi demur or even hesitate. Each autograph was personalised and she produced a winning smile for every photograph. Many returned twice or three times for additional pictures or autographs for their children and they got them with a special message for the intended beneficiary. Her only comment, made in appreciative jest, was “I’ve never been to such a wonderfully informal formal dinner!”
No wonder Suu Kyi has won so many hearts in India.
Views expressed by the author are personal