Rashtrapati Bhavan: Of state guests and other tales from Raisina Hill
A book about state guests at Rashtrapati Bhavan in the two decades after independence recreates a momentous era.
Flip through Abode Under The Dome by Thomas Mathew, Additional Secretary to President Pranab Mukherjee, and the reader is immediately struck by the excellent archival photographs: Here’s Chou En-lai, Premier of the People’s Republic of China, linking hands with President Rajendra Prasad and Vice President S Radhakrishnan in June 1954; here’s S Radhakrishnan delivering the banquet speech as President Tito of Yugoslavia, a country that went the way of the Cold War, and Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt, listen attentively; here’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi addressing a banquet; here’s Liaquat Ali Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, chatting with Rajendra Prasad in April 1950...
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A vanished world, the era of the Non Aligned Movement, when freshly independent India attempted to find that elusive middle path between the US and the USSR, emerges from these pages like some fantastic hologram. Then, there are the magnificent contemporary views of Rashtrapati Bhavan clicked by the author himself, and numerous anecdotes about everything from the crockery to the state guests. “My favourite is the one about how Patricia Nixon, wife of President Richard Nixon of the US, was gifted a basket of chicken eggs by the villagers of Chattarpur when she visited in 1969,” says Mathew.
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It was the year of the Moon Landing and, apparently, it had been announced that the lady was from the “country that had conquered the moon”. Unfortunately, much was lost in translation and the villagers, who thought Mrs Nixon actually lived on the moon, rushed to give her a delicacy that, no doubt, continues to be rarely found on the banks of the Sea of Tranquillity.
The book draws on the archives of the presidential estate, biographies of world leaders, national and international newspapers of the time, declassified documents, and on interviews with retired Rashtrapati Bhavan employees.
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“For some of the interesting stories I got in the bearers and household staff who had long retired. Through the pension, we got to their address, got them to Delhi or talked to them on the phone. Whoever was not suffering from dementia was spoken to!” says Mathew, adding that the book got its impetus because the President is a keen historian. “He loves history; loves the contextualization of history. He wanted this book,” he says, adding wryly “otherwise why would I do something like this? Working after office hours from 7pm to 4am every day for nine months – that’s how long the project took — is no joke!”