War of words at Windsor

The recent Meghan Markle-Prince Harry wedding at Windsor Castle reminded me of the time when I visited Windsor.

The year was 2007. It had been three months since I had reached London on a Commonwealth Fellowship. It was my first visit outside India, and I was still in that uncomfortable phase where I multiplied and divided by 80 whenever I had to spend money in Pound sterlings. Two weeks before Christmas, we were invited by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission to Cumberland Lodge in Great Windsor Park to attend a Science and Technology Conference over the weekend. And I just needed an excuse to get out of my dreary hostel room in that dull winter. It was no surprise that I instantly agreed.

It was time then for the big surprise. At a previous welcome meeting of the new batch of Commonwealth Fellows, I had raised my hand and volunteered to facilitate a small group discussion on leadership. Apparently one of the Commissioners noticed me there, and I got invited to speak at a panel discussion on “If I were the Minister for Science and Technology”. I was jittery when I realized that I was one of just three speakers chosen among all the Fellows. I had no exposure of speaking before an international audience from more than 20 countries. Worse, they were not just doctors, but from all walks of life- including humanities, veterinary sciences, philosophy, anthropology and geography. To address such a mixed group was unnerving. Nevertheless, I agreed. And began preparing for the session with no clue whatsoever about what was expected of me.

All my nervousness disappeared when we reached Cumberland Lodge in the afternoon. The feel of the history and the ambience of the place overwhelmed me. It was a former hunting lodge built in 1652 by the Royal family. Until recently it had been used as a Royal residence. And it was grand and the surroundings were picturesque. Having dinner like a Royal was memorable.

I was allotted a royal bedroom and its decor was stunning.  I then discovered that there was no lock to my bedroom as the Royals did not expect any security issues! The weird part was that I was taken aside and given the ‘responsible’ role of Fire Marshall. I was given a fluorescent jacket and a long list of instructions of how to evacuate people outside in case there was a fire. Apparently many years ago a whole wing of the building got burnt down. And Queen Victoria herself came to witness the fire and got doused under the fire brigade hose. She loved the building so much. I was sure that there would be some ghost stories that followed. I slept fitfully that night, hoping that no one started a fire. Thankfully I didn’t meet any ghosts!

Day one went off well. Led by our Commissioners, we discussed the impact of scientific research, the issues of funding and the challenge of sharing our excitement of scientific discovery to the lay person through the media. Since the participants came from a heterogeneous mix of countries, cultures and discipline, the discussions were frothy and full of sparkling wit. We had some very interesting presentations from Commonwealth Scholars from Asia and Africa on themes as diverse as macroeconomics, manufacturing, cheese making, measuring pollution in plants and fisheries.

After dinner, we had the panel discussion. I had expected it to be an informal discussion. But it turned out that they wanted us three participants to present our manifestoes as Ministers for the first 10 minutes. One of the Fellows from Haryana who was working on Foot and Mouth disease was the first to speak and he did a rather organized speech.

I went next where I outlined the core issues in my agenda. I was different from the first speaker in stressing the role of technology in increasing the gap between the inequalities. I had prepared to focus on health initially, but when I saw that the audience consisted of barely four doctors, I shifted track and talked of all fields so that I could capture the audience attention. I didn’t read my speech like the others. I spoke like a minister! ‘Scientists need freedom, but within ethical limits. We need to give our scientists wings, but they need to know how high they should fly!’, I said. I rued the fact that our research agenda was being set by the West- all the money was flowing into HIV/ AIDS, when there were basic issues like sanitation, malnutrition and drinking water which needed more, if not equal attention. I spoke on intellectual property rights, and the fact that it was not a level playing field despite seemingly equal rights for all- half the countries didn’t have a voice in the global scene.

I was rather apprehensive of the third speaker who was a “Lalu Yadav” kind of character from Bangladesh. He was a bearded chap in a pathani suit and a cap and was a researcher in livestock and animal husbandry. In fact since we arrived at the Lodge, he had made such out-of-context weird remarks that the audience would guffaw the moment he stood up. This chap went up and said- “I am Minister. I will not do anything. I will delegate work. I will appoint brilliant people like Dr Anshu to do my work!” Needless to add the audience was in splits throughout the session. He ended by saying, “If anything goes wrong, I will resign immediately!”

Then suddenly the Commissioner announced that the audience would now vote for their minister of choice. I thought they would all vote for the Bangladeshi as he seemed so popular. But to my surprise the audience told him, “You have already resigned, why should we vote for you?!!”

Well, I won more votes than the other two speakers put together! And then everyone was addressing me as “Hello Minister’!! I had to answer more questions later as my acceptance speech too!

I was really thrilled. It was fun. I don’t think anyone expected me to speak so well extempore. I had people shaking hands with me all evening! I carried back in my heart, memorable moments of camaraderie shared with new friends made from all over the globe. It was my first opportunity to test myself in an international setting. And suddenly out of the blue, one very small incident told me that anything was possible if I believed in it. It did wonders to my confidence.

The next morning I decided to walk all the way to Windsor Castle before anyone else woke up. But more on that story another day.

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