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Sunil Adam Headshot

The Grinch wore a sari to Obama's party

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I always first think of a headline that sums up the theme of my blog. But I could not decide on a good header for my analysis of the first state visit hosted by the Obama administration. I toyed with a number of them. The first was "President Obama throws a party." It seemed appropriate because it was indeed, a grand party. Even the guest of honor, India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, gushed saying that the state dinner was "magnificent, lavish and extravagant." Thank God for small mercies - because the other ceremonies associated with a state visit had to be pruned when they were moved indoors because of rain ("Monsoon follows Manmohan" would have been a good header for a news agency report).

Then again, the unassuming 77-year-old prime minister must have realized that Obamaland was no country for old men. That's why he seemed a bit nervous and unsteady as he walked with Obama to a brief welcome ceremony in the East Room of the White House, where the habitually overenthusiastic Indian guests startled the unsuspecting president by unnecessarily applauding at even the slightest compliment he paid to India. But I'm digressing.

Coming back to my commentary, I could not bring India or U.S.-India relations into the headline because Singh seems to have been reduced to being just a pretext for Obama's party. After all, there was nothing substantive about the summit meeting. There were no new initiatives or agreements of any consequence. My headline hunt would have been made easy if the two countries worked hard over the past 10 months to iron out the problems in the civil nuclear agreement they signed in 2006 and used the state visit to operationalize it. No such luck. Any meeting of the minds about India joining the nonproliferation regimes that Obama listed out at the U.N. or on India's acceptance of what is being baked in Copenhagen for the climate summit in December? Fuggedaboutit.

Then why was the summit scheduled? It was probably a coincidence of interests. You see, Obama has already visited all the major countries with which the U.S. has strong relations, including Mexico, Britain, Japan, China, Egypt and Turkey, totaling 20 countries in eight foreign trips. The only big one left out was India.

Foggy Bottom, which has a better sense of U.S. national interests as against the political and personal interests of the president, must have hurriedly lobbied to get India the top billing for a White House visit, lest relations with sensitive souls in South Block (India's Foggy Bottom) should sour over the slight. And the Obamas, who are adept at turning any event to make it all about themselves, must have readily agreed.

But a look at the guest list for the White House dinner demanded a slight alteration to my headline: "Obama throws a party at the expense of Manmohan Singh." There were, after all, few in the dining tent that had anything to do with U.S.-India relations, much less with India. The guests were mostly FOOs (Friends of Obama) ranging from fundraisers, movie and media celebrities, not to mention the Chicago cronies-turned-officials who made their southsider the brand he is today.

Sure, there were some whom Indians could visually identify, including the omnipresent Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo chief, sporting a hairdo that lost its fizz during the Roaring '20s; Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the swine-flu-in-chief of cable television; GPS Zakaria, who, by the way, should stop looking into Obama's soul every time he has to justify a policy about which he himself seems unconvinced; Manoj Night Shyamalan, who has not seen daylight at the box office since he saw dead people 10 years ago; Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of Hotmail and the other one-time wonder; Kal Penn, the stoner who went from White Castle to the White House; and, of course, the pride and joy of Indian Americans, the born-again from Baton Rouge, Bobby Jindal.

I was just about to settle on my headline when the blonde bombshell exploded in the South Lawn in the form of Michaele Salahi, accompanied by her chubby hubby Tareq, by now the most famous gate-crashers since the discovery of vindaloo, which, incidentally, was not on the state dinner menu (what a snub). The entire summit and the party seemed to have suddenly slipped on a "sari," as the media dubbed it.

But an alacritous colleague called to say what Michaele Salahi was wearing was not a sari, but a lehenga-choli (long skirt and blouse) with a dupatta (long scarf)! Even though I was gratified that I'd been saved from a disgraceful misidentification of a garment that has, within hours, become part of the American lexicon (no one seemed surprised when Maureen Dowd couldn't resist writing a column asking "Who's Sari Now?"), I realized that my blog had to change.

Forget the summit, never mind the unsigned treaties and the inappropriate applause. The focus now shifts to examining how a blonde in a sari that wasn't one stumped the man who thinks he can turn water to wine at any big-ticket event. That's why the new headline reads: "The Grinch wore a sari to Obama's party."