February 10, 2005

Royal tango

(A modified version of this essay appeared in the Brown Alumni Magazine, Nov/Dec 2004 issue).

We heard about him all the time. Taking a break from working on our programming assignments in the computer science building, someone would rattle off one more story about him. Invariably, they involved women and alcohol. True, we disbelieved them all, but somehow that didn't matter. Even the ridiculed stories added to the legend.

The man had that kind of mythic stature. Two decades after his father clutched his throat and died in a convertible in Dallas, the son trailed three famous initials around the campus I found myself on, a green Indian grad student chasing a Master's degree. Many other famous offspring passed through too -- a Ferraro, a Cuomo, a Carter. But none managed his aura, nor the way that tragedy misted around him.

I was always conscious of his presence. But then one day, I finally saw him.

Before a trip out of town, I stopped for gas at the Shell station on Angell Street. Looking around idly, hose in hand, I saw a man doing the same to his shiny car -- years newer than my rusting Dodge Colt. Over the roofs of our cars, our eyes met. It's him, I told myself, fighting to keep my face as placidly blank as it always is. Our gaze held just that fraction of a second longer than necessary before, as if on cue, we both looked away, down at the hoses. I finished first, paid and rattle-trapped out of the station.

But to this day I wonder: Was royalty as curious about me as I was about him?

My thoughts went back to a encounter in Delhi in the 1970s. Wearing a loud African shirt and tight Levis, the then-pilot son of once-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi strode to our doorstep to pick up a woman who'd had an accident outside our home.

She had fainted from the shock, and we had brought her in to recover. Then one of the others who was in the car with her asked to use our phone because, he said, he had to inform Mrs Gandhi. The Mrs Gandhi.

"Indira Gandhi?" we asked in wonder. "Wouldn't the cops be enough? Or a hospital?"

Turned out the lady was related in some way to the Gandhis. So the son, Rajiv, arrived with several hangers-on. He helped the woman into another car, thanked us politely, and was gone.

Years later, her two bodyguards assassinated Indira Gandhi; Rajiv succeeded her as Prime Minister. Seven years later, in 1991, he too was dead, blown to pieces in a small Tamil Nadu town. Another eight years later, and a small plane, and another pilot, went down off Martha's Vineyard.

Royalty and tragedy, the duet plays on.

Now I don't often have brushes with celebrity, nor particularly crave them. I never knew JFK Jr at Brown University, never knew nor much respected Rajiv Gandhi. But I'm often struck by how that mythic stature -- the royalty, the promise of endless youth -- inevitably, inexorably, mutates to tragedy.

Who were these men, the real Rajiv and JFK Jr? Who knows, really? All we have are the myths, the images, their particular Camelots that say particular things about our two countries. For their stories of political ambition and family dynasty are, in the end, stories about us, and then the flesh-and-blood of these men is almost irrelevant. Yet at the heart of the Camelot fables, always, is a deep and inexplicable sadness. Royalty must be like this too, in the irresistibility of its appeal, the tragedy of its legacy.

I've always felt I glimpsed some bits of that puzzle. That time a man came to our door in Delhi. That Shell station in Providence, where two men exchanged a half-second-too-long gaze.

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