While stationed in New Delhi last year, I went to the Indian parliament where the director of UNICEF's Innocenti Research Centre was to address Indian lawmakers on yet another study on child rights.
After the speeches were met with the approving left-to-right bobbing of many heads, en route to breakfast an elderly Indian gentleman with white hair and starched suit fell into step with me.
After nodding to each other and exchanging a few polite comments, he casually mentioned the naivety of guaranteeing equality to a population of a billion plus. Feeling happy with my job, I gave him the whole UNICEF spiel on children's rights and teased him about everyone expecting more from the world's largest democracy.
We laughed for a bit and he introduced himself as an 'old hand' who'd lived through India's many ups and downs. Then, he asked me where I was from.
When I told him, he pushed my hand away in mock surprise. "You're joking, you can't be from Nepal," he said.
I told him there were quite a handful of us in the UN actually, and that there were thousands of Nepali professionals within the country and around the planet, including those competing with his countrymen for top jobs in the Bay Area's technology firms.
"Then how come every time we have bilateral talks, only loutish guys from your government come here as if on holiday, and never anyone with real understanding or an ability to engage us?" he asked.
Unsure whether to feel insulted or complimented, I grabbed a cup of coffee, deciding not to lose the old man just then. Good-naturedly we went over other aspects of India-Nepal relations. He mentioned many meetings he'd participated in where the Indian side came prepared with detailed notes to discuss areas of interest and past agreements, some dating back to before Indian independence.
The Nepali side, he said, never failed to send the same people, designated ministers and representatives in name, who often hadn't done their homework, had nothing constructive to offer in terms of ideas or technical expertise, nor any idea how to seek benefits for Nepal.
"More often than not," he added, "your people come with petty personal requests to enrich themselves, they trivialise the meetings." The Nepalis, he said, were then passed on to lower ranking Indian secretaries and junior level staff who provide the favours, but who then held those ministers to ransom.
"So, do you really think that the central Indian Government has time to meddle in Nepal's affairs when your ministers only deal with our lower-level staff?" And with that, the man vanished into the breakfast crowd.
Many times I have wondered about that conversation and also the veracity of the old bureaucrat's account. I was reminded of it recently by the debate over whether our new prime minister should have gone to Beijing or Delhi first. The last time I checked, we were still an independent country.
Therefore, without sounding too cheeky, I'd like to offer this to the prime minister before he jets off to Delhi next week: if you've done your homework, are knowledgeable about the country's priorities and needs, and are without personal motive, it doesn't matter whether you're meeting with Indians or Chinese, Americans or Scandinavians.
You don't have to look up or down, left or right, just look them straight in the eye and tell them what's really on your mind. And they will listen.
Mr Dahal goes to Delhi - FROM ISSUE #417 (12 SEPT 2008 - 18 SEPT 2008)
Fix Nepal first - FROM ISSUE #417 (12 SEPT 2008 - 18 SEPT 2008)
Welcome to India, Mr Prime Minister - FROM ISSUE #417 (12 SEPT 2008 - 18 SEPT 2008)