The mood however was fairly understated and restrained in deference to the recent tsunami tragedy and the Satara temple deaths, with low-spoken conversations and none of the laughter that uplifts this special tea party.
President Kalam, Sonia Gandhi, senior leaders of the government and this Republic Days guest of honour, His Highness Jigme Singhye Wangchuk, king of Bhutan, kept grimly apart in the usual cordoned-off security zone. Finance minister P Chidambaram, elegant in his traditional veshti-djubba, was the lone Cabinet minister to step outside the cordon and mingle with other guests.
Enjoying the splendour of the flowers, fountains, six-foot-tall Presidential bodyguards and armed forces brass in full winter dress uniform and decorations (less swords), were 350 postmen from all over India, special guests at the At Home, as was an orderly line of disabled Delhi schoolgirls in their early teens. Several guests remarked on their presence with misty-eyed approval of the Presidents decision to invite them to the elite gathering of ambassadors, high commissioners, bureaucrats, politicians and artistes of eminence.
Attracting the congratulations of many were MK Narayanan, successor to the late J N Dixit as National Security Advisor and Rajendra K Pachauri, director general, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who has just assumed office as President of the India Habitat Centre in place of Dr Manmohan Singh, who relinquished his post due to the demands on his time as prime minister.
Tall, strapping Air Marshal Arjan Singh, a dashing figure even well into retirement, was greeted most affably by HE Aziz Ahmed Khan, high commissioner for Pakistan. And while HE Saleh Mohd Al-Ghamdi, Saudi Arabias ambassador to India, wore a western suit instead of Arab dress, the Sudanese ambassador, HE Abdal Mahmood Abdal Haleem Mohammed, was resplendent in flowing white national robes as was the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana in apostolic vestments. HE Jon Westborg, the Norwegian ambassador, who took office in New Delhi in February 2004, wore full national dress for his first Republic Day (clocked stockings, medieval knee-length pants, black jacket and Viking crosses). His red tartan waistcoat however made several guests think of Scotland, but the ambassador goodnaturedly explained that it was also Norwegian and even Prince Charles was confused by it.
Meanwhile, at the tea tables, the Presidents famous good housekeeping was in evidence. Gone were the over-hearty, oldfashioned At Home perils of giant chocolate eclairs oozing cream, humongous samosas and oily spinach pakoras. Instead, amidst the usual urns of tea and coffee, there was neat desi finger food: cocktail samosas, vadas, dal halwa and besan ki barfi, more presidential innovations that drew approval from At Home regulars.