This was a tweet that Gopal Baglay, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson, put out after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a quick, spur-of-the-moment meeting in Hamburg the other day. Baglay refused to elaborate on either the “range of things” they talked about or the success of the powwow.
A day later, he revealed to reporters, like a messiah delivering celestial wisdom to his apostles, that the picture that went with his tweet itself “speaks more than a thousand words”. He was apparently referring to the smiles on the faces of Jinping and Modi.
More than a thousand words? Really?
Language aficionados say that it was the American magazine Printers Ink which had first used the expression “one look is worth a thousand words” in 1921, attributing it to a Japanese scholar. Six years later, the same magazine printed the line “one picture is worth ten thousand words” and said it was of Chinese origin. This led to speculation that it was Confucius who had first coined it and that led to the confusion.
Confucius is no longer in a fit condition to shed light — he died in 479 BC — on whether he had said thousand or ten thousand words. The clever Baglay played it safe with “more than a thousand”. And this led to a whole lot of confusion too. Baglay’s tweet became a conundrum, of a kind even the senior-most journalists covering the external affairs ministry had not encountered before.
Reporters pored over the photo to ferret out the “more than thousand” words that supposedly lurked behind the smiles of Modi and Xi, but they found none. Then they rushed to physiognomists, anthroposcopisgts and even metopomancists for help but to no avail.
But I was lucky. I found a source — I’ll call him Deep Throat — who revealed to me what went on between Modi and Xi when they met in a side room with a large window overlooking a lawn in Hamburg. He told me the story — though only up to a point.
Deep Throat said he had crouched on the lawn and peeped into the open window and saw it all. This is what he said.
Once they had stepped into the room and dismissed their respective aides, Modi and Xi locked themselves in a tight embrace, like two brothers separated by a cruel villain finding each other at the end of a Bollywood movie.
“Xi,” Modi said.
“Ji,” Xi sighed.
Separating themselves from each other with great reluctance, they sat at the two ends of a long sofa. But soon the camaraderie disappeared like a candle light being blown. Their smiles were gone. For an entire minute, they scowled at each other in silence.
Modi was the first to break the silence. “Your boys must get the hell out of Doka la,” he said with fire in his eyes.
Xi’s retort was quick. “If anybody must get out of there, it’s your kids,” he said. “Doka la belongs to China.”
“Applesauce and balderdash,” Modi said, shaking his head in disgust and raising his voice. Doka la belongs to Bhutan, and India has a contract to save Bhutan from expansionist, hegemonic real-estate usurpers like China. And what basis do you have to make such an absurd claim that Doka la is part of China anyway?”
“Why, of course, the 1890 agreement says it all,” Xi said, looking surprised that Modi should even ask the question.
“But that accord,” Modi said, “was signed by the Queen of England and Emperor Guanxu of China and, since then, circumstances have changed as unrecognisably as ape has changed into man in evolution. Your selective amnesia no doubt stops you from recalling that the so-called 1890 agreement was all about Sikkim and Tibet. Now, Sikkim is ours, and you claim Tibet is yours. Besides, Bhutan was never a party to it.”
“But an accord is an accord is an accord,” Xi insisted with a grimace.
A smile crossed Modi’s face. “In which case,” he declared, “I too have an accord that will beat the life out of all accords ever signed since Big Bang.”
“I beg your pardon?” said Xi, nonplussed.
“Kaun hai wahan?” Modi shouted in the direction of the door.
An Indian official walked in with a bunch of palm leaves bound as a book. On a nod from the Prime Minister, he handed it to Xi.
“That’s the 1126 accord,” Modi said.
Xi began to study the palm leaf inscriptions with an expression that changed from surprise to bewilderment and then to utter panic.
Modi said, “To cut the long story short, and the short story to a paragraph, it’s this. It all began in year 1126 when King Vikramaditya-VI summoned up a humongous army to march across the Narmada river, the northern India, the Himalayas and into China up to Heilongjiang to conquer the whole damned place. Emperor Huizong, who then ruled China, was struck by horror. Fearing that Vikramaditya-VI would annex entire China, Huizong made an offer. He said the Indian king could take China up to Peking, leaving the provinces beyond Leaoning to him. The two emperors signed a pact to that effect in 1126, but, as fate would have it, Vikramaditya-VI soon passed away. Then all was forgotten, and the palm-leaf manuscript gathered dust for nine centuries. I found it under my pillow when I woke up the other day, left there by an anonymous patriot, no doubt.”
Xi looked as if the chandelier above him had crashed on his head. He was unable to hide the fear in his eyes. Yet he tried, without success, to put on a brave front, as he asked: “And you expect the world to buy this 1126 historical poppycock?”
“Just the way you want the world to fall for your 1890 historical poppycock,” Modi replied.
“You have anything to back this up?”
“Yes,” Modi said, “our archaeologists have dug out a stone of the Maurya kingdom vintage dating back to 321 BC which shows-“
“Zúgòu, (enough),” shouted the Chinese President, as sweat began to appear on his puffed up face. “You aren’t leaking any of this damned historical evidence to the media, are you?” he said with a quiver in his voice.
“No, I’ll just tell Trump.”
“Ah, leave alone Doka la,” he said, “Trump can’t find his own nose even if the White House aides hold a mirror before him.”
“But,” Modi explained, “Trump will put it on Twitter. He’s got 33.7 million followers. I’ll retweet it to my 31.5 million followers. Soon the whole world will get the stuff.”
Xi raised a trembling hand. “Stop it,” he pleaded.
With his face in hands, Xi fell silent for a few moments before he looked up and mumbled, as if to himself: “Things have gone a bit awry, have they not? I must find a way out of this.”
Then the Chinese President’s face illuminated as if a bulb inside his head had been switched on but no words came from his smiling lips for a long time.
‘Xi!” Modi said.
“Ji,” Xi sighed. “I do have an honourable-media will call it face-saving-way out of this face off, which will…”
At that point, Deep Throat heard the footsteps of approaching security guards. He fled from the window with the speed of a bullet. But he disclosed later that he suspects the Sikkim face-off will soon come to an anti-climax like a poorly-made Chinese romance movie.
This is a satirical piece. The author wrote a weekly satire column called True Lies in The Times of India from 1996 to 2001. He tweets at @sprasadindia