Sundeep Bhutoria

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ess bee

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Bye bye Beth

As I write this blog, the US Consul General of Kolkata, Ms Beth Payne, would be well on her way to leave the City of Joy having completed her tenure. Many Kolkatans would remember the familiar sight of a foreign lady shutterbug clicking away pictures of the rickshaws, roads, lanes, ghats, old buildings, potua para, Maidan, Victoria Memorial and countless other interesting places that Calcutta - The City of Palaces - had to offer.
I think Beth has, perhaps, been the only Consul General in Kolkata who travelled deep into the rural areas capturing rare details of Bengali life and culture in a camera that many city dwellers don't get to see very often. Beth is a very media shy person who is more comfortable shooting from behind the camera than facing one. Her skills as an adept photographer was there for all to see at her recent photography exhibition on Bengal.
Beth loves Bengali culture and was very much at home here in the city. I think Beth and Kolkata are made for each other. Despite her Western looks, she blended into the Kolkata's sea of humanity as easily as any of us. Her unfettered and informal ways were much talked about in the city's diplomatic circles. She stayed away from the parties and seldom attended events that bragged of celebrity presence.
Some of the other American Consuls in Kolkata before her, like George Sibley and his wife Alison Lee Sibley, also evinced interest in local Bengali culture. But Beth became a part of it. I have travelled across continents and met so many people but never come across a more dignified and principled Consul like Beth Payne.
Some time back, I invited Beth for lunch at my residence. As it was her first visit, I presented her a print of a famous painting that was signed by the eminent artist himself. She liked it very much and sent me a thank you card and a email.
One day, a month later, I received an early office hour call from her and she told me that she had already framed that piece of art and had it put on her wall. She said someone had mentioned to her that it was a valuable piece of art and that she had used her own sources to determine beyond doubt that it was indeed so.
She apologised that she could not accept this gift from me. I tried in vain to persuade her and she told me very politely that the US rules for diplomats doesn't allow acceptance of gifts beyond a certain value and the only condition on which they could accept such a gift was by paying for it from personal account. I was in a fix for I did not want to accept money for a gift that I had presented.
Beth told me that she liked the print and wanted to keep it with her as a memento of our friendship but it could only be possible if I accepted the price of the gift value. I could not convince her and had no choice but to accept the money which an official representative personally came and delivered to me.
I am no fan of America and I have never been impressed by its popular culture. But having met a person and personality from the United States like Beth Payne, I am ready to learn, with an open mind, more of the life and culture she comes from.
ess bee

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