“No, really, it’s not a problem,” the voice at the other end of the phone insists. “We usually eat late.”
A visitor’s taxi speeds from Reagan Airport past the D.C. skyline, the Washington monument and Capitol dome shining brightly against the night sky. By the time the cab arrives at Bhupinder Bhalla’s white brick suburban home in Bethesda, Md., it’s 10 p.m. — more than two hours later than planned — but lights glow inside and out. Apparently, the economic counselor for the Indian Embassy is used to entertaining tardy visitors.
“We’re usually setting the table around 9 or 9:30 anyway,” Bhalla says warmly, extending his hand. “No, no … you don’t need to take off your shoes.”
In neatly trimmed beard, khaki slacks, and striped Ralph Lauren Polo shirt — topped with the signature, pointed turban indicative of his Sikh faith — Bhalla in some ways matches his living room décor: comfortable, casual, and contemporary in a traditional environment. The nearby table is set with china and candles; the fragrant aroma of Indian spices wafts in from the kitchen. Soon Bhalla’s wife, Manmeet, comes out to greet her guest, wearing traditional silk pants and tunic. Their daughter, in shorts and a blue Banana Republic T-shirt, is also present when everyone at last sits down to eat.
“North Indian eating is basically guilt-free,” she says by way of introducing a guest to one of her favorite cuisines.
The Bhallas’ older daughter, Arushi, is 18 and college-bound to St. Louis’ prestigious Washington University, but this poised, articulate girl is their younger daughter, Ankita, 13. Having followed her father to his various posts, the Delhi-born middle-schooler is now a philosophical cosmopolite.
“You really get to know different places — it’s not like being a tourist on a bus,” she says of her family’s somewhat transient existence. Later, this HGTV and Food Network devotee — who says she wants to be “an architect and interior designer,” perhaps with some travel writing on the side — is asked what she misses most about the family’s tenure in Athens, where her father got his MBA: “Little Italy,” she finally decides, naming a Lumpkin Street pizza favorite.
As it turns out, Bhalla’s simple act of kindness — offering a stranger a glimpse of Indian family life and a home-cooked meal along with a workplace interview that lasted past midnight — is one of his trademarks.
“We like to have people over for dinner like this,” he says. “My work includes getting people to know Indian culture. And it allows them to mix in an informal setting.”
“I do more cooking here than I did in India,” says Manmeet, smiling.
In fact, her career with one of India’s largest insurance companies, Oriental, was curtailed when the family moved to the U.S. — first, when Bhupinder attended Terry, and later, when the couple moved to Washington. Their efforts have paid off in ameliorating the often stiff, diplomatic atmosphere that accompanies carrying out the embassy’s — and by extension, the Indian government’s — goals.
Ask Bhalla’s colleagues and counterparts about his work, and the first thing you hear is high praise for his knowledge and skills, followed quickly by some note of personal esteem:
“He is dynamic and engaging, articulate, witty,” says Rawan Abdelrazek, senior advisor, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, Treasury Department. “He understands the importance of connections and dialogue. In five years with Treasury, I had never been invited to a counterpart’s home like that.”
Says Anjou Dargar, until recently finance director of the U.S.-India Business Council, who worked with Bhalla to coordinate several high-level meetings and receptions, “I ended up becoming really good friends with him. Getting those meetings together is a little like planning a wedding. But he did a superb job. He’s delightful to work with. He sends out the most wonderful emails … kind of like life advice.”
Says Tom Cutler, director at the U.S. Department of Energy, who worked with Bhalla on thorny issues regarding energy and climate change, “He is one of the most outstanding diplomats I’ve ever worked with — steady as a rock and a solid professional. He’s part of a solid team at the embassy … we love him.”