1. My Story – Words, Words, Words

Chapter One

My Story


The paddy fields stretched in front of my ancestral home at Kayamkulam in Kerala had a deep impact on my life. They determined my seasons, provided my sustenance and gave me my play fields and toys, rain or shine. Their earth and water were part of my very being. Their changing moods were a constant delight to the eyes. A riot of colours adorned those fields in every season: green when the plants were young; golden-yellow when the paddy pods made their heads bow; and grey when the harvest was over. My brothers and I swam in the muddy waters and fished when they were flooded, and rolled on the sand in the dry season as we struggled to keep our kites afloat. We grew up as the sons of the soil.

Our home itself was a sprawling ‘nalukettu’, or a quadrangular building with a yard in the middle. Built with wood and thatched with coconut leaves, which required annual replacement, it had no windows or habitable rooms. The rooms were meant more for storage of grains and other produce rather than for human habitation. The open verandahs provided enough airy areas to sleep, and privacy appeared an unnecessary luxury. A judicious mix of appropriate timing of activities and discretion compensated for the lack of private space and time. The floor was covered with local cement in certain areas and clay mixed with cow dung in others. Practical requirements rather than pomp and show dictated the use of material for the floor and roof. We coexisted with animals of various kinds, ranging from spiders to rats and snakes to lizards in perfect harmony. Many years later, my children called our ancestral home a zoo and a biodiversity laboratory as well.

We also worked in the fields, lending a helping hand, carrying a load of grain, pulling the plough, or pumping water by pushing the pedals of an ingenious wooden contraption. We enjoyed working as much as playing, and nobody saw it as child labour. We relished sharing with farmhands their gruel with spicy condiments that appeared to give them great strength. And when it was time to go to school, we walked with a load of books, balancing ourselves with bare feet on the slippery mounds of earth that separated the fields. Mud and sand did not repel us; they gave us our habitat.

I could well have ended up in those very fields as a sun-drenched and rain-soaked farmer. Or if I was academically inclined, I could teach in the local primary school, keeping an eye on the labour in the field during intervals between classes. I did not sit under a street lamp to read, as there were no street lamps in our village. In fact, there was no electricity; only smoke-emitting kerosene lamps were to brighten up the pages of my textbooks. But I ended up in the elite Indian Foreign Service (IFS), a quantum leap for a village boy, a spectacular achievement. As if by the touch of a magic wand, the foreign service gave me the wings to go beyond the village, the state, and the country. I travelled the globe; flew the national tricolour on Mercedes cars; dined with the high and mighty; drove to work for days together beside the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the Kremlin in Moscow, the White House in Washington DC and the Hoffburg Palace in Vienna; signed agreements with foreign states; and spoke for India to a variety of audiences across the globe including the United Nations (UN); General Assembly and the Security Council. In New York, Geneva, Nairobi and Vienna, my name became synonymous with my motherland.

One man made all the difference in my life. A humble schoolteacher, with no bank account or property, dared to dream, aimed high, and made sacrifices for his children. My father, Kochu Pillai Parameswaran Pillai, was born into a family with just enough land to subsist. The high caste and tradition of the family dictated that they did not work in the fields, but employed low-caste labour to till the land. They had a hand-to-mouth existence with the produce. After five more girls were born, my grandfather died leaving the six children in the hands of my father’s uncle, who, by matrilineal tradition, was the lord and master of the family. Those days, among Kerala Nairs, uncles had greater responsibility for nieces and nephews than for sons and daughters. After all, paternity was only an idea, while maternity was a fact. Marriage was only a ‘sambandham’ or connection, and the children remained in the mother’s home. Legend has it that women were so liberated that a lady merely had to throw her husband’s wooden sandals out to signal that he was not required anymore!

The uncle took young Parameswaran (affectionately Kochupacharan) under his wing, gave him his own name (Kochupillai) as surname and sent him to school for long enough to finish his middle school. Once he came out of the middle school, he was asked to train himself as the next patriarch of the family to eke out an existence from the modest farmland and take care of the children of his five sisters. Parameswaran was heartbroken that he could not study more and decided to leave home rather than argue with his uncle. The only worldly possession he had was a gold chain around his neck, and he decided to sell it and use the proceeds to make a trip to Sri Lanka to seek his fortune. It was no pleasure trip, and he faced more hardships en route than in his home. He was relieved when he was discovered and transported back to his village. We used to speculate as to what would have happened to us if he had remained in Sri Lanka. With a name sounding like Velupillai Prabhakaran, his children could well have ended up as Tamil Tigers.

Parameswaran’s act of protest was not futile as the uncle took him seriously and decided to make an additional investment in him by sending him to a high school and for teacher’s training. There he acquired the title of Shastri, which became his name for the rest of his life, and became a teacher in the same school in which he studied. He became an orator and an actor, and worked occasionally with a theatre group. It was during this period that he met a young lady, Narayaniamma Chellamma, a revolutionary in her own right, who chose to defy her parents and pursued a teaching career. She was the eldest child and had two younger brothers. Contrary to tradition, she decided to work and support the family as her uncles had already pawned away much of the land for running property cases in the local courts. She did not want to marry any of her many suitors. But she chose Shastri as her partner, quite a courageous move for a lady at that time. Both the families blessed the Shastri-Chellamma wedding, but soon complications arose as it upset the traditional social milieu. Instead of staying back at his own village and looking after his sister’s children, he moved to his wife’s home after giving his entire property to his sisters. His mother and her younger sister, who remained unmarried all her life (we called her the little grandma), lived in the family home with the daughters till they got married one by one and left with a share of the property. They did not appreciate my father leaving them for his wife and kept complaining to us about his dereliction of duty. But he continued to take care of them, found bridegrooms for them and settled them in different places.

Some of our happy moments as children were spent in my father’s ancestral home, ‘Thettalil’, the name that I carry to reflect my paternal genealogy. The grandmas and the aunts pampered us and laughed at our antics. They gave us the kind of attention that we never got from our own parents, whom we held in awe, my mother even more than my father. But at Thettalil, we were great heroes, whom everyone seemed to admire. We acted out scenes from movies, sang and danced, much to the delight of the female audience. My parents could not believe that we were capable of so much fun and frolic. Every time we had the opportunity and some cash, we would hire bicycles and pedal furiously to Thettalil to have some fun.

On the occasion of Onam and the festival in the Chettikulangara temple, our parents accompanied us to Thettalil. The temple, whose deity Durga is my favourite goddess to this day, had an unusual spectacle of huge ‘horses’ and ‘chariots’ made for the occasion by different villages in the area. These were huge structures made of wood and textiles that could be moved on wooden wheels by a large number of men. The horses did not resemble a horse; they were simply larger chariots with their own unique features, which remained unaltered over the years. The villagers competed with each other in producing and displaying their horses and chariots. Some villages, traditionally, brought massive images of mythological characters. These were lined up for days when the temple grounds were packed to capacity. A unique feature of the Chettikulangara temple was that Durga’s favourite offering, fireworks, had to be ordered from a designated Christian home next door. But Christians, even from that family, could not enter the temple grounds.

Every time someone admires the single dimple on my right cheek, I recall one of those visits to Thettalil, where I acquired that dimple by accident. My brother and I were playing in the yard with a sharp instrument when the newspaper boy threw a newspaper over the fence as usual. Both of us ran for the paper and reached it together. In the struggle that ensued, the sharp instrument I had in my hand went deep into my right cheek. My grandma held my hand and took me from home to home in the village to see whether anyone had any antiseptic. Someone found an old bottle of iodine, which was the only medicine I had for the wound. No stitches, no dressing. The wound healed by itself, but left a scar, which, because of its location, is mistaken for a dimple.

Survival of the children in the villages, including us, was more by accident than by design. Even today I look with astonishment at the rusted pair of scissors, which was used by the village midwife to cut the umbilical cord of all the children born in the family. My father treasured it not as a relic but as the only pair of scissors he ever possessed for daily use. Only natural immunity must have saved us from all the germs we imbibed from the dirty water in the fields and the injuries we sustained. I believe that I had a bad skin infection from which I miraculously came out, but not without a permanent scar on my right elbow. A divine hand seemed to protect us from grave dangers. No other explanation is possible for the dangers that we survived. During one of my cycle rides, I tried a stunt and landed inches away from a deadly instrument, which was stuck on the ground to remove husks from coconuts.

In my mother’s home, ‘Valliyil’, where we were born and brought up, Shastri was a bit of an intruder in the eyes of my mother’s parents and brothers, as he appeared to interfere in their affairs. They preferred a visiting son-in-law, not a live-in one. When my elder brother, Gopalakrishnan, was born, my uncles felt threatened, as they had to share the family property equally with their sister’s children. They pushed for partition of the property, which led to many arguments and even threats of violence. They felt that their sister would have behaved differently if she did not have her husband’s advice. The situation came to such a pass that when my brother and I were still young, my parents even pretended to live separately to make her people feel repentant. We used to go to see our father in a neighbour’s house during this period. But things settled down and my father returned to our home as my mother’s parents and brothers moved out and my mother and elder brother inherited the ‘tharawad’ (ancestral home). My younger brothers, Madhusudanan, named after a famous doctor in the locality, and Seetharam, named after the brightest of my father’s students, were born thereafter. Without the help of her parents, my mother found it hard to continue to teach and bring up the children, but her iron will enabled her to accomplish things beyond an ordinary woman’s reach. I remember her carrying the crying baby Madhusudanan, now a Brigadier in the Indian Army Medical Corps, to the school, leaving him in a neighbour’s home, going to feed him during intervals and carrying him back in the evenings.

My father set the goals for us and my mother steadfastly ensured that we were enabled to pursue those goals. He was a dreamer, while my mother was the doer. Compromise was not in her vocabulary either in the matter of her relationships or in bringing up her children. Her capacity for hard work and suffering was legendary. Even after she reached a certain degree of mellowness after seeing her children do extremely well and after spending long hours in prayers, she never compromised on what she considered right.

My mother’s routine was back-breaking, having to cope with her diverse duties, involving four boys, the farm and her teaching at the school. She would get up early and cook not only breakfast but also lunch for the box that my brother and I carried to the school. After we left, she would get ready and leave for the school, virtually running a mile in the bargain. At the end of the work at the school, she would walk back and prepare our evening snacks and dinner. As electricity and refrigerator were unheard of, fresh food had to be cooked for every meal, a luxury in modern terms. She had some domestic help, but she cooked all the food herself with firewood in a smoky kitchen. My father would leave for his own school by bus and come back late in the evening after taking care of some odd things for the household and for his sisters. He would then focus on our studies, making sure that we read out our lessons loud. I had a table and a chair at the one end of his bed, and my brother had the same at the other. He could sleep as we droned on, but he woke up the moment we stopped. If he saw us in our beds, spread on top of the grain store, he would flash his torch to the clock to see whether it was past 10 p.m., our bedtime. Then he would wake up with the alarm at 4 a.m. and get us out of bed to continue the drill. The only way we could sleep early was by turning the clock forward, but one of us had to wake up in the middle of the night to turn the clock back to avoid getting up at 3 a.m. There were nights when both of us turned the clock back and landed up in a mess.

Unlike my younger brothers, Gopalakrishnan and I were not named after any personality, but after God Almighty Himself. It is a good omen to name children after the many names of God. Legend has it that an atheist gained salvation when he called out the name of his son, which happened to be one of the synonyms of Vishnu, the creator. My name came up, as my parents wanted a name beginning with ‘Sree’, an auspicious syllable in Hindu mythology. In a caste-ridden society, the name was a mixed blessing as it pointed to castes other than mine, and I was mistaken to belong to other castes. The advantage was that I came to know what the other castes really thought of Nairs. But the disadvantage was that I did not gain recognition as belonging to my own caste. My father, who believed in the unity of the Hindus, which was fashionable at the time, chose not to add a surname to our names, and thus the mystery was even more.

The complications about my name chased me to Japan and Fiji. In Japan, they thought that I was adding the honorific san to my own name wrongly and called me Mr Sreeniva. In Fiji, they thought that I was adding the honorific Sree to my own name wrongly and called me Mr Nivasan. My initials, when expanded, gave out my parentage and mailing address, but many people thought that they represented my first name and called me by my father’s name, Thettalil Parameswaran Pillai or just TP. My father was overjoyed when he read in the papers that my name appeared as Thettalil Parameswaran Pillai in the announcement of my appointment as the High Commissioner to Fiji.

My brother, Gopalakrishanan, was technologically oriented and did not care much for textbooks. He, therefore, chose not to go for academic pursuits, and took up technical training. I remember vividly the morning on which we saw him off to Madras, to an uncertain future, at the advice of Major N. Ramachandran, a son of a friend of my father. He did well in a training institution attached to the heavy vehicles factory at Avadi and spent most of his official career there. He married Shanta just two days before my own wedding. Their daughters, Sunitha and Sangeetha, gave us much happiness, but Sangeetha died two years after her marriage to Surej, plunging us in deep grief. Sunitha and her husband joined the IT trail to live in San Diego. My brother retired as the head of the institution he joined 30-odd years earlier and moved back to our ancestral home to be the patriarch of the family.

The Kayamkulam Boys’ High School, where I studied up to class X, had no famous alumni to speak of except the cartoonist, Shankar Pillai, who pioneered political satire in cartoons in the Shankar’s Weekly and blazed a trail for many cartoonists from Kerala in later years. Everything, including English and Hindi, was taught in Malayalam. I had a certain advantage as my mother taught in the neighbouring girls’ high school, but an obvious disadvantage was that all my pranks were reported promptly to my mother. I remember very few of my classmates, except Gopi, who kept in touch through his service in the army: Parthasarathi, who inherited a dispensary and a bank from his parents; Zachariah, son of the local Magistrate; Suresh, son of a teacher in the same school, who became a senior officer in the Indian Army; and Yakub Sait, son of the leading merchant in Kayamkulam, Hajee Hassan Yakub Sait. I do not know what many of them ended up doing in life. A boy, Madhavan Nair, who was a year junior to me in the school, whom my mother taught, joined the University College with me and was with me at the National Academy of Administration as an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer. He rose to become the secretary to the president of India.

Two institutions in Kayamkulam, one religious and one secular, helped my learning process as a child. The Ramakrishna Ashram, where I went on Sundays, gave me grounding on the Bhagavad Gita and on the teachings of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. I could recite almost the whole of the Gita by the time I finished schooling. An added attraction was the tasty prasadam we were given at the end of the Gita classes. My mother too was active in the Women’s Group, which functioned in the Ashram. The other institution was the Social Service League, run by John Joseph, who later became a priest. The league offered free tutoring classes, particularly in mathematics, from which I benefited immensely. I was like a member of John Joseph’s family and participated in Christmas carols and other Christian rituals. I saw no contradiction in practicing Hinduism and Christianity at the same time. Indeed, religious harmony was a unique feature of Kerala, though Vivekananda had characterised the state a lunatic asylum earlier for its religious and caste feuds.

My parents had to make a crucial choice when I finished schooling with a first class, one of the three to get more than 60 per cent marks in the school. Many advised them to put me through a one-year course in teachers’ training, which would find me a job very quickly. The more imaginative ones said that a polytechnic meant for semi-skilled workers would be more attractive. Spending four years in a university in pursuit of a degree and then completing a degree in education to become a high school teacher appeared too ambitious. But my father decided that I would go to a university and that too in distant Thiruvananthapuram in a hostel rather than commute to nearby Pandalam NSS College.

The decision was based on a dream my father had when he himself took a sabbatical and went to Thiruvananthapuram in the fifties to take a BA degree to better his prospects as a teacher. That adventure had widened his horizon to such a degree that he was not content to see his son as a teacher. He had come across the legendary story of Shankar Pillai, a teacher in the University College who took the competitive examination of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) and qualified for the IFS. He married a rich man’s daughter, went on postings to foreign countries and became famous in our village as the boy who made it good. My father was shattered when a mad man, who was refused a visa by the consular clerk, shot Shankar Pillai in his office in Canada. Apparently, the man walked into our High Commission in Ottawa with a rifle in his hand to shoot the consular clerk, but when he was told that the clerk was on leave, he decided to seek out the officer concerned and shot him point blank. Pandit Nehru had announced Shankar Pillai’s demise in the Indian Parliament. My father had nursed a dream that I could replace Shankar Pillai one day in the foreign service, a dream he could not share even with his close friends. Another legendary figure he had met was a son of a schoolteacher, Venkataramani, who stood first in the competitive examination and joined the IAS. My mother did not bother about the details but agreed that my aim should be to join the IFS. Neither of them knew much about the way there, but no sacrifice was considered too great to pursue that goal. And so, I went with my father, driven in a car by the same Major Ramachandran who showed a new path for my brother, to join the Intermediate College in Thiruvananthapuram. My father’s dream had to come true, I thought, not knowing how.


A new city, a new college with a new medium of instruction, new faces, and a new style of living are not easy for a 15-year old to confront all at once. The culture shock alone could shatter a young life. On top of it, the one-year pre-university course was so vital for the future that there was an immense pressure to do well. Without a period of adjustment, I found it hard to cope with the ‘big city’. Managing myself in a private lodge (the college hostel was too far) on a shoestring budget was hard enough. Coping with every subject being taught in English was harder. Peer pressure to do the done things in the city like going to movies and wandering on the beach had its own impact.

The Intermediate College, previously the Arts College, was located in Thycaud, away from the bustle of the city of Thiruvananthapuram, in the same campus as the Model School and the Teachers’ Training College. Only pre-university and pre-professional courses were held there, while the degree courses were held in the main University College in the heart of the city. Most students moved from the Model School to the Intermediate College without any problem of readjustment. But for those who came from outside, even the attitude of the local boys was a challenge. The city was itself conservative, considered a preserve of the ancient Nair families who lived there from the days of the maharajahs, and there was a certain reluctance to accommodate outsiders. Moreover, the students were mostly children of government officials who had their own sense of self-importance. My outsider status continued for three years till I came to notice with my high grades in the second-year examination of my BA course.

On the very first day at the college, I walked into my English class, recalling how much I enjoyed my English classes in my school. I was in for a surprise. Joshua, a young lecturer clad in spotless white Kerala attire, began to teach us To the Cuckoo by William Wordsworth. I was impressed by his style, how he paced up and down, explaining the intricacies of Wordsworth’s poetry, but I did not understand a word. Except my ‘second language’, Malayalam, everything was taught in English, and I did not have anyone to share my predicament. Perseverance was the only option. By the time I got used to the class, the teachers and the lessons, the final examination was announced, and it was hard to emerge unscathed.

Most of the best students went for medical or engineering courses as they guaranteed a profession for young graduates. My father had already decided that I should join the BA course in English language and literature at the University College, though the distant dream of the foreign service had not brightened at that time. I myself was tempted to switch to a science course and made an expensive and time-consuming telephone call to my father (I had to wait at a post office till he reached the Kayamkulam post office to take the call) to ask whether I should switch. That call made all the difference as he told me without any hesitation that I should stick to my destined path to the foreign service. His confidence shook me, but it also inspired me to pursue the goal relentlessly.

In the ‘Rajaram Lodge’ where I lived for a year, my neighbours were mostly schoolteachers, whom my father got to know during his visits. They treated me kindly and also reported on my good behaviour to my father. My father used to inspect my room thoroughly to look for any telltale evidence of misconduct. Once he discovered a bidi butt left behind by a neighbour. He knew I did not smoke it, but he objected to the fact that I entertained such guests in my room. I welcomed my father’s occasional visits even though he used to audit my accounts and find fault with my alleged extravagance. Of course, there was no scope for much extravagance as my monthly allowance was a princely sum of one hundred rupees minus a tip that the postman extracted from me for delivering the money order. If my father approved of the accounts, he would leave half a rupee as a bonus. Considering that my monthly expenditure was half the amount my parents earned together in a month, I had no reason to be aggrieved. The money could be spared only because most of the food came from the field and the yard, and there was very little cash expenditure for living in a village.

I had a narrow escape from a criminal case when I was in the lodge. One day, I saw that someone had thrown the cardboard box of a watch into my room. I quickly recognised it as one belonging to Varghese, a teacher who lived in the next room. I kept the box aside to take it to him on his return. When I came back from college that evening, there was great commotion near my room and there were a few policemen. I quickly produced the box and told them that someone had thrown it into my room. I did not think that there would be a needle of suspicion on me, but later I realised that the policemen had their eye on me and they had asked to take me in for questioning. It was only because Varghese was adamant that a teacher’s son would never do such a thing that I was spared the ordeal. I shudder to think what would have happened to me if I were taken to the police station even for questioning. There are many stories of innocent people who turned into criminals because of the methods of interrogation. They confess to crimes they never committed to escape torture and end up in jails. There they come into contact with other criminals and, when they feel ostracised, they become criminals themselves. My father felt indebted to Varghese, thanked him profusely and kept telling me that I should buy him a watch out of my first salary. If I could trace him, I would have done exactly that. For a poor schoolteacher, it was a prized possession and it must have been hard for him to restrain the police from questioning a suspect.

My father too lost a watch, but in comic circumstances. He used to help a friend to promote his photographic establishment at special fairs. He was at such a fair in Changanacherry organised by the Nair Service Society. He was persuading visitors to get themselves photographed at concessional prices. A man emerged from the crowd, got himself registered, paid the money, and as he was about to enter the studio, asked my father whether he could wear his watch in the picture. My father gladly gave him the watch and continued to deal with others. When he did not see his watch after a while, he sent someone inside to look for the client. He had probably left Changanacherry by then as even the police could not trace him inside the fair grounds.

The move to the University College for my BA course was less traumatic than the move to the city. The acquaintance of the city and some familiarity with English as a medium of instruction put me at ease. The college hostel was more student-friendly, and I had fewer chores to do for my own upkeep. The fact that science and mathematics were out of the way for good was another welcome relief. Moreover, the class was small and we received individual attention. It was an interesting group of people from diverse backgrounds. I was still an outsider to the group from Thiruvananthapuram, but there were other outsiders and it did not take long to work out an equation.

One minor incident in the hostel contributed to a decision that my mother should shift to Thiruvananthapuram with the children, while my father continued back home on his own. My father received a copy of a note issued to me by the warden of the hostel that I was fined three rupees for indiscipline. By the next mail, he also received a letter from a senior student, whom he knew, saying that he should ignore the note as I was completely innocent. What worried him was not the first note, but the second one as he knew that student to be a troublemaker himself. My father landed up the next day and I told him what actually happened. There were two groups of students in the hostel, always at loggerheads with each other, and the warden, Professor A. S. Narayana Pillai, accepted the invitation of one group to join in a photograph. We, who belonged to the opposite camp, made known our protest by shouting loudly. The warden fined all those who were in that group. It was not serious enough to warrant any action, but my father saw danger signals in the whole episode and decided that I needed to have a home to protect myself.

I did not realise then what it meant to uproot the family from Kayamkulam and move it to the state capital. My parents had never lived in any other place and it must have been traumatic for them to make the shift and that too with my father staying back alone in our ancestral home. But their determination to do what is good for the children made them sail into unchartered waters. It also made good economic sense as my younger brothers too needed to get a good education. Both of them, Madhu and Seetharam, did well in school. Madhu joined the Armed Forces Medical College with a scholarship and chose a career in the Army. He married Jayashree, a distant relative of my father, and moved around the country as a specialist in anaesthesia. He was also a member of the UN peacekeeping mission in Kampuchea. His son Vineeth, a computer wizard, married his colleague Monisha and moved to Seattle to serve Microsoft, and his younger son, Aswin, has chosen a legal career.

Seetharam, being younger to me by 13 years, is more like a son than a brother. I remember taking him to a kindergarten on a bicycle before he moved to my brother’s home in Avadi to continue his schooling. We dressed him up as Lord Krishna in a costume show, and he won a prize even though it was a Christian school. He joined the foreign service; married Deepa, the elder daughter of Nirmalan Thampi; and served in different capitals with distinction. His children, Navneeth and Devi, are blossoming into adulthood.

My improved performance in the second year may have been a coincidence, but it was attributed to the direct supervision of my mother and the consequent curtailment of my freedom. My stellar results in the English examination made me a hero in the college overnight and, together with it, my social stigma as an outsider disappeared. I did even better in the final year. I won the M. P. Paul Prize for the best student of English language and literature in the university. For an essay I wrote on ‘Long-term and short-term measures to meet the Chinese aggression’, I got the Harvey Memorial Prize. The country was reeling under the Chinese aggression of 1962 and my imagination went wild as I sat down to think of remedial measures. Being ignorant of international law and diplomatic practice, I had no difficulty in enumerating any number of measures. I recall suggesting manufacture of nuclear weapons and recognition of the Dalai Lama as the head of an independent Tibet as some of the measures we should take. If India had heeded my advice and manufactured a nuclear weapon at that time, we would have become a nuclear weapon state so recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for having tested before the treaty came into being. But my essay did not go beyond the professor who evaluated it for the prize.

Pursuing a course for master’s in English was the logical thing to do, with an eye on the competitive examination for the foreign service. The method of teaching for the master’s degree was not very different from that of the bachelor’s degree. Teachers came and explained the meaning of passages or gave notes on literary criticism copied from standard works. Very little was expected of students except to attend classes and reproduce notes during examinations. But the University College had a good library and those who were interested could discover a different world. I enjoyed my master’s course as I took the opportunity to delve deep into the mysteries of English literature. I had to squeeze in many years of reading into two years, but reading had its immediate rewards. After the first year’s examination, I was acknowledged as the best student of English literature in the university. But my ambition had a rude shock when I found myself with hepatitis just three days before the final examination. I was in the general ward of the Medical College Hospital with a bout of jaundice, with glucose running through my veins when my classmates took the examination. That trauma made me learn much in life and prepared me for the frustrations of adulthood. I took the examination the next year and stood first in the university, but the wound of the missed examination remained sore for a long time.

The five years in the University College in Thiruvananthapuram were the formative years of my life. The red-brick building in the centre of the city looked like an oasis of learning in a sea of traffic and commerce. Every college has corners that bear the stamp of history and the University College was no exception. The long, drab building at the far end of the compound came to be known as the ‘cowshed’. Our favourite haunts were the cycle shed and the India Coffee House just across the street. Learning English literature was one thing, but learning about life was quite another. Many faces and many events come to life as I contemplate those years. They may have played a part in moulding my personality as I emerged from the university.

Among my teachers, G. Kumara Pillai, Ayyappa Paniker, Sudhakaran Nair, Hridayakumari, Santhakumari, Chellamma Philip, K. K. Neelakantan, K. Srinivasan, Sankara Iyer, John and Vaidyanathan are the ones I can recall vividly. Ayyappa Paniker is the only one among them who kept in touch with me for years since I left college. Their personal traits, to the extent I observed them, remained afresh. Kumara Pillai, a Gandhian with a permanent sparkle in his eyes, was a poet and a writer. He inspired awe and respect. It took time for me to discover the intellectual brilliance and sense of humour of Ayyappa Paniker. His poems in Malayalam ushered in modernism in the language. His Kurukshetram was hailed as a masterpiece. Both his admirers and detractors compared the poem to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the former to show how he used the new genre of poetry to create his own unique style, the latter to argue that it was nothing but plagiarism. Sudhakaran Nair stood out as the one teacher who moved freely among the students like one of them. Hridayakumari, a khadi-clad spinster, was brilliant and distant. Shantakumari was only a few years senior to us and, therefore, we took liberties with her and she tolerated it in good humour. Chellamma Philip was a gentle housewife who meant well. K. K. Neelakantan was an ornithologist who wrote extensively on birds. K. Srinivasan was easy-going and friendly. Iyer was a ready victim of all the jokes and Vidyanathan looked more like a soldier than a teacher. John, who had taught my father in the Sanskrit College, found it amusing that he was already teaching the second generation of his students.

As for classmates and other students I met, the number is too large to recollect. One among them, who remained in constant touch, is John (Sunny) Wycliffe, a popular Indian American leader in Washington. Those who joined the IAS in 1967, C. N. S. Nair, P M. Nair, G. Krishnan, and Harikrishna Babu, interacted with me off and on. Vimala Menon, a good friend, joined the postal service and rose to its highest level. I was close to William Daniel, Joseph Eapen, Surapalan Nair, Ramakrishnan Nair, and Hemachandran. A mercurial person, Vijayasree, was in and out of my circle. G. Ramachandran Nair, who was known for his physical prowess and athletic skills, gave me the muscle power necessary to survive in student politics. Many years later, as a Brigadier in the Indian Army, he and his wife Jayashree lent support to my mother during my father’s illness and death in Pune.

My closest friend was George Thomas who was my neighbour, and we spent considerable time together, walking to the college and back. His mother gave me a handsome loan for the trip when I was chosen to participate in a leadership-training course in Darjeeling. He remained my only friend from college days, whom I met every time I came to Kerala. His greatest gift is his ability to laugh at his own habits in food and clothing, about which I tease him constantly, much to the delight and approval of his wife, Betty. Rajendran, son of the famous novelist Lalithambika Antharjanam, a close friend who joined the Indian Police Service (IPS), remained in touch for many years. I became close to another alumnus of the college, Babu Suseelan, when we were together in the United States. Among my friends who became celebrities in the film world were Bichu Thirumala, Padmarajan and Mohanachandran. Mohanachandran and Sankaran Iyer joined the foreign service as my seniors and retired as ambassadors. Another friend, C. Divakaran, became a minister in a Marxist government in Kerala.

I developed my debating skills in the college and became quite proficient in English and Malayalam oratory. It was simply by trial and error that I began winning prizes in the college itself and in inter-collegiate debates. The others in the debating team C. K. Koshy, C. N. S. Nair and P M. Nair joined the IAS. We beat each other by turns and beat other colleges. The high point of my debating career was the winning of the Udarasiromani Prize by securing the first position in a highly contested inter-collegiate debate on the medium of instruction. I argued that the mother tongue should be the medium of instruction to bring out the best in students. An amusing incident took place when we debated a motion moved by me that ‘A Woman’s Place is in the Home’. My opponents were mainly girls, but one girl had agreed to speak in support of the motion. But when she heard my presentation, which argued not only that women were needed at home but also that women were not good enough for things outside the home, she defected to the opposition and tore up my arguments. The girl, Lalithambika, later joined the IAS and made a name for herself as an able administrator and a writer.

Student politics attracted me and I was active in the Students Congress, an offshoot of the Indian National Congress. The fact that my father was a Congress sympathiser may have played a role in my choice. I was elected to different positions in the college, but when the time came for me to reach the pinnacle of my political career, my father decided that I should concentrate on my studies and I had to concede the position of the collegeunion speaker to my nominee Bhaskara Prasad. Professor N. S. Warrier, the principal, had a hand in that decision because he told my father that my bright future would be adversely affected by my political activities. Professor Warrier sincerely believed that it was his timely intervention that landed me in the top service of the country.


My first employment ever was by invitation. Rev. Fr. C. A. Abraham, who had seen me at university debating contests, had known that I had not taken the final MA examination. But he felt that I could teach in the junior classes at the Mar Ivanios College in the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, where he was the vice-principal. I gladly accepted and I was appointed a tutor for a princely sum of Rs 125 a month. The work and the money were both welcome as I could start contributing to the meagre family budget. I spent only a few months as a teacher, as my father felt that I was getting distracted from my studies. Later, after I passed my MA examination, I was appointed at the same college with double the salary.

The Mar Ivanios College was known more for its discipline rather than for its academic excellence. The college had a lovely campus on a hill with plenty of trees around. The drive from the city to the campus took nearly half an hour in the college bus. The Principal, Rev. Fr. Geevarghese Panicker, was a terror not only to the students but also to the teachers. He was blunt and rough with all of us, but a kind and God-fearing man outside the college. Years later, I recounted in his presence in New York to an audience of his former wards how we dreaded every encounter with the principal. He summoned me once to chastise me for giving private tuition at home.

A little more than a year that I spent at the college was a turning point in my life in many ways. The transition from a student to a teacher was smooth, and I enjoyed giving lectures to large groups of students. Fresh from being a student myself, I related to them better than seasoned teachers, who tended to remain in their own grooves. Initially, I was given junior classes, but later I was also given master’s classes, which I enjoyed even more as I could see that the students absorbed things better.

Among the classes I enjoyed teaching was the special B.Sc. course, where talented students were admitted for a bachelor’s degree in one of the sciences. The idea was that they would prepare themselves to become scientists and researchers, and not get distracted to become administrators or medical doctors. Their English course was designed to give them the barest essentials of the language rather than to teach them Shakespeare or other masters. I was asked to teach them a collection of essays to give them grounding in good prose. My brother, Madhusudanan, happened to be in the same class, doing a course in zoology. The class had quite a few girl students, some of them quite attractive. I noticed one of them, Chandralekha, and began taking an interest in her. She was totally unaware of my fascination for her, but some of my casual remarks about her made some of my colleagues suspicious. She was quite a keen student and did fairly well in class, but she was surprised that I singled her out for a special mention when she did well in the examination or when she danced at a function in the college. My brother told me once that the students were noticing that I was giving her too much attention.

I was preoccupied with my foreign service examination even as I was teaching in the college, and I had to take days off to take the examination. I had thought that I would not make it in the first attempt and was quite prepared to work intensely for the next examination. Having finished my master’s examination only in March 1966, it appeared difficult to do justice to the competitive examination in October 1966. But I did the written papers fairly well except for Indian history in which I had little grounding. The call for the interview in Delhi did not come as a surprise, but I saw the interview as a rehearsal for the real one next year.

Preparing for the civil services interview, or the personality test as it was called, and the interview itself was an experience. I got my first western suit made in Thiruvananthapuram and travelled to New Delhi by train for the interview. I stayed with P M. Raju, a friend in the Central Secretariat, who taught me how to wear a tie. I turned up at Dholpur House in the heat of May in a woollen suit in the mistaken notion that a suit was a must. I was quite surprised that Prabhakar Menon, who had already qualified for the IAS in the previous year, but chose to try for the IFS again, was in a bush shirt without even a tie. Having heard many legends about the UPSC personality test, I was expecting extraordinary questions. I was deeply disappointed as the questions were quite ordinary and even mundane like why I wanted to join the foreign service. The questions on English literature were the easiest of all. I do not remember having to admit not knowing the answer to any question. I did not know how I fared in their eyes, but I came out with a feeling that I would be selected for one of the services, may be the police, as many of the questions related to my preference to the foreign service as against the police service. The results were known by the time I returned home, and it was a pleasant surprise that I was ranked high and had qualified for the foreign service. My option was clear and I felt elated by the realisation of my father’s dream.

I discovered the charms of being a bachelor at the threshold of a foreign service career. Relatives popped out of the woodwork and friends were rediscovered. Proposals for marriage poured in from all of them and I somehow came to believe that the next step was marriage, even though I had not thought seriously about it. Chandralekha’s father, M. V. Ramankutty Nair, was the chief executive of Marikar Motors, a prominent agency for Hindustan Motors in the city, and I happened to know one of the executives in his firm, Kunjumohammed. In a casual conversation about the many proposals I was receiving, I mentioned to him that I liked his boss’s daughter. Within minutes, he was on phone with Nair and fixed for me to go and see her at her home. He even volunteered to go with me to introduce me to the family. Her mother had heard from Rani Ramachandran, an old classmate of mine whom I saw in Delhi at the time of my interview, that I was fond of Chandralekha. Vanaja Nair, the one in the family who took all the important decisions, was excited about the prospect, but she was fully preoccupied with the wedding of her elder daughter. My opportunity to mention Lekha to my father came when he came to attend her sister’s wedding. He came back from the wedding, very impressed with Lekha and the pomp and show of the wedding between Geetha and Captain G. Gopalakrishnan Nair, who hailed from an aristocratic family in Kayamkulam. The legendary wedding of the younger brother of the Maharaja to Gopalkrishnan’s aunt was a great event in the town several years before. In my father’s eyes, the fact that Lekha’s sister was married to Gopalakr- ishnan was reason enough to fix mine with Lekha. Events moved at lightning speed and I was engaged to Lekha within months when I was hardly 22. In later years, Geetha and Gopalakrishnan became our local guardians in Thiruvananthapuram. Their elder daughter, Gopika, married Prince Marthanda Varma of the Travancore royal family and settled down in Chennai as a highly acclaimed Mohiniyattam dancer. Her sister Radhika chose her own bridegroom Sreehari, an Ayurveda practitioner, and settled in Kerala. Gopalakrishnan and Geetha passed away in a period of three days in October 2006, leaving a void in our lives.

The period between my results and my joining the Academy of Administration in Mussoorie was spent profitably by working on a production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan with Savitrikutty, a professor of English, who had settled down in Canada. I had the role of Dunois, a French commander, who was enchanted by Joan of Arc. I appeared only in two scenes in the play, but I was involved in its production and publicity. Finding a suitable cast for such an ambitious production in Thiruvananthapuram was a challenge, but the play turned out to be a rare treat.


My first journey ever in an aircraft was from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi in the company of Dr K. Rajandran Nair, the first veterinary surgeon to qualify for the IAS. Like others in the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussorie, I was on top of the world when I arrived there. All of us had a sense of achievement and expectation over having made it to the coveted services. Bright young men had very few avenues in 1967 when the country did not have a private sector to provide attractive employment. The civil service examination was a gamble that many of them took and the successful ones were the chosen ones to run the country for a quarter of a century or more. They had a sense of destiny. Wealth was not a part of the dream at that time, but power and influence were. Corruption had not crept into the top services yet. They felt that they had taken the mother of all examinations and had come out with flying colours. But Mussoorie had its surprises.

The director of the academy M. G. Pimputkar, a strict disciplinarian who took pride in having been transferred 20 times in as many years, had a fancy for disciplining the new recruits. Pimputkar imposed a reign of terror by setting up a tight schedule, including physical training in the morning and formal dinners at night. He prescribed severe penalties for being absent or arriving late at any of these events. Doors to the lecture rooms were locked after the appointed time, and those who could not enter had to apply for leave. He listened to the lectures given by others and observed the conduct of the probationers, as we were called. There were other hazards also. Nawal Singh, the riding instructor, began with the premise that horses were more valuable than probationers. ‘Why did you get off the horse without my order?’ he would bark if someone fell off the horse. ‘If you cannot control a simple horse, how are you going to control your wife or your district?’ he would ask. Equestrian lessons were compulsory for us, but the foreign service officers did not have to take a riding test. Our agony, therefore, was less poignant than that of the other officers. The only time I rode a horse after I left Nawal Singh’s classes was when I was asked to travel along the India-Bhutan border to demarcate the boundary.

We also discovered our worth in the marriage market. Agents and parents of eligible women swarmed to Mussoorie with fat wallets. The highest known bid was Rs 12 lakh for a probationer from Bihar. He was strutting about like a peacock till he was allotted not to his parent cadre, but to the distant Tamil Nadu cadre. The offer was drastically cut to Rs 6 lakh as his influence in Tamil Nadu was less valuable to his prospective father-in-law. The picture I had at my desk of Lekha drove the agents away from my room. Another discovery we made was about our creditworthiness. The seasoned shopkeepers in Mussoorie were ready to give us credit worth many times our salary. The owner of ‘Hari’s Canteen’ gave this facility so skillfully that his three daughters ended up marrying IAS officers in exchange of writing off their credit.

We were given basic lessons in history, economics, law and constitution even though many had high qualifications in these subjects. The standard of the teachers was low, but some of them were even worse than the others. Our history teacher claimed that all the information he gave us was original. ‘Was he creating history?’ someone asked. Our constitution expert was full of humour, most of it unconscious. He held forth on the enemies of man—poverty, hunger and squalor. Someone asked him what squalor meant and he confessed that he did not know. Our economics teacher claimed that he could play the guitar. We thought he was tuning the guitar when he bowed and left, ending the concert. Such were the real stories about the faculty. With Pimputkar at the head and a faculty of sorts, there was much fun, but the IAS probationers had to take the academy seriously as their seniority in the civil list depended on their performance there. For the IFS officers, it was a paid holiday plagued only by Pimputkar’s pranks.

The next destination was the School for International Studies at Sapru House in New Delhi. I did not realise when I was given a room in the external affairs hostel on Kasturba Gandhi Marg that regardless of promotions, the hostel would be our refuge for years. Every officer who returns to India on transfer or on duty is allotted accommodation in the hostel, not on the basis of rank but on the basis of the size of the family. A couple of rooms are earmarked for visiting ambassadors, but others get more or less identical rooms. The hostel was in its golden era when we first stayed there, as the manager was Mohini Singh who was believed to be close to a minister. The hostel was in good shape because of her clout, though she was accused of all kinds of crimes when the Congress went out of power. The colour scheme, the fixtures and the furniture were good, compared to its present state of thoughtless maintenance and shabby appearance. As the concerned official in the ministry during the early days of the Janata government, I was asked to investigate Mohini Singh’s misdeeds. It was only because of the sense of fairness of Akbar Khaleeli, the concerned joint secretary, that she did not come to much harm. He took the view that it was not her fault that she was given additional facilities by the government of the time. She was not found guilty except for having secured undue benefits through her high-level contacts.

The course at Sapru House was nothing but a series of lectures by the faculty and visiting professors from other institutions and the diplomatic corps. Many senior ambassadors like Chester Bowles of the United States came to speak, but we were more impressed by the young African diplomats who appeared idealistic and enthusiastic about the emerging world order. Each of us had to prepare a longish paper under the guidance of one of the professors and I chose the commonwealth as my subject and worked under Professor M. S. Rajan. As an exposure to the academic world in Delhi, the stint at Sapru House was useful, but there was no effort to train us systematically for the days ahead.

The choice of a foreign language by the foreign service officers is crucial not only in determining their first posting, but also in shaping their careers. I decided to choose Japanese as I was keen on learning a tough language when I was still young. I thought that I could learn French or Spanish on my own subsequently. A posting to Tokyo was also an attraction. As it happened, the Japanese I learnt was not put to good use as I was never posted to Tokyo after my initial posting. It would have been more useful to learn French or Spanish, which could be used in several countries and at the United Nations. I was quite delighted when I was allotted Japanese and posted to Tokyo.

I had looked at the possibility of going to Kerala for district training as an opportunity to get married and get ready for a posting to Tokyo. But the ministry decided to send me to Tamil Nadu, even though there was no bar in sending probationers to their home states. I was advised that a change was possible only if the additional secretary (administration) agreed. I sought a meeting with Vincent Coelho, a former member of the Indian Audit and Accounts Service, who was deputed to the foreign service and was the additional secretary concerned. I sent in my visiting card, but the first thing he did as he called me in was to return the card, saying that I should not waste it on him. He listened to me patiently and said that he was quite willing to make a change for the sake of my wedding, but wanted me to know that I was using up a trump card that could have been used at a later stage in life, if I ever wanted to get posted back to Delhi. I was using up a lifetime opportunity, he said. I said to myself that as there would be only one marriage, the time to use the trump card would not come up again.

The stint in Kerala for district training turned out to be my honeymoon days as I got married soon after arriving there. C. P. Nair, who was in charge of my programme, helpfully allowed me to stay in the capital, Thiruvanathapuram, till the wedding was over. We got married at the famed Kanakakkunnu Palace on a hill in the middle of the city. The wedding itself was unique as my parents-in-law decided to try out a new formula for Nair weddings prepared by a retired judge, Justice Madhavan Nair. Unlike at normal Nair weddings, we had a priest who was supposed to recite passages from the Vedas. He made a mess of the readings as he missed out pages and later returned to them. There was much fun and laughter, in which the bride and bridegroom participated, when the two sets of parents were brought on to the dais. An otherwise solemn ceremony turned out to be a hilarious affair. The formula did not become very popular after our experiment. Nairs, who are proud of their simple wedding ceremonies, did not want to complicate matters. We drove straight to my ancestral home to spend the first nuptial night.

When we returned, it was time to go on an official visit to government establishments along the Kerala coast, which was nothing but a honeymoon trip. It also gave us an opportunity to see quite a bit of our state. It was a voyage of discovery, not only of the abundant natural beauty of the state but also its wealth of scientific and educational institutions, which gave the people of Kerala an edge over job seekers from other parts of India. Our trip was long before the Gulf boom, the period of huge remittances of Kerala migrant workers, which transformed the countryside. Glittering bungalows sprouted everywhere as property prizes skyrocketed. A particular village, from where the largest number of workers had gone to the Gulf, boasted of land prices there being higher than in New York.

My district training itself was in Kozhikode, which had a legendary District Collector, M. Kaleeswaran, who had made a name for himself as an efficient, upright and brilliant officer. I spent only a few weeks with him as he moved out on transfer and K. Joseph, a perfect gentleman, took his place. He had very little time to devote to my training, but he did everything possible to make our stay pleasant. He found a house for us at the medical college campus some distance away from the city, and we made friends with several doctors. Our first home was set up there with the help of my mother-in-law. The house was basic and sparsely furnished, but we made a paradise of it and the training period ended all too soon.

As we moved into the external affairs hostel and I joined South Block for training, there was a sense of elation, but I also discovered that I was at the lowest rung of a sprawling bureaucratic hierarchy. But the sense of physically belonging to the government was exhilarating. The present obsession with security had not yet gripped the government. We walked in and out of the area occupied by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her office, and even a ride with the prime minister up or down the elevator was not unthinkable. The East Asia Division, to which I was assigned, as I had opted for Japanese as my language, was just above the prime minister’s room and we were not overawed by our location. Several under secretaries occupied the room in which I spent several months, generally reading files. Y. R. Dhawan, the under secretary for Japan, was a civilised man who took some interest in my training, and I occasionally accompanied him to the rooms of senior officers like C. V. Ranganathan. All of them were polite to me, but none of them had the time or the inclination to take the training of a younger colleague seriously.

The East Asia Division was preoccupied with the preparations for the visit of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Japan, and there was talk of strengthening the embassy in Tokyo for the visit. At one of the preparatory meetings, where I happened to be present, Foreign Secretary T. N. Kaul was told that I was preparing to join the mission later in the year. He decided then and there that I should reach Tokyo well before the visit. My plans to go on leave and possibly travel by sea to Tokyo were scuttled. I felt proud that I had become indispensable at such an early stage of my career and set off to Tokyo in the expectation that I would play a major role in the visit.


The first thing that Ambassador S. K. Banerji told me on arrival in Tokyo was that I should take it easy and enjoy my extended honeymoon till the prime minister’s visit was over. He said that he would have no time to devoteto me till then, and any effort to integrate me in the team at that stage would be counterproductive. It may well have happened that I was sent to Tokyo to complete the quota of officers, the ambassador had asked for, and this had irritated him. I was disappointed that I had no role in the visit, but was quite happy to explore the charms of Tokyo.

Our first disillusionment had come on the day of our arrival in Tokyo itself. The Air India 707 brought us to Haneda Airport in the middle of the night, and we were impressed that there was a Sikh gentleman to receive us and he had brought a huge limousine to take us. Sasikumar and Aswin, two students who were known to us through family connections, had also come to receive us. When we offered them a ride back to the city in the limousine, the embassy official told us that his primary duty was to pick up the diplomatic bags and that there would be no space for any additional passengers. Receiving the new third secretary and his wife was only a secondary duty he was performing. Moreover, he was going to take us to the cargo area, where we had to wait to take delivery of the bags. It took us two hours more to leave the airport. We learnt later that our ‘reception committee’ had to spend the night at the airport as the public transport had stopped plying by the time they came out of the airport. In later years, in my other missions, I ensured that junior officers were properly received and not clubbed with diplomatic bags.

We found a home in the outskirts of Tokyo at Suginami Ku near a railway station called Iogi on the Seibu-Shinjuku line. It was a small new cottage built in the compound of a large Japanese home with a lovely garden. Living there was an education in Japanese life at first hand. We were introduced to the landlady, an elderly, fragile woman who moved around with agility. She ran the entire household though her husband and son lived there. They would leave in the morning for work and come late in the evening, after having been to a couple of bars to entertain clients. After coming home, they would not lift a little finger to help in the house. They would sit in front of the television and gulp down some more sake served ceremoniously by the old lady. Japanese women are confined to the home once they are married and live a life of dedicated work for the family. We were astonished how hard the lady worked to make the men in her life happy. In the midst of her preoccupations, she also found time to make sure that we were comfortable. Whenever she visited us, she brought a little present, nicely packed in the traditional Japanese style. We practiced our smattering of Japanese with her, and she complimented us constantly on the ‘excellent Japanese’ we spoke in such a short time.

We went for Japanese lessons to an old institution in Tokyo called the Naganuma Gakko in the Shibuya district. Most of the students there were Americans, who could not pronounce the nasal twang in Japanese for love or for money. The effortless way in which we pronounced them and grasped the syntax, which is similar to Indian languages, astonished the teachers. The Japanese language reflects Japanese life in many ways. Men and women speak differently; the men use short and curt expressions and the women speak long and polite phrases. The superiority of men is apparent in their conversational style. The word for ‘my wife’ is characteristically humble and the word for ‘your wife’ is grand. There are set expressions to be used on various occasions such as when one leaves home or when one returns. While inviting her guests to a sumptuous meal, the hostess would say that she has not cooked anything and that the fare being offered is poor. Ritual is part of Japanese life and the language is equally ritualistic. The Japanese language, if learnt from women, is a matter of embarrassment to foreigners and, therefore, they get their language masculinised by taking a couple of courses from male teachers.

Spoken Japanese turned out to be easier than I had imagined, and the writing of Kanji or Chinese characters was more difficult. But mercifully, one could spell the words in the two alphabets available, one of them specifically for foreign words. I wondered why the Japanese had to borrow Chinese characters and attribute pronunciation to them arbitrarily, when they already had two alphabets. But when I got the hang of the characters I realised that it was more logical for every language to adopt Chinese characters, as they convey the meaning of words even before they are pronounced. Instead of writing ‘mouth’ or ‘entrance’, it should be possible to draw a small square and read it as mouth or entrance depending on the context. Mastering the writing of the characters is another matter. I learnt the 1,500 essential characters or ‘Toyo Kanji’ as a part of our curriculum for the Advanced Japanese Examination, but this merely brought me to the literacy level. I passed the examination with distinction fairly easily, but I was acutely conscious of the inadequacy of my language.

Ambassador Vincent Coelho, who succeeded Ambassador Banerji, was particularly attentive to my training. He encouraged me to interpret his conversations and even asked me to teach basic Japanese to the other officers and staff. At a Davis Cup match, in which India’s Ramanathan Krishnan and Jaideep Mukherji played veteran Japanese tennis players, I was asked to interpret the ambassador’s speech live on television. That was truly daring of me, but I managed to convey the gist of the speech in my own way to the Japanese audience. I continued my Japanese learning to reach the interpreters’ level.

Having a baby in Japan was an adventure, essentially because of the problems of communication. But Lekha received excellent medical attention ever since she began expecting our first baby. We regularly visited the Shimo-ochiai hospital in a suburb of Tokyo. Sreenath was born in October 1970. By then, Lekha’s mother had arrived to take care of the mother and the child. Japan, it appeared, was a paradise for babies. Products ranging from toiletries to toys were in plenty at reasonable prices, and people everywhere were solicitous about the needs of the baby. The baby whom we called ‘Kiku’, or the chrysanthemum, the national crest of Japan, was barely nine months old when we left Tokyo for the capital of Bhutan. Ambassador Coelho and the Deputy Chief of Mission, Arjun Asrani, tried to retain me in Tokyo so that I could complete my language education, but the ministry was insistent that I should proceed to Thimphu. As it was in the early days in the service, I believed the ministry’s claim that ‘it was after a lot of searching and screening’ that the choice fell on me. The ministry even said that I would be sent back to Tokyo at a later stage to perfect my Japanese and to make use of it, a promise that was never kept.

Before leaving, I worked briefly in the commercial wing under the guidance of Bhupat Oza, who worked with me later in Moscow also. I personally handled India’s participation in the ‘Good Living Show’ in Tokyo. The bigger show in Osaka, ‘Expo 70’, attracted a large number of visitors from India. It marked the coming of age of Japan as a modern, technologically advanced nation and the beginning of its international role. India maintained its traditional image in the Indian pavilion; the main attractions were a white tiger and a sari-clad woman serving Darjeeling tea. Among the visitors who stayed with us at the time of the Expo were Princess Gouri Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore and her husband, Raja Raja Varma, who became good friends for life.

Towards the end of our stay, we moved to a home near the Tokyo University, next to the home of the famed ‘Nairsan’, A. M. Nair, who was an associate of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Having been disillusioned with the new leaders of India, who did not offer him any position after the disappearance of Netaji, Nair returned to Tokyo and opened a restaurant and started a flourishing ‘Indira’ curry powder business. His restaurant, situated across the street from the Kabuki Theatre on Ginza, was his public relations window, where he narrated his extraordinary experiences to Indian visitors. He took us under his wings and looked after us, even though he had his reservations about the government of India and the Indian Embassy. His Japanese wife, renamed Janaki Amma, and two sons lived like Malayalees in Tokyo. He also insisted that his sons should marry Malayalees, but they did not accede to his wishes in this matter. He did not fulfil his dream to spend the evening of his life in Kerala.

I was asked to assist the G. D. Khosla Commission, which investigated the circumstances of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s disappearance, and I travelled with the commission to places in Japan, which were associated with Netaji. Several Japanese veterans of the Second World War testified before the commission that Netaji indeed died in an air crash in Taipei, even though a Bengali lawyer who accompanied Justice Khosla tried to discredit the theory of his death. The commission came to the inevitable conclusion that Netaji died in the air crash, but the public opinion in India still did not accept the conclusion and the ashes preserved in the Ronkoji Shrine in Tokyo could not be brought back to India.


The travel from Tokyo to Thimphu was a journey backwards in time, by at least half a century. The first motorcar entered Bhutan only in 1968 and we were there in 1971 with our Volkswagen 411. We flew to Bagdogra near Siliguri, and drove by road to Phuntsholing on the India-Bhutan border. From the border, it was a five-hour drive through picturesque but perilous roads built not long ago by ‘Dantak’, a unit of the Indian Border Roads Organisation. The standard vehicle of the privileged in Bhutan, both military and civilian, was the sturdy Jonga, a combination of jeep and tonga, made in Japan. With a nine-month-old baby in the lap and without seat belts, we wound our way up the mountains and down the valleys. Border Roads personnel were there all along the route, particularly at the midway point Chukha, where a major hydroelectric project was under construction. India was building the project for Bhutan with an agreement to purchase the power generated there. The proverbial teashop of a Nair from Kerala served us hot tea and snacks at 6,000 feet.

The Thimphu valley, the capital, which came to view without warning as we drove around a bald mountain, looked like a remote village in the northeast of India. The capital consisted of two rows of houses and shops on two sides of the Thimphu river. The riverbed served as a playground as well as a helipad. At one end of the valley stood the dzong, the temporal and spiritual headquarters of Bhutan. On one side of the river were a few houses that belonged to the office of the representative of India. The Representative B. S. Das was designated as special officer till a few months before we arrived, but he became a representative with the rank of an ambassador on the eve of Bhutan’s entry into the United Nations. As his deputy, I had a house on top of the hill with a newly blacktopped road leading to it. I was told that I was lucky to have this road as it was built overnight to enable the father-in-law of my predecessor, Amar Nath Ram, to have breakfast with his family. V. V. Giri, the father-in-law, happened to be the president of India and he was on a state visit to Bhutan. The house itself was modest, built with mud and plastered over, with just two bedrooms. It had a commanding view of the town including the river. It was very uncomfortable in winter, as it was impossible to heat up the rooms with the primitive bukhari, or the woodburning stove, when the cold breeze blew through the crevices in the wall. In summer, mosquitoes came through the same crevices to keep us awake. With a little baby waking up in the middle of the night and no electricity to keep us warm, we lived like soldiers on the frontline and not like diplomats in a foreign capital.

But compensation came in the form of interesting work, a pleasant boss and a friendly group of officers, particularly of the Indian Army, who were serving in the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT). General Jagannathan, the charismatic commandant of IMTRAT, dominated the scene with his varied interests, ranging from golfing to hunting. In fact, people used to say that there were two kings in Bhutan, ‘Jigme’ (Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, the King) and ‘Jaggi’ (the General). The arrival of a representative of India undermined Jaggi’s status, but he continued to enjoy the confidence of the king and overshadowed the diplomatic representative. The general was an avid collector of driftwood pieces, which he turned into abstract art by highlighting their contours. He held several exhibitions of his driftwood abroad. After he left Bhutan, he was asked to design and build a National Defence Museum, and he visited us in Moscow in this connection.

Bhutan celebrated its admission to the United Nations with great gusto, as it was symbolic of its rise to full nationhood. With a treaty relationship that entrusted its foreign affairs to India, Bhutan really did not have a case to seek membership of the United Nations, but India generously agreed when Bhutan aspired to secure a certain international standing. Some said that it was like Ukraine and Byelorussia being members of the United Nations together with the USSR. But very soon Bhutan began to insist that it should have the freedom to decide on its own position, at least on issues that were not of direct concern to India. A case in point was the vote on Kampuchea at the United Nations. India abstained on a resolution that criticised foreign intervention in Kampuchea, while Bhutan voted for it. On issues of crucial importance to India, Bhutan pledged to vote with India. Bhutan always voted with India on South Asian issues and on nuclear non-proliferation. It was inevitable for Bhutan to operate independently when problems of small developing countries or landlocked countries came up. Bhutan’s membership of the United Nations also opened up new avenues for bilateral and multilateral assistance for Bhutan.

A dramatic move by Bhutan in support of India took place within months of my arrival there. Das’s successor, Ambassador Ashok Gokhale, had arrived in Bhutan, but he was away on consultations when India announced its recognition of a new Bangladesh government, just before the Bangladesh war broke out. Lyonpo Dawa Tsering, the Bhutanese Foreign Minister called me and told me, within hours of the government having been sworn in a mangrove, that Bhutan wished to extend recognition to the new Bangladesh government. This was seen in Delhi as a great act of solidarity and the news broke all over the world that Bhutan was the second country in the world to recognise Bangladesh. But did Bhutan have an obligation to await India’s advice before taking this step? No one bothered to ask this question and the king went up in the eyes of the Indian public. This was typical of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk who was adept in making clever moves with a sense of perfect timing.

Palace intrigues were part of life in Bhutan. The king’s family, the Wangchuks, had an uneasy relationship with the Dorjis, the queen’s kinsmen. The queen’s brother and Prime Minister Jigme Dorji were assassinated some years ago. His son, Tobgye Dorji, was with me in the National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie as a trainee and by the time I reached Bhutan, he was posted in the Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi. His brother Benji Dorji, a judge of the High Court of Bhutan and some kind of a court jester, was the constant companion to the Crown Prince Jigme Singhye Wangchuk. The situation was complicated by the existence of the king’s Tibetan mistress Ashi Yankee who had a son of her own. But Yankee kept away from Thimphu most of the time, and the succession issue was settled when the king anointed Singhye as the Tongsa Penlop, or the crown prince, with much pomp and show. The king’s younger brother, popularly known as the Tengyel Lyonpo, or the benevolent minister, was another important figure in Thimphu.

King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk died during a safari in Nairobi in 1972 at a relatively young age. Foreign Secretary T. N. Kaul, who was a close confidant of the king, woke me up in the middle of the night as Ambassador Gokhale did not answer the phone. The news stunned the nation when we broke it to the king’s ministers, who were totally unaware that their monarch was gone. They literally threw themselves on the ground and started crying inconsolably. The news was not broadcast till the crown prince returned from Nairobi. I noticed when I saw him on his return that the boy of 17 had fully grown into his new role and he was every inch a king. He graciously smiled as I first addressed him as ‘Your Majesty’.

The late king’s body was kept embalmed for 101 days in the Thimphu dzong as determined by the lamas, who were fed by the state till the cremation took place. The belief was that during this period the dead person needed everything that he used when he was alive like food, clothing, drinks and even cigarettes. No one was allowed to show grief either. The embalming of the body was done by a pathologist from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, who turned out to be an interesting person to have during those gloomy days. I ran into him 25 years later in the United States, and he still remembered his perilous journey to Thimphu to embalm the king’s body.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi flew by helicopter to a remote village in Bhutan, Kurje, where the king’s funeral took place. All facilities had to be specially built for the occasion, and I had to fly there several times to supervise the arrangements for her stay. Gandhi spent three days there to participate in the elaborate ceremonies. Most of the time was used to brief the new king on the complex relationship between India and Bhutan and to build bridges with him. The young king turned out to be as shrewd as his father and managed to run the kingdom with the same dexterity as his father. He inducted his sisters, Ashi Sonam and Ashi Dechen, into different ministries to gain their support in the administration. He surprised the outside world some years later when he announced that he had married four sisters and that he had fathered three children. The Bhutanese society accepted the royal marriages as legitimate.

The plans for the coronation for the young king began by the time I left Bhutan. Modernisation of Bhutan began with the advent of the young king. He also moved in the direction set by his father towards democracy, as he realised that the days of absolute monarchy were over. He opened Bhutan to the outside world and began receiving assistance from nations other than India. In my time, Bhutan’s only independent source of foreign exchange was its philatelic bureau. A private company used to produce exotic stamps in the name of Bhutan and distribute it worldwide, making a killing for itself. Some stamps were three-dimensional, some were fragrant and some others were gramophone records. Most stamps carried the pictures of the flora and fauna of Bhutan.

Fishing for trout was a favourite hobby of the elite and we joined the sport as my boss, Ambassador B. S. Das, had advised me to bring a fishing tackle from Japan. Walking up and down the Thimphu and Paro rivers, sometimes in deep water, was not only fun but also rewarding. We caught enough trout to fry in butter on the banks of the river and to make pickles to send home to Kerala. Golf and tennis were popular sports. If I had taken up golf at that young and energetic age, I would have had a decent handicap by the time I left Bhutan. The Indian military training team had a number of able and interesting officers, with whom we used to spend our evenings and weekends. Among them were Major K. J. Shetty, the king’s cardiologist; Major Iyer, who succeeded him; Major Sircar, the pediatrician who treated my son, and Captain T. D. S. Visakhan, a close friend with whom we had many adventures. A couple of decades later, terrorists in Assam killed Visakhan, who had become a brigadier. His wife, Ramani, and her two daughters bring us happy memories of our days together.

I went on an expedition, reminiscent of the journeys of envoys of yore, on the Indo-Bhutan border in the eastern sector to demarcate a stretch of boundary that was shown as a straight line on the map. I travelled with the survey chiefs of India and Bhutan, the representatives of the Arunachal Pradesh government, and the Ministry of External Affairs along the border at about 13,000 feet to ascertain which of the villages on the straight line should be considered to belong to either of the two countries. We examined land records and tax documents to confirm the de facto position before finalising the maps. The work was completed in record time as the villagers were fairly certain as to which country they belonged. More energy was spent on the arduous journey, mostly on foot and partly on mules and yaks, than on the negotiations. Dasho Sonam Rabgye, the leader of the Bhutanese delegation, was a friendly, pragmatic person who was resolved to settle the issue expeditiously. Our supporting staff numbered more than a hundred and we had every facility at every camp they established for us each night. At sunset, which came fairly early, we settled down to play cards, the favourite pastime of the Bhutanese. I was lucky throughout the trip and was able to buy a small Tibetan carpet on the way back with my winnings. Lekha and Sreenath stayed back in the Tawang valley when we trekked on the mountains.

Among the civil servants, who were deputed to Bhutan during my time, we became close to C. Ramachandran and his wife Shobha. We spent many cold evenings in Thimphu around the fire, playing cards. We decided to drive in our VW411 all the way from Thimphu to Thiruvananthapuram, when we were transferred from Bhutan, but the trip ended too soon when I drove the car into an overturned truck in the early hours of one morning, not far from Kolkata. Fortunately, none of us was hurt and the car could be driven back to Kolkata for repairs. Ramachandran and Shobha remained in touch all these years and visited us in Washington, where Pavit, their son, was a student. V. Swaminathan, the financial adviser, and his wife Renu brought the flavour of Tamil culture into Bhutan, including loyalty. The Police Adviser D. S. Soman was a delight, with a keen sense of humour and a clear mind.

A memorable visit to Bhutan was by the foreign service inspectors, now an extinct species, who came to assess the cost of living in Bhutan. Although the living conditions were primitive and the prices were higher than on the Indian border, our foreign allowance was a paltry sum, and the inspectors wanted to reduce it further as they were displeased with the amenities they got in Thimphu. Surinder Singh Alirajpur, a small maharaja in his own right, found Thimphu less developed than his own kingdom and complained about the size of the bath towel in the guest house, which could not cover him. Mercifully, the allowance was not reduced as we put up a fight by providing satisfactory statistics. He even wrote to me that he was so pleased with my performance that he had recommended me for a posting to New York. He added in good measure that his recommendation did not always go through. It did not and the orders I got were for Moscow and not New York.


In most foreign services, the average temperature of all the places, where I was posted taken together, will work out to be temperate. However, Moscow gave us enough degrees below zero to make up for the warmth of the South Pacific and Africa. Our friends gave us an ice cream party prior to our departure for Moscow without realising that we would be served ice cream in below zero temperatures as a hot drink. A posting to Moscow was considered essential to go higher in the IFS, considering that most officers who did well in the service had lived in one of the diplomatic ‘ghettos’ of the Soviet capital. We were in the Lomonosovsky complex, not far from the Moscow State University and the Chinese Embassy. The street in front of the Chinese Embassy changed its name to match the state of the relations between the two countries. From the ‘street of friendship’, it had changed to the ‘street of revisionism’. The complex had several Indian diplomats and since it had only one row of apartments, it was not as crowded as the others like the Kutusovsky complex.

With the responsibility for the administration of a large mission with personnel from many departments of the government of India, I found myself dealing with properties and personnel rather than with Kremlin diplomacy. My battles were with the redoubtable Directorate for Servicing the Diplomatic Corps (UPDK), an organisation for control of diplomats, composed largely of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB) ‘Soviet State Security Committee’ officials exposed in different capitals of the world. No leaf could fall in the diplomatic community without the stamp of approval of the UPDK, but, mercifully, the stamp was available for various considerations. For any service of any kind, we needed to go to the UPDK with a note, presenting the compliments of the embassy and assuring it of our best consideration. All personnel for local employment also came from the UPDK. We were free to dismiss any of them, but they came back in another capacity in another section or another household in no time. They had high ranks in the KGB with no connection to the jobs they performed as cooks or drivers. A lady who was permanently assigned to the reception of the embassy had such connections in the UPDK that she had powers to help or harm anyone at her will.

Ambassador Kuznetsov, who figured in a well-known American book on the KGB, was the head of the UPDK. During Ambassador Inder Kumar Gujral’s time in Moscow, we undertook some landscaping in the ambassador’s residence for an estimated amount for which we had the approval of the government of India. But when the bill came from the UPDK, the amount was 10 times the estimate. We were told that the scope of work was increasing and the actual work done was 10 times more than the anticipated. At every level, we were told that no reduction could be made. Ambassador Gujral, who had developed a habit of remembering and wishing people on their birthdays, found out when Kuznetsov’s birthday took place and asked me to carry a case of whisky to him in his office. When I reached his office, he was having an office party and invited me to join it. He was overwhelmed by the ambassador’s gesture and thanked him profusely. He said that no other ambassador had bothered to find out when his birthday was. He pledged eternal loyalty to India and told me that if I had a problem with the UPDK, I should go directly to him. The next day I was at his office with the garden bill, which he personally corrected to the exact amount of the original estimate. No wonder Johnnie Walker was considered legal tender in Moscow those days.

Juggling with three currencies, the US dollar, the Soviet ruble and the Indian rupee, was our preoccupation in Moscow. Without a judicious mix of the three currencies, nobody could survive in the embassy. A small per cent of our emoluments were drawn in ‘currency’, which meant foreign exchange, which could be used abroad or in dollar shops. A minimum amount of rubles had to be drawn at the official rate to prevent the temptation to convert dollars into rubles at a profit. And rupee withdrawals were for savings or import of food and other items from India. Many years of research done by our predecessors had resulted in a fairly accurate data bank, but each person had to develop his own mix that suited him best. Changing money in the market was the easiest option, but the embassy rules were meant to discourage such transactions in order to protect the foreign exchange laws of the Soviet Union. Other embassies did not seem to have any such compunction, but we enforced respect for the law and even punished those who were found using the market forces to stretch their purses. We had a hard time using the rubles in the market, as it meant joining every line in the shops in the hope that something useful would be found at the other end when we reached there. Very often, the rare goods were sold by the time the line reached the other end. Queues were the order of the day and the rules of the queues were respected. We could move from line to line after reserving our places and could always go back to our original position. There was a popular joke in Moscow that someone got so fed up of the lines that he decided to buy a gun and shoot the entire politburo. He ignored the line at the Kremlin as he had an exceptional mission, but he was stopped. When he announced that he was rushing to shoot the leadership, those in the line said that he should wait at the end of the line as they were all waiting patiently to do exactly that.

As converting hard currency to rubles was a losing proposition, most of us were chronically short of rubles in the initial months. However, everyone would have plenty of rubles towards the end when cars and other household goods were sold in non-convertible rubles. Ideally, a ruble loan at the beginning of the posting with the facility of repaying at the end would be a solution. This used to happen in effect as it was possible to pre-sell personal cars. Someone, often a Middle Eastern diplomat, would be willing to pay the price of the car in rubles even before it was bought. He would give his preferred model and colour and pay the price on condition that the car would be shipped to a port in the Middle East after three years. During my time, everyone in the embassy had yellow Volkswagon Passat, which was favoured in the Middle East. They were appropriately, called, ‘Mustapha’s cars’.

In any closed society, information is most valuable. In Moscow those days, valuable information included news of availability of basic things. For instance, if someone found that basmati rice was available in a particular shop, the best favour he could do to a friend was to pass that information to him. Price was the same everywhere and, therefore, it did not matter which shop carried it, but it was important to know where it was available. Shop assistants also would not part with such information easily unless you pleased them in some way. It was not difficult to please them. Small gifts of chewing gum or chocolates or coke bottles would go a long way, not to speak of Johnnie Walker. The best practical joke that people played on 1 April was to spread word that something imported was being sold in a ruble shop. The system led to hoarding and then to further shortages. Indians would buy in one day all the rice allotted to a shop for a whole month. A kind of gram that Indians ate used to come to the shops in small packets as bird feed. Indians would buy hundreds of packets as soon as it came to the pet shops, leaving the Muscovites wondering how many birds the Indians kept. We had an Assistant Naval Attaché Lt Commander S. Shekhar, who specialised in locating mutton in the market. An Iyengar, who should normally be a vegetarian, supplied ‘Iyengar mutton’ regularly to us.

Security was a strong point in Moscow. The diplomatic ghettos were well protected, and all movements to and from the apartments were closely watched and recorded by the guard at the gate. If any one was unduly delayed or strayed from his intended path, a search would be mounted immediately. Any time we drove out of Moscow, if we went out of the prescribed route, a militia man would appear from nowhere to guide us back to the right route. The militia even knew which party we were supposed to attend a particular evening and did not allow us to go to the wrong apartment. The Soviet militia was such a living presence that it was believed that a militia man was born, each time there was a stint of silence in a gathering. People kept talking, lest they should add to the militia population.

Foreigners in general and diplomats in particular were treated with equal suspicion, regardless of the state of bilateral relations. But Indian diplomats were generally in favour, and we had greater accessibility. The state of Indo-Soviet relations was such that there was continuous interaction, and we had opportunities to deal with Soviet officials at different levels. Accompanying VIPs was the best way to see the country. I travelled with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to Georgia and Armenia, and with parliamentary delegations to several other Republics. Life outside Moscow, particularly in the Baltic Republics and Central Asia, appeared less regimented.

Ambassador K. S. Shelvankar, a journalist-turned-diplomat, ran the embassy from a small room in the basement of his residence, while his Scottish wife Mary occupied the ambassador’s room. The ambassador had the habit of escorting me to her room whenever ticklish administrative issues had to be resolved. Mary was one of those British intellectuals, who supported the India League in London, in which Krishna Menon and Shelvankar were members. She was known to be close to the Nehru family. But as the Indian ambassador’s wife in Moscow, she was quite a disaster as she was intolerant of Indian politicians and officials. She interfered in the administration of the embassy, which was my business. I had to take cover behind the Deputy Chief of Mission Peter Sinai, a true Christian, who would not harm even his enemy. His great qualities did not help in running the administration as he always wanted to see the opposite point of view and was influenced by it. He had a fund of stories to illustrate his point, but he repeated them so often that it became a part of the Moscow folklore. For example, whenever he was faced with intractable problems, he used to say that ‘the turban is six yards long and the twist comes only at the end’. When discussions came up about the use of the right phraseology for a particular occasion, he would tell us the story of an Egyptian fishmonger who put up a board saying, ‘Fresh fish sold here’. His friends pointed out that each of the words was redundant and finally he realised that no board was necessary. Sinai had jokes about baldness, though he did not have much hair himself. Shekhar and I produced a skit at his farewell party featuring his stories. Shekhar acted as the deputy chief of mission and I acted as myself, the Head of Chancery. Looking back at the skit, I think we came close to offending him. He wrote to me that he was able to see himself better after the skit, but he confessed that some of it was ‘close to the bone’. Rowena Sinai, a gutsy lady, defied the Soviet police when they accused her of trying to enter the Lenin Mausoleum in ‘immodest clothes’. She was actually wearing a sari in a perfectly modest manner. She did not leave till the chief of the guards apologised and allowed her to enter the Mausoleum. She taught them a lesson on sartorial propriety.

One story should suffice to illustrate the kind of trivialities that occupied us. When the time came for Shelvankar and Mary to move to Oslo, the ambassador told us at a meeting that he would not have time to go to each officer’s house for farewell parties. He would, therefore, prefer if officers of each wing of the embassy got together and organised some parties. This was appreciated, and the different wings competed with each other to give the ambassador and Mary a fitting farewell. Once the round was over, the ambassador suddenly asked when his formal farewell would be. A surprised Sinai said that since we had him and his wife come to so many dinners, we did not want to bother them again with another farewell. The ambassador said that he was expecting an official farewell like the one given to the former Deputy Ambassador Ambadi Damodaran. Sinai said that he would consult the officers and let him know. He then dispatched me to go around the various wings and ascertain the wishes of the officers. Everyone felt that we should give another dinner if that was the ambassador’s wish. As we were finalising the plans, the ambassador called another meeting to announce that he was displeased with the ‘vote taking’ and that he would not accept any more parties. He stopped us all from protesting and said that we should approach Mary if we had anything to say. Mary told Sinai and myself that the ambassador was upset and that the only way out for us was to apologise in writing. I did not see any reason to apologise, but Sinai, the eternal peacemaker, wrote a note and gave it to Mary, expressing regret over the turn of events. Nikhil Chakravarty, the distinguished journalist who happened to be there, helped in the negotiations with Mary, and eventually we gave the Shelvankars a grand farewell. The whole crisis took more than two weeks to blow over.

D. P Dhar was Shelvankar’s predecessor and successor. He came to Moscow as a minister after his first tenure, and the Shelvankars hosted a reception for him. The Shelvankars were at the door to receive Dhar, and Mary was in a resplendent Kancheepuram sari. Dhar could not resist making a comment that Mary looked grand. Mary put on some modesty and asked, ‘Am I alright, DP? Do I look like the ambassador’s wife?’ Dhar’s repartee amused everyone who knew about her place in the Shelvankar household, ‘What do you mean, Mary? You look like the ambassador’s husband!’ he said.

D. P. Dhar’s second assignment to Moscow was short, but splendid. He opened the doors of the residence to all and entertained like a Maharajah. His wife was a great contrast to Mary as she confined herself to the role of the housewife. Fotedar, his private secretary, ran the household in her name. The guest rooms were always full. The joke was that he did not recognise his own house guests and some of them did not recognise him either. This gave rise to amusing situations like when a guest asked Dhar at the breakfast table as to how long he would be staying with the ambassador.

Dhar felt that I should not waste time on administration and moved me to his office to assist him with political work, and the administration was entrusted to a police officer, D. R. Karthikeyan. But before long, Dhar passed away in India when his pacemaker gave way and caused cardiac complications. I then moved to the public relations wing of the embassy.

The arrival of Inder Kumar Gujral as ambassador in 1975 opened a new chapter in the embassy. Sanjay Gandhi had, in fact, eased Gujral out of the cabinet for his liberal views, but Gujral was enthusiastic about his first diplomatic assignment and was determined to make a success of it. He came with his own staff and had requisitioned the services of a public relations officer from outside the Ministry of External Affairs. The ministry decided to post him against me and transferred me prematurely to Zanzibar as the consul general. Gujral had thought that the new man would come against a new post. Even though he did not know me from before, Gujral said that he would rather not have a new officer, if it meant that I would have to be transferred. This was the first in a series of acts of kindness he did to me in Moscow and even several years after he and I left Moscow. Whether it was my son’s school admission in Delhi, allotment of a house or any other matter, he readily interceded on my behalf and later as external affairs minister and prime minister, he was always kind and generous. My long association with him began in Moscow. He moved me back to administration as he attached importance to the upkeep of the mission and personnel management. With him, as ambassador, and Jaskaran Teja, who joined as deputy chief of mission, I had a splendid time in Moscow. The arrival of the celebrated bureaucrat, Gopi Arora and his wife Indu, was also a welcome development.

Indo-Soviet relations in the Leonid Brezhnev days were multi-faceted and defence coperation was particularly intense. Half the embassy consisted of defence officers and visiting military delegations were legion. The embassy had to stock hundreds of heavy coats and caps to be used by visiting delegations. Some of them who came for longer periods acclimatised well and even learnt some Russian. One of them volunteered to interpret a toast I made. Later, I learnt that I shocked my audience, except one person who understood English. He told me that my interpreter said that I expressed appreciation for Russian supplies and that I hoped that ‘the supplies would be good at least in the future’. When I said the cream of the Indian Army came for training to the Soviet Union, he said that I promised them ‘the best Indian cream’.

Gujral travelled the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. He was so impressed with his visit to Siberia that he came back fully convinced that the twenty-first century would belong to the Soviet Union. The sheer dimensions of the resources available in Siberia astounded him. His predictions about Siberia were conveyed to Delhi in a personal cable addressed to Y. B. Chavan, the Minister of External Affairs. Because the cable was marked ‘Most Immediate’, it was delivered to him in the middle of the night. Chavan did not see the point of waking him up at night when there was some more time before the twenty-first century dawned. He said so in a cryptic letter to Gujral.

Sheila Gujral, a highly cultured and sensitive lady, a poetess in her own right, pursued her interests in Moscow. She did not interfere in the affairs of the embassy except to give a motherly healing touch, when required. I remember how she dealt with an explosive situation on a trip to Siberia. Shekhar was helping the ambassador with all the arrangements for the visit. The whole group came to depend on Shekhar, as he was the only Russian-speaking member of the delegation. He was polite and kind to everybody till a pompous counsellor asked him to arrange to get his shoes polished. Shekhar lost his temper and showered some of the choicest abuses in Tamil on the counsellor. Sheila Gujral, who was watching the situation with amusement, disarmed Shekhar immediately when she said softly, ‘Look, my son, don’t you know that you should not be the eldest in a Muslim family and the youngest in a Hindu family? If you are the eldest in a Muslim family, every one will toss all his or her problems to you. If you are the youngest in a Hindu family, like we are now, the youngest will have to do all the dirty work’. Shekhar was so moved by Sheila Gujral’s soothing comment that he promptly went on looking for a shoeshine facility for his elder brother.

Gujral began sporting his Lenin-style beard after a holiday in Sochi. When the ambassador returned with his beard, none of the senior officers at the airport said anything, but I remember complimenting him on his new look. He explained to me that a lady barber in Sochi was struck by his similarity to Lenin when she saw him with a beard and suggested that he should keep it. He kept it even as the prime minister of India.

Some of the friendships we made in Moscow lasted long, perhaps because of the dependence we developed on each other to manage the harsh life in Moscow. Apart from Shekhar and his wife Malati, D. R. Karthikeyan, who later handled the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case with distinction and became the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and his wife Kala remained our close friends over the years. I had the privilege of driving Kala and her newborn baby Kanchana from a Soviet hospital to their Lomonosovsky apartment. We also greeted the first child of R. L. Narayan and Rani on his arrival in a Moscow hospital. Rajiv and Veena Sikri became close friends and served with us again in New York. Many others like Prasanna Hegde and Natarajan kept in touch with us. The Moscow ‘mafia’ in the IFS remained strong and most members found themselves ambassadors to the former Soviet Republics when they became independent states. The Air Attache O. P. Mehra became the Chief of Air Staff in later years.

Our first son Sreenath was barely three when we arrived in Moscow. He became proficient in Russian in the ‘detskisaad’ and memorised Lenin’s speeches that he delivered with gusto. He was also our Russian interpreter. Our second son Sreekanth is a Moscow product, whom we called ‘Misha’, the mascot of the Moscow Olympics. We came back to Delhi in time for his arrival, as we did not want to face the hazards of having a baby behind the iron curtain.

Four significant events took place during my time in Moscow. The Peaceful Nuclear Explosion (PNE) of 1974 shook the Soviet Union as much as it did others, but Moscow refrained from harsh criticism of the experiment. ‘Aryabhatta’, the first Indian experimental satellite was launched from the Soviet Union in April 1975. While our envoys around the world had a hard time convincing their hosts of the need for Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule (1975), there was a perfect understanding in Moscow of its rationale and timeliness. Indira Gandhi’s electoral defeat in 1977 stunned the Soviet leadership to such an extent that Pravda and Izvestia did not carry the election results for two days. Then a small news item appeared that Indira Gandhi failed ‘to get the required number of votes to become the prime minister’. The next day, the newspapers carried a brief biodata of Morarji Desai, who was described as a Gandhian. It took the Soviet people one whole week to realise that Indira Gandhi had lost the election to Morarji Desai. After the initial shock, the leadership realised that it should salvage Indo-Soviet relations and decided to send the veteran Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko to Delhi.

The retention of Gujral as ambassador by the Janata government helped matters greatly. I was at the airport to see off Gromyko. He looked visibly worried about the kind of reception he might get from the new leadership. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as foreign minister, more than anyone else, put him at ease. Vajpayee said in his first toast that Gromyko might find new faces in the government of India, but Indo-Soviet relations would continue to flourish. Janata Party had disowned the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed by Indira Gandhi in 1971, in the context of the crisis in East Pakistan, but the government did not ask for its abolition. Gromyko returned a much relieved man and Gujral gave continuity to India’s policy to the Soviet Union.

Parayil Unnikrishnan, a stalwart journalist, who represented the Press Trust of India in Moscow for many years, was close to all the ambassadors, particularly D. P. Dhar. He and his wife were our guides and guardians too and travelled with us to Finland when we went to pick up our ‘Mustapha’s car’. He enjoyed international prominence for several days when he filed a story that ‘Brezhnev took leave of his responsibilities tonight’ in 1975, when Brezhnev was still very much in power. The story caused a sensation as Brezhnev was in control, but was out of sight for sometime. The Kremlin denied the story and said that Comrade Brezhnev just had some cold and cough. Unnikrishnan tried to explain that his story only talked about leave, but it was obvious that it was planted on him by some important source in the Kremlin. Even experienced journalists can fall prey to the temptation to get sensational scoops.

In January 1977, Lekha and Sreenath flew to Chennai to attend the wedding of Lekha’s brother Mohan to Latha, daughter of the legendary music director, M. S. Viswanathan. I could not make it as I had reached the end of my tenure in Moscow and was under orders of transfer to New Delhi. The wedding itself was a grand affair, with many film personalities, including M. G. Ramachandran, in attendance. K. J. Jesudas, the famous playback singer gave a classical concert. Lekha happened to tell her American neighbour on the flight that she was travelling to India to attend her brother’s wedding. ‘Only in India will a sister travel so far to attend a brother’s wedding’, he said. As a chief engineer in the merchant navy, Mohan travelled around the globe and also visited us at some of our posts. Mohan and Latha have made Chennai their home. Latha has a chain of beauty parlours in Chennai and Bangalore. Their son, Vikram, is also in the beauty industry and their daughter, Prarthana, is a budding film maker.

My successor in Moscow, Murali Menon, had arrived in Moscow, but I was expected to stay on for a couple of months more, as desired by the ambassador. But even as my family was planning to precede me to India, I was asked to return immediately to the ministry and we managed to leave Moscow together at short notice.


We returned from Moscow to Delhi in September 1977 and I was handpicked by the Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta to be his special assistant after I worked for a while in the administration under Ambassador Thomas Abraham and in the East Europe Division under Aravind Deo. I had met Mehta briefly in Moscow, but my appointment in his office came as a surprise. Mehta told me at the end of my two eventful years with him that my choice was ‘a shot in the dark’, but he was more than satisfied by the choice.

My new assignment brought me back to Moscow in 1979 with Morarji Desai during his last visit abroad as prime minister. That was when I stayed in the Kremlin for the first time. It was a most unusual visit, Desai’s only visit to Moscow. Desai had anti-Soviet orientation for many years, and he had declared that he would scrap the Indo-Soviet Friendship Treaty if his party came to power. But as prime minister, he realised the depth of India’s involvement with the Soviet Union, particularly in the economic and defence areas and readjusted his view of Moscow. But deep inside, he distrusted the Soviets and took a long time to agree to visit Moscow. As it happened, his visit to Moscow took place on the eve of his fall from power.

Jagat Mehta, Aravind Deo, the Joint Secretary for East Europe, and I constituted the official team formed to interact with the Soviet side on substantive matters regarding the visit, including the joint communiqué. We had strict instructions from the prime minister that the communiqué should have no reference to the Indo-Soviet Treaty. Sure enough, the Soviet draft stated that the relations between the two countries were based on the treaty. It was a tough negotiating situation. Added to it was the strong Soviet suspicion that Jagat Mehta was too pro-West. After the first round of negotiations, which went into the middle of the night, there was no meeting point and the Soviets made it clear that there would be no communiqué without a reference to the treaty. When we presented the situation to the prime minister as he was working on the ‘spinning wheel’ (followers of Gandhiji spin their own yarn to make their clothes), he simply said that there was no need for a communiqué in that case. We were stunned as there was never a prime ministerial visit from India without a communiqué and the world would know that all was not well with the visit. We tried some weak formulations on the treaty, but the prime minister rejected them. We had another round, but even when the return banquet on the eve of the departure of the delegation took place, there was no sign of a communiqué. Brezhnev himself spoke to Desai and said that it would be a pity if there was no communiqué and we got word that we should leave the banquet and work again to find a way out. By early morning the next day, we were able to get a weak formulation that the spirit of the treaty prevailed in the relationship and the prime minister agreed, thanks to the intervention of Vajpayee. The Soviets were greatly relieved and so were we.

Desai gave the Soviets another shock at a lunch hosted earlier by Brezhnev. The Soviet foreign office had warned Vajpayee that Brezhnev would make an offer to Desai to send an Indian into space in a Soviet rocket. The Soviet Union had already sent up cosmonauts from the Warsaw Pact countries and Vietnam, and now it was the turn of India in their order of priority. Vajpayee thought that it was a good idea, but did not alert Desai to the offer. When the appointed time came at the lunch, Brezhnev made the offer in a grand manner, making it as a great gesture of friendship to the Indian brothers. Desai appeared unimpressed and said off the cuff that it was not a particularly good idea. Brezhnev was so shocked that his unlit cigarette fell off his lips. He turned to Kosygin and asked whether he had heard Desai right. Kosygin made an effort to present the proposal in more palatable terms and even Vajpayee sent Desai a slip suggesting that he should agree to consider the offer. Desai ignored it and went on to give his own reasons why the offer was not acceptable. He said that India did not have anything to gain from a space flight like that. Moreover, several people would have to be trained and eventually only one would be able to fly. Everyone thought it prudent to change the subject and the lunch ended rather abruptly. It was only after the return of the Indira Gandhi government in 1980 that the proposal was revived and Rakesh Sharma flew in a Soyuz rocket to space and returned safely to a hero’s welcome.

The final meeting between Desai and Brezhnev was not without interesting moments. As the two leaders walked into the reception hall of the Kremlin after the signing ceremony, Brezhnev said in an expansive way, ‘Mr Prime Minister, we normally drink vodka on such happy occasions, but because of your well-known views on drinking, we have decided to drink tea with you’. Desai was not impressed. ‘I have not had tea for 70 years!’ he said. The number 70 reminded Brezhnev of the recent celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Great October Revolution. He said smartly, ‘Oh, you must have stopped drinking tea in honour of the Great October Revolution!’ Desai was as insensitive as ever. ‘I had not even heard about the October Revolution then!’ he said. Brezhnev gave up for a while, but, as the host, he had to keep the conversation going. As they came closer to the table, decked with caviar, choicest meat cuts and a barbecued piglet with an apple in its mouth, Brezhnev turned to Desai again and said, ‘Mr Prime Minister, I believe you are a vegetarian’. He then pointed to some tomatoes and cucumber and urged him to eat some of it. At this point, Desai came up with a profound observation, ‘Isn’t it interesting that you non-vegetarians eat only vegetarian animals?’ Brezhnev did not follow the logic. He asked Desai what he meant. Desai would not bother to explain. But his ebullient interpreter, M. V. Oak, stepped in to explain that what his prime minister meant was that non-vegetarians did not eat tigers and lions, but only vegetarian animals like cows and sheep. Brezhnev nodded in agreement. The party did not last much longer.

Desai had his first taste of ‘Kathakali’ on the same trip. A Kerala Kala Mandalam troupe had come to Poland to perform at the time of the visit of the prime minister. The scene chosen for the evening was the killing of Dusshasana by Bhima, one of the most gruesome scenes in Kathakali. Bhima pulls out the entrails of his enemy and drinks his blood. The scene completely shocked Desai and Vajpayee more than their polish hosts. I believe, on an earlier occasion, Khrushchev, after witnessing the same scene, had turned to Ambassador K. P. S. Menon and asked, ‘Mr Ambassador, you still call yourself a non-violent nation?’ The Poles made no such remark, but later at the ambassador’s residence, where there were no foreigners, Desai criticised the show as in bad taste. Vajpayee and others seemed to agree. As the only one from Kerala in the group, I thought that it was my duty to defend ‘Kathakali’. I whispered something about the context of the scene and the grave crime, which Bhima was avenging. Dusshasana had tried to disrobe Draupadi in public and she had vowed that she would tie her hair only with Dusshasana’s blood on it. Desai asked me what I was saying. I talked a little about the highly stylistic nature of Kathakali and the traditional way in which just punishment was highlighted in the dance form. Of course, the words of a mere deputy secretary did not carry much weight, and I gave up when Desai said that they could have chosen a gentler episode.

My days as the Special Assistant to Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta were some of the most interesting years I spent in the service. To be entrusted at such a young age with the secrets of the government, particularly postings and promotions of my seniors, was exciting enough. But it was hard work indeed. Computers were not in use then and Mehta revised, many times everything he wrote. I had an army of stenographers to put in writing whatever they thought he dictated. My job was to correct the spelling and the grammar before showing his own writings to him. He totally disowned most of it and rewrote everything, and the process went on. I had learnt from Peter Sinai in Moscow that ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’, but Mehta tried for perfection till the speech was delivered or the note became overdue. The joke was that when someone went to him and said that he should look at a speech that was to be delivered that day, he said, ‘What do you mean? I need to finish yesterday’s speech first’.

I could be described best as the shuffler of papers for the foreign secretary. Mounds of paper landed on my desk in a room carved out of the corridor leading to the foreign secretary’s room. I had to make sure that he did not miss anything that was urgent and important and that he did not have to look through junk mail. I needed, therefore, to read the junk too like I do now with my electronic mail because some gems could be lost among the advertisements on elimination of debt and improvement of the anatomy. Mehta never explained to me what my work was and he expected me to know by intuition what he needed for his work from moment to moment. If he called and asked for ‘that paper’, I could determine, by a quick calculation of the time, the kind of visitor who was with him and the tone of his demand, which paper he was asking for. I was right most of the time, and when I was not, he merely had to say ‘not this one, the other one’ and I could produce it. Shyam Saran, who became foreign secretary later, found this arrangement exasperating when he stood in for me occasionally, when I was away. I was often reminded of Aravind Vellodi’s story about Krishna Menon, when Vellodi did a similar job with Menon. At the UN Security Council, when Menon was making one of his marathon speeches on Kashmir, he kept asking Vellodi for documents each time he elaborated a point. Vellodi could easily guess what Menon wanted. But on a particular occasion, Vellodi was totally lost when Menon extended his hand. Vellodi had to ask in Malayalam what he was looking for. Menon shouted at him in Malayalam, ‘I want a pencil to scratch my ear!’

Jagat Mehta was more sinned against than sinning. His hyperactive mind was looking far ahead, while those around him were looking for immediate gains and quick fixes. Mehta anticipated much of India’s foreign policy of later years. He was considered anti-Soviet because he did not appear to be working for Indo-Soviet relations as he did to improve relations with the United States, China and Pakistan. He told me on several occasions that he did not have to do much for Indo-Soviet relations as those relations were already flourishing. Imagination and hard work were required to build new bridges. But the pro-Soviet lobby never forgave him and hunted him out of the foreign office. Mehta had close friends in the United States and the United Kingdom, and he was not ashamed of being seen with them in public. Much of the distrust of Mehta by the pro-Soviet lobby arose from those friendships.

Mehta, in his enthusiasm to build new bridges with the United States, underestimated the extreme nature of India’s suspicion about the non-proliferation efforts of the United States. Successive Indian governments had portrayed the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) as a devise to deprive India of nuclear technology. Mehta persuaded Foreign Minister Vajpayee and Prime Minister Morarji Desai that India could make some moves in the nuclear field to please the United States. For instance, India, which used to oppose a Pakistani resolution on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in South Asia, abstained on it at the United Nations. A joint scientific group with the United States to study the implications of Indian nuclear policy was contemplated. Mehta was in the United States with the prime minister when Rama Mehta, his wife, suddenly passed away after a heart attack. Mehta returned to India, but left for the United States soon after the funeral because of the importance he attached to the discussions there. The press criticised him for his travel back to the United States and speculated that a nuclear deal was in the offing. Soon enough, the political leadership sensed the mood of the nation and pulled out of the nuclear negotiations. That explains the deep disappointment that Jimmy Carter felt when Desai did some plain speaking to him when he came with the expectation that India was just about to change its nuclear policy. Carter’s comment that the United States should send the old man a ‘cold and blunt’ letter was caught on camera and the visit itself became a disaster. Desai’s comment was characteristic, ‘That comment was not meant for my ears. Why should I care about it?’ he asked.

Foreign Minister Vajpayee’s China visit in 1978 was also largely Mehta’s handiwork. I counted more than 50 drafts of Vajpayee’s toast churned out in my office. Many more versions may have been prepared on the way before it was delivered. There was nothing common between the first draft and the final version except the first sentence, ‘Thank you for your generous hospitality’. Mehta first heard the news of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam that took place when Vajpayee was still in China on his shortwave national radio, which was his constant companion before the advent of CNN. The sudden return of the Vajpayee delegation saved the reputation of the government of India. The Indian public saw a parallel between the invasion of Vietnam and the aggression against India in 1962. It assumed particular poignancy as the Indian foreign minister was on Chinese soil when the invasion took place. The result was a reversal in the relationship between the two countries on the heels of a historic visit. Mehta was, particularly, disappointed that his vision of an improved relationship with China lay shattered.

In the foreign secretary’s office, I came close to policy making at the highest levels for the first time. By making a correction here or adding a phrase there, I was able to contribute in my own way to policy, but more important was the ringside seat I had, to observe senior colleagues and political leaders from close quarters. The position also enabled me to get to know many of those who later became my bosses in the service. It gave me an exposure to the media, the intelligentsia, and the diplomatic corps in Delhi. I could not match Mehta’s energy that enabled him to go to two parties after a grueling day and then sit till late to clear the remaining papers. I worked from nine to nine, but needed the rest of the day to recharge the batteries.

Posting and personnel policies were the most interesting to watch in the Ministry of External Affairs. While there was some system in the postings at junior levels, the postings of heads of mission had always been subjective and ad hoc. Mehta would give me a sheet of paper on which he would have scribbled some names and some stations. He had his own reasons for his assignments or he might have been told to give some assignments, but those reasons and compulsions were shrouded in mystery. My job was to draft out letters to the affected officers, giving logical explanations for each posting, particularly when they were being assigned to difficult stations. For this, I needed to study the history of services carefully and then improvise. If the officer was an Arabist and was being posted to another Arab country, I would wax eloquent on the virtues of specialisation and take the credit for careful career planning. On the other hand, if an Arabist were going to Francophone Africa, I would dwell at length on the need to diversify his career to equip him for higher responsibilities. What often worked was the impression created that each person was chosen for the new post after much searching and screening. I realised later that some of the drafts I had prepared were used by my successors at the time of my postings to Fiji and Kenya.

Postings done by the foreign secretary did not always go through as many officers had direct access to the political masters, who were willing to manipulate postings for them. The foreign secretary was then compelled to review the postings made by him. According to one story, the foreign secretary rhetorically told an officer that he could go to the prime minister if he wanted his posting changed. He promptly got it changed by the prime minister. When the foreign secretary chided him, he said, feigning innocence, that he went to the prime minister as instructed by the foreign secretary. The jigsaw puzzle remained with pieces missing at any given time. Several efforts were made to bring some system into the posting methods, but it never suited those in power to have any rigid formula. The chaotic system was conducive to patronage and nepotism.

Mehta managed to get all the ladies in the foreign service against him by the stroke of a pen. His wife Rama Mehta was herself a foreign service officer, but she had to resign on marriage in accordance with the rules at that time. He felt that, compared to that situation, the ladies were being treated generously by the government. Not only were they able to retain their jobs after marriage but also were given postings together with their husbands, to the extent possible. At one time, he received several requests for soft postings from lady officers and felt that they should also have a share of hard postings. If he had simply posted some of the ladies to difficult stations, it would have been accepted, but he chose to address a letter to all the lady officers, exhorting them not to expect preferential treatment in the future. The letter caused such a flutter that Mehta was accused of being a misogynist, among other things. He realised that hell had no fury like women offended. One of them even went to court to protest. The court upheld the government’s discretion with regard to postings, but mildly rebuked the foreign secretary for alleged prejudices against women.

My preparations to move to New York in January 1980 were interrupted by the commotion relating to the removal of Jagat Mehta from the post of foreign secretary. The mystery was that it was a caretaker government that took such an important decision just a few weeks before the general elections in the country. Unknown to Jagat Mehta, the minister was corresponding with Ram Sathe, our ambassador in Beijing, who was asked to take over from Mehta by the middle of December 1979. Just a few days before Sathe was to arrive in New Delhi, the news was broken to him by the minister and the prime minister himself. He was told that he was guilty of misleading the government on issues such as Bhutan, the United States, and the Commonwealth. Jagat Mehta was credited with a vision and that was what had weighed in his favour when Indira Gandhi appointed him as foreign secretary in 1974. Mehta served the Janata government as loyally as he served the Congress government, but Indira Gandhi obviously did not like the Janata foreign policy that Mehta helped to shape. The saying at that time was that Desai made foreign policy, Jagat Mehta implemented it, and Vajpayee translated it into Hindi. But that very vision worked against him. He was convinced that India needed to improve its relations with the United States and China, and establish a working relationship with Pakistan. But the Soviet lobby saw him as a threat, particularly as he was not in favour of recognising the regime in Cambodia. He was dubbed as strongly pro-United States. He was partly at fault because he had many friends in the United States, who visited him frequently. He considered himself beyond suspicion, but he aroused all kinds of suspicion. He continued to work in the ministry even after he was relieved of his responsibilities as foreign secretary and was posted to Bonn, but Indira Gandhi, who originally appointed him as foreign secretary, refused to rehabilitate him. No one defended him, not even Vajpayee, but many years later, Vajpayee as prime minister honoured him with a ‘Padma Vibhushan’, a high civilian award, in acknowledgement of Mehta’s visionary ideas.

I worked briefly with Ram Sathe till he settled down as foreign secretary. He offered to keep me on, but I told him that I had exhausted my savings and was keen on going on a posting as soon as possible. He agreed to relieve me if I found a suitable person to succeed me. I persuaded my batchmate and friend Prabhakar Menon, a brilliant officer, whom Sathe found eminently suitable for the job.

I remember escorting Sathe to his apartment in the old external affairs hostel on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, the day he returned from Beijing. He had stayed in the hostel many times and knew the conditions very well. He was absolutely dumbfounded that his apartment had been done up and even a carpet and a pedestal lamp had been added. I told him that he should remember that he had just become the foreign secretary. He said that he would take some time to digest it.

A historic development that took place in December 1979 compelled Sathe to receive the Soviet ambassador in his hostel apartment. I got a call in the middle of the night from Yuli Vorontsov, the veteran Soviet Ambassador, to say that he had an urgent message to convey to the foreign secretary. I called the foreign secretary who readily agreed to receive him, but suggested that I bring him to the hostel in my car rather than in the Soviet Embassy car. I met the Soviet ambassador in a hotel and took him in my small Fiat Millicento to the hostel. As we stepped into the apartment, Sathe said that he heard the news on the BBC. Vorontsov pretended not to hear it and proceeded to deliver his message from the Soviet leadership. He said that a limited contingent of Soviet troops had entered Afghanistan at the invitation of the government of Afghanistan and that the troops had no intention to stay beyond the minimum period necessary. He sought the understanding of the government of India on the situation and also asked for an opportunity to meet Prime Minister Charan Singh to convey a similar message. Having said his piece, he asked Sathe what he had heard on the BBC. Obviously, he did not want to hear that the person who invited the Soviet troops into Afghanistan had already been killed! Sathe took note of the demarche that stated our position of principle against stationing of foreign troops in any country, and promised to convey the message to his authorities at daybreak.

Sathe was in a dilemma, as, though Charan Singh was still prime minister, Indira Gandhi had already won a majority and she was about to be sworn in within the next few days. He went to Charan Singh in the morning to report on his conversation with the Soviet Ambassador, and Charan Singh decided to call in the ambassador immediately to convey India’s concern. Charan Singh was reasonably tough in his approach, and sensing this fact Vorontsov revealed to him that he had already seen Indira Gandhi that morning and that she showed considerable understanding of the situation. Charan Singh knew that the carpet had been pulled from right under his feet.

The next few days were very difficult for Sathe. The Afghanistan issue had already come before the UN General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace resolution as the Soviet veto had paralysed the Security Council. Sathe had a draft speech from our Permanent Representative in New York, Brajesh Mishra, which contained some criticism of the Soviet action as violative of the territorial integrity of Afghanistan. Sathe sent it to Indira Gandhi for clearance. T. N. Kaul, the former foreign secretary, had already assumed an advisory role in foreign affairs for the incoming government and he drastically changed the speech with the approval of Gandhi and sent it back to Sathe. Sathe was surprised, as the new speech virtually endorsed the Soviet action. The speech would give the impression that we would vote against the anti-Soviet resolution rather than abstain from it. Sathe pointed this out to Kaul, but the changes he made further did not alter the situation much. Outside the Soviet camp, India gave the strongest possible support to the Soviet Union, and there was considerable disappointment in the West that India took that position. Though we abstained from the resolution, our position became a sore point in India-US relations for a long time.


As the special assistant to the foreign secretary, I had the privilege of choosing where to go from New Delhi. The choice was basically between Tokyo and New York. In Tokyo, I could put my Japanese to good use but the advice I got from everyone was that postings to the United States were the most difficult to get and that I should not miss the opportunity to go to New York. I was also inquisitive about multilateral diplomacy in which I had no previous experience. I did not realise then that I would be assigned multifaced work to such an extent, for which I would spend the next 20 years dealing with the UN specialised agencies.

Living in Manhattan was an experience in itself. New York and the United Nations embellish each other. We were dazzled by both and enjoyed both. My work at the United Nations is covered elsewhere. As for New York, we explored its charms by taking in the sounds and sights and tastes. We lived in one of the richest parts of New York, the Upper East Side and that too on Madison Avenue and 89th street. Jackie Kennedy lived nearby, and the famed Guggenheim Museum was literally at our front door. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was not far either. Our building had many multi-millionaires. My little Volkswagen Golf was parked along with Rolls Royces and Jaguars, but New Yorkers never bothered as to how rich or how poor their neighbours were. They were too busy living their life to bother about others. With two boys of age 10 and 2 years, respectively, we had our own preoccupations. The joy of New York was precisely the facility to live our own lives with no interference from others.

Sreenath went to PS 6, one of the best public schools in Manhattan, and Sreekanth began his nursery school next door. Towards the end of our stay, Sreenath moved to a Catholic school and it was only there that he had to face colour prejudices from his classmates. His early exposure to life in Manhattan equipped him for his later career at Columbia. Sreekanth, my second son, began his education in a nursery school in Manhattan and much later on went to the Bronx High School and Maryland University.

The glitter of Manhattan captivated us. Our exploration of the most diverse city in the world was frequently interrupted by my visits abroad and our preoccupation with the children. The deputy permanent representative at the time, S. V. Purushottam, who died suddenly of a heart attack towards the end of our stay in New York, had made it a point to organise day picnics outside Manhattan, which delighted the children. Purushottam was highly regarded both in India and the international circles, and his sudden demise was a great shock to all of us.

New York afforded many opportunities to interact with senior colleagues from the ministry who frequented the city for the United Nations and other meetings. Cuba, as the chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), used to invite people from different walks of life to Havana, and for the visitors to Havana, New York was an attractive transit point. I remember travelling from New York to Latin America with M. K. Rasgotra, Shankar Bajpai and S. K. Singh, who were senior officers back in the ministry. Bajpai had the reputation of being not only a connoisseur of food, but also a cook. Wherever he went, he located the best local restaurant and dined there in the evening. This was indeed a treat. It was during one of my travels with him that I landed in Curacao, a Dutch colony near Venezuela. It appeared as though we suddenly found ourselves in the heart of Europe. And sure enough, we located a wealthy local Indian there, who had been appointed many years earlier as India’s honorary consul in Curacao.

Outside the professional circles, our social circle consisted essentially of some US residents from Kerala, most of whom remained friends of ours for long. Lilykutty and Mathew Illickal, Vijayan and Radhika, Somasundaran and Usha, Pitchumony and Prema, and Rita and Thomas were among them. The Illickals were the doyens of this group. Mathew Illickal had a great reputation as a thoracic surgeon, while Lilykutty became a community leader. Vijayan, one of the first immigrants from Kerala, had many firsts to his credit. He was the first to start a Malayalam newspaper, a Malayalam radio programme and screening of Malayalam movies. He was the first to bring stars from Kerala to entertain the community. He graduated to produce films in our time and actually shot a feature film called ‘America, America’, part of it in our apartment, with our doorman as one of the local actors. It was a hotch-potch crime thriller, which revolved around a report that an Indian ship was lost in the high seas without leaving a trace. Mammootty, who later became a mega star on the Malayalam screen, had only a small role in the movie. I. V Sasi directed the film with his wife Seema, the sex symbol of the day, as the leading star. The movie was a success as it depicted scenes from the United States, including Disney World and other attractions. Vijayan moved on to other film ventures and television serials, even while being an executive in a telephone company. Radhika became a skillful pediatrician and lent support to Vijayan’s ventures.

Somasundaran, a professor of metallurgy at the Columbia University, won so many awards for his scientific accomplishments that I told him we would congratulate him next only if he won the Nobel Prize. Pitchumony reached dizzy heights in gastroenterology in the United States and became a world authority on the subject. Thomas left the field of medicine to become a leading dealer of furniture in the New York area. Each one of them is a living example of the flourishing of talent in the right environment. Basic education in India and the right opportunities in the United States combine to create many success stories.

After riding high on multilateral work, culminating in the historic Non-Aligned Summit in New Delhi, a posting to Rangoon as the deputy chief of mission came as a rude shock. Foreign Secretary Rasgotra had repeatedly spoken highly of my good work in New York and, therefore, I had expected a challenging assignment. But he felt that I should go to Rangoon to strengthen that mission which had a politician as the ambassador. I had an offer from Brajesh Mishra to join him as his special assistant when he became the UN Commissioner for Namibia, but Rasgotra absolutely insisted that it should be Rangoon next, and Rangoon it was.


Burma (now Myanmar), which was self-sufficient at one time in food and fuel, became one of the poorest countries during the lifetime of a single dictator U Ne Win. One of the early democracies in our neighbourhood, with which India had fraternal relations, became the laboratory of a pseudo-socialist megalomaniac who isolated Burma into poverty and backwardness. Ne Win’s writ did not run in much of the country, which was under various insurgent groups. The most flourishing market in Southeast Asia in the early part of the twentieth century became a haven of smugglers and drug peddlers. The famed city of the golden pagodas and green parks became an urban slum, polluted by vintage buses that emitted fumes. Ne Win’s whims and fancies eliminated English from schools and colleges, changed driving from the left to the right, and created a military bureaucracy with a vested interest in his style of socialism. In the Havana Non-Aligned Summit, Burma severed the last link with the new world by walking out of the NAM, which it had helped to found. Ne Win developed a thesis that Burma would have links only with ‘third countries’, those which are neither its neighbours nor superpowers. According to this policy, he could deal with Germany, Japan, and Korea, but not with India, the United States or the USSR.

It was in this strange land that we landed after a delightful journey that took us from New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bangkok. Leela Ponnappa in San Francisco, my own brother Seetharam in Hong Kong, and Sankaran Iyer in Tokyo were our kind hosts en route. The central bungalow in the Budd Road complex, the traditional home of the deputy chief of mission, was a far cry from our Madison Avenue apartment. But we had our own coconut and fruit trees including a durian, the fruits of which ‘tasted like heaven, but smelled like hell’. The other colleagues lived around us and we had a little India in the heart of Rangoon. The sprawling mansion of the ambassador, just opposite the foreign office, had a dozen rooms, a huge compound and a tennis court. The manager of the State Bank of India occupied it in the golden days of India-Burma relations.

The reputation of the Ambassador G. G. Swell, a tribal politician from Meghalaya, had reached me long before I was posted to Rangoon. Indira Gandhi had sent him to Norway to get him out of parliament, where he was known as a trouble maker. He had served earlier as the deputy speaker of the Lok Sabha. But he took his job as the ambassador to Norway so seriously that Gandhi developed some regard for him. He reported extensively on Norway, which nobody cared to read, but the sheer volume of the reporting impressed everyone. I was one of the few officers at the ministry who read them because they were addressed to the foreign secretary, when they were not addressed to the prime minister, and I had to put up draft replies to the foreign secretary. Much of what he wrote was from Western publications, but the very fact that a political appointee was so prolific was in itself a distinction. After Norway, Swell aspired to go to the United Kingdom or Canada, but he was given Rangoon, primarily because of his northeast background. He was not the first Indian ambassador from the northeast and this was a matter of adverse comment by the Burmese occasionally. Those from neighbouring states brought their prejudices about Burma to their post, some of them observed. In fact, when I arrived, the only two diplomatic officers in the embassy, Swell and Tsewang Topden (an officer from Sikkim), looked more like Burmese than like Indians. Topden introduced himself as an Indian diplomat to a diplomat from the Philippines, who thought it was a joke and replied that he himself was from Germany.

My predecessor Sudhir Devare, a bright and upright officer, had a hard time with Swell and left without waiting for my arrival. In fact, Swell wrote to the ministry that he did not need a deputy, as he was capable enough to manage just with his private secretary and Topden. When I told the Foreign Secretary Rasgotra that we should respect his wishes in this regard, he told me that it was not for the ambassador to decide who should assist him and insisted that I should go there. I learnt from him that Swell was running a poultry farm in the compound of the residence. He told me that Swell would be leaving in a few months and that he would make sure that I would be left in charge of the embassy after he left. The only brief he gave me was that I should persuade the ambassador to close down the poultry farm.

Swell accepted me grudgingly but gave me a warm welcome on arrival. He was quite taken aback when I told him that the foreign secretary had asked me to get his poultry farm closed. His response was that he was closing it anyway as he was leaving soon. But he told me that I would not have much work to do as he would be doing everything himself. He issued an order giving me the responsibility only for political reporting. I did not protest but began doing everything insisting that I would exercise my responsibilities as the deputy. Topden, Col. (now retired General) Prem Puri, and Counsellor (now retired Director General of Police) Vijay Jain fully cooperated as they had enough of the quixotic ways of the ambassador.

Swell would wake up at four in the morning each day and after practising karate (he was a black belt) on the tennis court, which was closed for tennis, he would come to office at six and dictate a long cable, addressed either to the prime minister or to the minister for external Affairs on what he heard on the cocktails circuit the previous day or what he read in the International Herald Tribune. He also replied to the official mail without consulting anyone. He would read out the cables, written in flowery but faulty English, to Topden and later to me, and would leave the office before lunch. I began parallel reporting to the ministry in letters, established contacts in the foreign office and elsewhere, and began to introduce reforms in the office. It did not take long for Swell to realise that I could be of some use and that I was not hostile to him as he believed the rest of the foreign service to be. In a few months, he began trusting me and entrusted all the work to me and decided that all papers for him should be routed through me. Moreover, he began praising me in his cables, which astonished those who thought that his hatred of the foreign service was universal. He sought my advice when different posts were offered to him. I urged him to accept Madrid, among all the stations offered, and he was all set to go when the elections were announced and decided to return to politics rather than go to Spain. He later contested for the post of President of India, but lost and returned to Meghalaya, where he died some years later.

I. P. Singh, a scholar diplomat whom I had known during my days in the ministry, was posted to Rangoon, but he did not come for a full 15 months after the departure of Swell. Even after he came, he told me that he saw no reason why he should interrupt the good work I was doing and spent his time writing books. Apart from ceremonies and essential diplomatic responsibilities, he left me to run the embassy till I myself left for my first ambassadorial assignment to Fiji in 1986. As for India-Burma relations, there was nothing that one could do on the political side, given Ne Win’s policy of distancing Burma from its neighbours. Trade went on across the border and through Indian traders, but a visit by the commerce secretary which I organised and a return visit by the trade minister of Burma yielded only the usual communiqués. We fully exploited the scope for cultural work, which existed because of the Burmese thirst for some diversion from their drab existence. There were only two newspapers issued by the government with identical content, with the news and views dished out by officials. The television concentrated on ideology and Burmese culture. Thousands of Burmese thronged our cultural evenings and film shows. Visiting artistes from India were a big draw.

The Rangoon Theatre Club, organised essentially by the British Embassy, provided the only stage for English theatre in Burma, and we became thespians by circumstances. What began as a play-reading experience turned into full productions under the supervision of Ambassador Nick Fenn and Sue Fenn, a delightful couple, and I was given important roles in Charlie’s Aunt and The Thwarting of Baron Bollygrew. The plays took me to the British residence every day for rehearsals, and it was all fun and frolic throughout the year. It was an international cast with a few Burmese thrown in. Only around 30 Burmese families were seen to be mixing socially with the diplomatic corps, but they were everywhere. They did not seem part of the establishment, but their freedom to mingle with the diplomats caused some suspicion that they were the eyes and ears of the regime. The plays were staged for several days in a year in the British garden, and the Burmese came in large numbers to witness the performances. The British dossier on me obviously had a reference to my acting talents as British envoys in every capital I went afterwards invited us to play readings or performances. Nick Fenn was eventually posted to India at the same time when we were back in India, but Delhi was not the venue for either of us to indulge in theatrical activities.

The most important legacy of my posting to Burma was the golf game I acquired there. I had bought a golf set in New York with the help of a Korean colleague. I remember how confused I was when I found that each club was of a different size and I was asked to take a hundred balls along. I also did not know that I would be a lifetime student of the game and never a master. I brought the set with me to Rangoon, but it took me time to get initiated into the mysteries of the game. There it lay in a corner of the house, prompting Lekha to ask each time she saw it why I was not making use of it. She regretted those exhortations as once I began to play, I got addicted to the game fairly quickly and I have spent substantial time and money on the game ever since. With postings such as Fiji, Kenya and the United States, opportunities to play golf were plentiful and I missed none of them. My first lessons were with an Indian coach who did not know much about the game except that he stood with me and made me hit the ball towards a pagoda at the distance. He instilled in me an interest in the game and taught me some basics such as the need to keep the head down while hitting a ball and the importance of a straight left hand and a loose right. Even today, when I hit a long iron, his words ring in my ears: ‘Strong grip for long irons!’ I took some more lessons from the Rangoon Golf Club pro before actually playing on the course. The Burmese pro asked me to forget all that I had learnt so far, but my earlier training came in handy on the course. Rangoon had three golf courses, but one was reserved exclusively for the armed forces and Ne Win himself played there. The heads of mission were invited once a year to play there with the Burmese bureaucracy, and I had two occasions to play there in my capacity as the acting chief of the embassy. The Burmese officials welcomed opportunities to play with the diplomats and the best way to meet them was to invite them for a game. They opened up easily on the course as they did not have to report the conversation to their superiors. They burst into laughter over golf jokes, even simple ones like ‘my wife is my handicap!’ One can play golf in many places, but in Rangoon it was necessary for professional survival. In a closed society with little opportunity for diplomatic activities, golf provided a welcome and absorbing activity.

A small Indian community left behind after the exodus of the Indians in Burma was a miserable group, which led a hand-to-mouth existence. Legend has it that Ne Win had requested Nehru to let the rice farmers stay back to help the farming sector, but today they are some of the most impoverished people in Burma. Their villages are two of the poorest habitations in Burma. They still grow plenty of paddy, but it is taken away at nominal prices by the government and they are left with only the broken rice to eat. They still consider India their home and dream of the day they will be able to return. Our visits to these villages were nostalgic events for them. They would save up good quality rice for us and organise a feast with it. But they never complained about their fate or sought anything from Mother India. They just wanted to spend time with the representatives of their homeland, pretending that they were happy and prosperous. It was like the people of Kerala celebrating the Onam festival to convince their legendary king Mahabali on his annual visits that they are as happy today as they were in his time.

The Burma posting was frustrating as we made no headway with the host government on any of the issues that interested us. The insurgent activities on the borders affected both India and Burma, but joint operations against insurgency were not acceptable to Burma. Nor was Burma interested in developing border trade. The isolationist policies of Burma were not conducive to the development of relations. The only time that Ne Win showed any warmth towards India was at the time of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. The sudden departure of Ne Win from Rangoon on hearing of the news of the death of Gandhi led to speculation that he had left for India. The embassy had no information that he had left for India, but All India Radio reported the arrival of Ne Win in Delhi, obviously a case of mistaken identity. It turned out later that Ne Win had left to an undisclosed destination in Burma to meditate as he was grief-stricken by the news. Later, he made a condolence visit to Delhi and had a warm meeting with Rajiv Gandhi. Ne Win characterised himself as an uncle to Rajiv Gandhi, but there was no sign of such sentiments spilling over to bilateral relations. When we bid for any commercial deals, we found that we were outbid by Japan and SouthKorea. We purchased some quantities of rice during my time in the expectation of generating some goodwill, but even this had no impact on our relationship. The only accomplishment for which I could claim credit was the fostering of people-to-people contacts through cultural diplomacy. It should be said to the credit of the Burmese authorities that they did not place any impediments to cultural and sporting activities.

My tenure in Rangoon ended abruptly when I was asked to return at short notice to Delhi to be the coordinator of a ministerial conference of the NAM. I was posted as high commissioner to Fiji and was preparing to leave in the middle of 1986, but the summons to Delhi came out of the blue in January 1986 and that too to leave Rangoon within a couple of days. I managed to go, but on the understanding that I would be allowed to return to Rangoon after a few months to wind up and leave. Lekha and the children stayed back in Rangoon, while I plunged into the task of organising a major meeting in Delhi.


The tradition in the NAM is that the outgoing chairman hosts a ministerial meeting at the end of the three-year tenure to prepare for the next summit. Since India had successfully organised two major international conferences, the Non-Aligned Summit and the Commonwealth summit, a ministerial meeting was considered easy to organise. In fact, I found that the drill for a major conference was already established in Delhi, and difficulties arose only when any change was sought. Many agencies in Delhi had developed vested interests in the expenditure on the conferences and, consequently, they resisted any effort to economise. The scales laid down for accommodation, transport, entertainment, gifts and security were far in excess of provisions made for such conferences in many countries including developed countries. But the moment I tried to scale down these, I was advised that it was not worth taking the risk of incurring the wrath of one agency or another. Each of them had the capacity to destroy the impeccable image of India as a conference destination.

The chief co-coordinator Peter Sinai, my old boss in Moscow, and the Foreign Secretary A. P. Venkateswaran were extremely supportive. Sinai remarked at the end of the conference that one of my achievements was that I had eliminated the need for him as chief coordinator. The conference ran smoothly in terms of logistics as well as substance. I had the support of an experienced officer Praveen Goel and a keen and energetic youngster Aloke Sen on the logistics side, and Rajendra Rathore on the conference side. Dilip Lahiri, as the head of the UN division, bore the brunt of the substantive responsibilities of the conference. The conference services, as usual, were provided by the redoubtable Mary Penny from Geneva, a veteran of many non-aligned conferences, who had her own style of dealing with the Indian bureaucracy. We did hire some interpreters locally, but Mary Penny resented it and did not give them responsibilities to commensurate with their qualifications. I continued the practice of hiring foreign service wives to assist in protocol and conference work, and their presence added some colour and glamour to the conference.

Our strict regulations on yellow fever inoculations for delegates from infested areas created a number of problems. Several delegates were held up in other airports and some returned from Delhi when they heard that they would be quarantined. One particular Francophone African delegation, headed by a deputy minister, arrived without the inoculation, but refused to return even when threatened with quarantine. I went to the airport to apologise to him personally, but he insisted that he had to attend the conference even if he and his colleagues were quarantined for a few days. Our health authorities painted a rather rosy picture of the quarantine facilities and promised them even French magazines to read. I was quite sceptical, but as the deputy minister was adamant, arrangements were made for their quarantine. We calculated that they would be able to attend the meeting on the last day. So off they went in their pen-striped suits in a guarded police van, and I hoped that I would not have to see them again.

On the last day of the conference, I was on the dias, assisting the chairman, when I saw the quarantined delegation walking in and I knew there would be trouble. I could not disappear as I was required on the dias, but I tried to hide myself behind an agenda document. The delegation asked for the floor as soon as they sat down. I distracted the chairman’s attention elsewhere, but I could not do so for long and the delegation was given the floor. The deputy minister spoke in elegant French and in measured tones, but his anger and frustration at being treated like an ordinary criminal became quite evident. He described the room and the food in graphic terms and he said that in his country even thugs and murderers were treated better. I was hoping that he would not recognise me, but soon enough he said that the gentleman sitting on the left of the chairman had promised him French newspapers, but there was not even toilet paper in his cell. I requested the chairman to apologise to him for the inconvenience and to advise him to come to India next time with the necessary inoculation certificates. In a second intervention, the deputy minister said that he would not come again with or without the certificate as he had already enjoyed Indian hospitality to last a lifetime.

I left for Fiji as soon as the conference was over. My life and work in Fiji are covered in the section on the Indian diaspora. My subsequent assignments as the head of the UN division in the Ministry of External Affairs and as ambassador and deputy permanent representative to the United Nations in New York have been dealt with in the section on the United Nations.


As ambassador to Fiji, I had a huge parish, consisting mostly of water, with seven countries in it—Papua New Guinea (PNG), Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu. New Caledonia, a French territory then, was also under my charge. Accreditation visits had to be necessarily few and far between because of the long distances and infrequent flight connections. But I managed to make several trips to those countries to promote traditionally good relations between them and India.

PNG merited special attention because of its population and natural wealth. We also had a good number of Indian nationals working there. Australia dominated the scene, but the country had ambitions to diversify its external relations to include India and China. The country had tremendous diversity, ranging from fairly developed regions near the seashore to totally primitive areas with pitiful living conditions in the highlands. Crime was very common because of this disparity. The political situation was also unstable with frequent changes of government. Every time I visited the capital, Port Moresby, there was a new prime minister. The governor general, who remained the same throughout my assignment, was quite friendly. He was insistent that he would not break protocol, but he was quite willing to bend it to come to my suite in the hotel for informal dinners. One incident we remember about Port Moresby is that the hotel sprinklers got activated in the middle of the night, flooding the whole room. We had to run down the stairs carrying a little boy, son of a friend who had decided to spend the night with us, and a sitar, we had brought in to entertain the governor general. The visit of an Indian naval ship to Port Moresby gave us a good opportunity to entertain the PNG elite. We opened a separate mission in PNG not long after I left.

Vanuatu was known as the maverick of the South Pacific because the prime minister of the islands, Walter Lini, developed close relations with the Soviet Union, thus challenging the traditional pro-Western position of the South Pacific states. He had also given the Soviets fishing rights in Vanuatu’s waters in return for a substantial sum. I met President Sokomanu of Vanuatu at the hotel I stayed the night before the presentation of my credentials. When he learnt that I played golf, he decided to advance the credentials ceremony to early morning so that he could play a round of golf with me after the ceremony. Protocol would not have allowed him to play with an unaccredited high commissioner.

Sokomanu came to India on a state visit during my time. Lekha and I accompanied the presidential couple to Delhi and Kerala. We gave them enough opportunities to play golf, including at the Trivandrum golf club. We heard much after we left that Sokomanu became active in politics, contested elections and even went to prison for treason.

Solomon Islands was the poorest of the states in the South Pacific, but it had many festivals and ceremonies to which we got invited occasionally. It was there that they gifted me a pig, which was killed in front of us. I was worried as to what I would do with it, but was relieved to learn that it would be cooked and served to the guests as my contribution to the festivities. Solomon Islands had a territorial dispute with Papua New Guinea, which flared up occasionally to create some excitement.

Nauru is unique as it is just a single island right in the middle of the South Pacific. It is supposed to have been formed with the droppings of migratory birds, making the soil rich in phosphate. The people of Nauru simply had to scoop up the phosphate and export it to become rich. After years of mining, the island had become a wasteland, though there was some phosphate left for a few more years. The fun-loving Nauruans engaged the Philippinos to mine the phosphate and the Indians to run the administration of the island, giving themselves time to enjoy their wealth. Nearly a hundred Indian civil servants, some of them senior or retired IAS officers, served in key positions in Nauru. They were instrumental in developing good relations between India and Nauru. Among Nauru’s investments abroad was a major share in the Paradeep Phosphates.

The foreign secretary of Nauru during my time was Professor V. S. Mony, an expert on international law from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Though there were no bilateral issues to deal with, I visited Nauru several times basically to keep up the morale of the Indian community in splendid isolation there. Nauru had its own airline, with convenient flights from Suva.

Tonga was fascinating as the only surviving monarchy in the South Pacific. King Taufahau Tupou IV dominated the scene both physically (he was named ‘the heaviest monarch’ in the world) and politically. He had great interest in world affairs and had visited many countries, including India. He had interesting things to ask me about India every time I met him as he followed developments over the BBC and VOA. The celebrations of his seventieth birthday kept the country and the accredited diplomats feasting for five days. He was a popular monarch. It was only after his passing away that the people of Tonga began to challenge the monarchy and to aspire for democracy.

Kiribati (pronounced kiri-baaz) and Tuvalu were the smallest countries in my parish, and visiting them meant long hours of flying in a small aircraft. Each time I went there, I had to stay at least for three days of because of infrequent flight connections to the rest of the world. The airports were nothing more than grazing grounds, but the entire population of the islands, including the highest officials, came to the airport each time a flight touched down. President Tabai of Kiribati was a major figure in the South Pacific Forum because of his personal attributes and charisma. He received my credentials in shorts and bush shirt, and explained to me that he was wearing leather shoes to match the formal clothes that I was wearing.

I was a true travelling salesman for India in these islands, armed with nothing more than the national flag and the national anthem. We had a small technical cooperation programme to offer, but their needs were met by the regional powers, Australia and New Zealand. Tourism from these countries sustains the economy. The United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and South Korea also assist these islands in many ways. Taiwan’s ‘silver bullet diplomacy’ has made inroads into some of these countries, but China is in the process of resisting it. I sensed considerable goodwill for India in these islands, particularly because of our Commonwealth connections and democratic traditions. The small investments we are making in these islands pay us rich dividends in the international community as most of them are now members of the United Nations.


Kris Srinivasan had become the foreign secretary by the time I completed my second stint in New York. Unlike his predecessor Mani Dixit, Srinivasan did not play favourites. He had suggested my name for the post of high commissioner to Mauritius to succeed Shyam Saran. I was consulted by the prime minister’s office and I gladly accepted it. But I learnt from Shyam Saran that he wanted to stay on for another year, and then Nairobi was suggested to me. I was happy about Nairobi, as it was also the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Habitat. With my experience of environment negotiations, I thought that Nairobi would give me another chance to work on multilateral issues. I did not realise that Lekha and I would face a big physical challenge there. The attack we faced was such that we had to be virtually reborn to survive it.

I arrived in Nairobi in July 1995 straight from New York after a stopover in Johannesburg to be with my brother Seetharam and his wife Deepa. I plunged straight into bilateral and multilateral work, and I liked the Nairobi weather more than anything else. When Lekha arrived in September, I had moved to the India House, a rather ancient building in a sprawling compound. I was aware of the law and order problems in Nairobi, but the impressive wall around the compound, the electric wire on top of it and the Indian police guards gave us an illusion of security. My predecessor Kiran Doshi too assured me that nothing would happen inside the compound though there were dangers in driving around in Nairobi. We heard many horror stories, but every one assured us that there would be no security risk at all at the India House. We were warned that giving full access to workers to the whole house would be risky, but we could not but order major renovation as the house was in a bad shape.

I was all set to go to Accra to participate in a meeting of the heads of mission, called by Prime Minister P V. Narasimha Rao. Shyam Saran and Cherry George, our envoys in Mauritius and Botswana, respectively, were to arrive in Nairobi in the next two days to go with me to Accra. But on the night of 4 November 1995, on the same night that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, we were the victims of a vicious attack in our own bedroom by three Africans, who gained access to the compound through a tunnel under the wall. Some Kenyan women entertained our own guards at the time of the attack. An hour past midnight, I woke up with someone flashing a torch at my face and as soon as we got up, we heard shots being fired into the air. I switched on the light and also pressed the ‘panic button’ on the wall behind the bed. For the next 10 minutes or so, the intruders kept beating me on the head with batons. Lekha also was hit. But neither of us fell down. Finally, one of them hit me on the right leg, broke it and began running. We kept pleading with them to take anything and spare us. My son Sreekanth came into the room and picked up his mother and saw the men running away. Lekha telephoned the guards, my deputy Gurjit Singh, and Dr Heda, an orthopedist, whom we had met earlier. Within minutes the police came in response to the alarm and others in the compound arrived to take us to the hospital. A team of doctors had come to the hospital to take care of us; both of us were in the operation theatre within minutes of the attack.

Lekha had a few broken ribs and needed 20 stitches on her head. I had a broken left arm, a fractured right leg and had to receive more than 100 stitches on my head. But we were declared out of danger and we were stitched up and bandaged by the time the day broke and the news brought hundreds of anxious people, particularly Indians, to the hospital. My brother Seetharam came to Nairobi from Cape Town to take care of me. Sreenath flew in from New York. With him was an old friend Atul Panchal, who came for 24 hours to make sure that I was fine. The arrival of a doctor from New York made some news till it came to be known that he was an obstetrician. I took a conscious decision to project the attack as attempted burglary to prevent any racial conflict. Gurjit Singh was also instructed to brief the press accordingly. But in actual fact, it was a political move by the opposition to discredit the government of Daniel Arap Moi and to scare the Indians into believing that Moi alone would not be able to provide security to them. Some opposition leaders had sent me a message that the Indian businessmen should provide fund to the opposition also. My own contention that I would not interfere in internal politics in Kenya and the lack of response from the Indians must have infuriated some people.

Apart from this obvious theory, which was backed by the president, several others were floated. The opposition claimed that the attack was masterminded by the president to blame the opposition. One of the theories was that the consular section of the high commission had got someone arrested for paying consular fees with counterfeit currency, and he had threatened vengeance. I was unaware of this incident till the Saudi ambassador told me about it when he came to see me in the hospital. Lekha’s sister Geetha and her husband Gopalakrishnan came to Nairobi to take care of us. It was Geetha, who first suspected that my leg was not healing well and insisted on getting a second opinion. I flew to New York and underwent another surgery at the hospital for special surgery in Manhattan. The surgeon removed the old metal plates, which turned out to be ineffective, and inserted a pin from my knee to the ankle inside the bone. Before the surgery, I attended a preparatory conference for Habitat II at the United Nations, and I was appointed its ‘wheel chairman’. The joke in the United Nations was that I had attempted skiing in Nairobi. All our friends, whom we had just left, came to spend time with us. My hospital room had a party every evening as I was not in pain and there was no risk to my life. The surgery was so efficient that I was able to discard the wheel chair, which I had used for nearly three months in Nairobi, and began moving around with the support of a walking stick. To receive me on my return to Nairobi was my mother-in-law, who stayed for a while to take care of us.

The government of India was rather impersonal about the whole episode. Foreign Secretary Salman Haider conveyed the concern of the prime minister to me, but the Prime Minister Narasimha Rao himself, who knew me well, did not care to speak to me directly though he was informed that I could not join him in Accra because of the attack. Secretary K. Raghunath called me a few times to enquire about my health. Minister Pranab Mukherji met President Moi in New Zealand soon after the attack, but did not express any concern about the incident. In fact, he minimised the gravity of the incident by saying that I was fine. The Minister of State for External Affairs Salman Khurshid, however, stopped in Nairobi to see me and to wish me well. A security officer, who came to look into the security requirements of the mission at my request, was keener to find alibis for the failure of the security guards than to prevent further mishaps. No harm was done to the guards except that they were returned to their parent departments. But my suggestions for strengthening the security of the mission were approved, like locking the barn after the horse had bolted. By the time I left, the Indian high commission became the most secure place in the whole of Nairobi. I took the whole episode in my stride, and did not even ask for a transfer out of Nairobi. I said that only three out of the 30 million Kenyans had attacked me and I would not run away. Since I had pledged to do everything necessary to promote India-Kenya relations, I should not mind spilling some blood for it, I said.

In a way, the attack on us endeared us to the Kenyan leaders, including President Moi. They appreciated the fact that I did not complain in any way or run away. When I was going to attend a Habitat conference in Istanbul, where some countries were about to move that Habitat should be shifted out of Nairobi for security reasons, the Kenyan foreign minister told me that I should be the best person to defend Kenya. I joked with him that I should tell them that it did not pain me at all when I was attacked! The president, who never attended diplomatic functions, made an exception in my case and inaugurated the ‘Made in India Show’, which was staged in Nairobi by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). Many Indians, who came to the hospital instinctively, became our friends later. The sympathy turned into goodwill and friendship in many cases.

The cult of violence in Nairobi was so widespread that a couple of murders a week did not make any news. An average of 50 Asians got killed every year, but still there was no Asian exodus from the country. Even the government could deal with the opposition with violence and attribute it to normal life in Nairobi. When a leader of the opposition was badly beaten, I expressed some concern to one of Kenya’s political leaders and his response was, ‘We will kill him one of these days!’ Elimination of political rivals was nothing unusual in Kenyan democracy.

A visit by Sonia Gandhi in 1997, a few months before she entered active politics, was a memorable event in Nairobi. She came to attend the board meeting of an association of public schools, including the Doon School. Apart from her, the board had on it Nelson Mandela, King Constantine of Greece and the Duke of York, but the others, except King Constantine, were represented by their nominees. Sonia Gandhi took her conference very seriously and spent time at the meetings. She attended a large reception in my house and also went to a ladies’ meeting organised by Lekha. She declined to answer political questions, including those about the possibility of her joining politics. But she addressed the ladies and briefed them about the activities of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation. One amusing incident was when someone asked her whether she would consider heading an international school. She just smiled, but my friend Kishen Gehlot remarked that she was refusing to accept even the post of the prime minister. Why should she accept any other post?


Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral ordered my posting to Washington as the deputy chief of mission in the Indian Embassy when the post became available unexpectedly. When we left Nairobi at the end of 1997, we had a fund of goodwill, a large number of friends, both Africans and Indians, and an improved relationship with Kenya.

My life and work in Washington are covered in Chapter three, ‘Nuclear Winter, Kargil Spring’. It was when I was in Washington that my father passed away in Pune, where my brother Madhusudanan was a colonel in the Army Medical Corps. I went to see him in the hospital and spent a few days with him. I knew when I left him in a coma that I would not see him again. A few days after I returned to Washington, I received word that he was no more. I spent a few minutes praying for him and resumed my work as he would have wished me to do. He must have been pleased to see his sons rise in their respective careers without giving him any reason for concern. My mother took her husband’s death bravely and continued to inspire us and pray for us constantly.

In 2000, we moved to Vienna, my final posting before retirement. Chapter five, ‘Quest for Balance’, deals with my experience with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Austria. One of the joys of my posting to Vienna was that my mother came to stay with us there.

My elder brother’s daughter Sangeetha died at the age of 25 when I was in India for a short visit from Vienna. She was diagnosed with lupus earlier, but we were assured that she could live a full life if she remained on medication. But unexpected complications arose and she succumbed to her illness. A mysterious factor in her story was an uncanny link between her illness and that of my brother’s father-in-law Nirmalan Thampi. Thampi, who made all arrangements for Sangeetha’s engagement, suffered a stroke on the day she got engaged. Sangeetha’s illness came to light within weeks of her wedding and both of them deteriorated simultaneously. They died within hours of each other, leaving us wondering whether it was a mere coincidence or whether there was something about their lives, which is beyond comprehension.

My accreditation visits to Slovenia were productive and pleasant. As part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia had developed interest in India, and the contacts remained even after Slovenia became independent. I found that I already had two friends in high places in Slovenia when I arrived in Ljubljana in early 2001. The Yugoslav Permanent Representative Ignac Glob, who hosted a farewell lunch for me at the United Nations, when I left New York for Yangon, was a permanent secretary for foreign affairs. We walked the memory lane together every time we met in Ljubljana and also caught up with our changed worldviews. Having been a champion of the NAM for many years, Golob had become a devout European Unionist. We were both greatly looking forward to visit India, together with his president, but the visit was postponed at the last minute because of the illness of President K. R. Narayanan.

Golob was of great help to me in handling the postponement of the visit. Everything was set for the visit and I had gone to Ljubljana for a final briefing. Iwas just about to leave the hotel for my audience with President Kucan when a message came that the visit should be postponed. I was in a dilemma as to whether I should go to break the news to the president. Fortunately, I got Golob on the phone to share my predicament. He was his usual confident self and asked me to relax while he contacted the president. In a few minutes, he called me to say that the president would still receive me to wish the president of India a speedy recovery. The disappointment of the president was obvious, but I was glad that I did not have to break the news to the president. We had a good conversation, but the visit could not be organised before President Kucan left office.

Golob helped me out on another occasion when I had to secure the support of Slovenia on a vote on self-determination in the United Nations. The vote was called for by India because Pakistan injected the Kashmir issue into a consensus resolution in the Third Committee. Slovenia, a great champion of self-determination, would normally have voted for the resolution, regardless of the India-Pakistan angle. But at my insistence, Golob intervened and pressed for an abstention. Finally, the Slovene representative was asked to stay out of the room when the vote took place, and thus he did not participate in the vote, which was the best that could be done in the circumstances. Golob was considered a potential candidate for the presidency, but he died unexpectedly a few months before I went to Slovenia for my farewell visit.

Another Slovene friend Danilo Turk was the permanent representative of Slovenia to the United Nations during my second stint in New York. He later became an assistant secretary general in the United Nations and was responsible for India. We had differed on some issues when we were colleagues in the United Nations, but we kept a good relationship when I was accredited to Slovenia.

With a population of three million, Slovenia made rapid strides after independence and became a member of the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The disappearing signs of a socialist economy were visible as we drove from Vienna to Ljubljana, but the standard of living was much higher than that of neighbouring Croatia. Unlike Croatia, Slovenia had a peaceful transition to independence and a good leadership. Koper, a very good port, and several industrial units, inherited from Yugoslavia were put to good use and Italian tourists contributed to the growth of the economy. Slovenia opened a mission in New Delhi as a part of the diversification of its foreign policy, and India appointed an honorary consul in Ljubljana in recognition of the growing trade relationship between the two countries. During my time, we managed to negotiate all the basic agreements and treaties to promote trade and economic relations. Slovenia has also an interest in mystic India, which we encouraged with cultural events and personal contacts.

The Alps Mountains, which extend into Slovenia from Austria, give Slovenia its mountainous landscape and its magnificent lakes. The Bled lake on the outskirts of Ljubljana is glorious in summer and winter. Marshall Tito’s villa is now a hotel, where we stayed on occasions. A walk around the lake, which took more than an hour, was always an exhilarating experience.

India and Slovenia collaborated in the International Centre for the Promotion of Enterprises (ICPE), a relic of the active involvement of Yugoslavia in the NAM. India continued to bear much of the costs of the ICPE even after the break up of Yugoslavia though most of the other non-aligned countries lost interest. In recognition of this involvement, India was asked to provide a director for many years, but by mutual agreement, a senior Slovene diplomat was appointed director during my time. An Indian deputy director was also appointed. We chose to remain engaged in the centre, as it would have some value in the changed context of Slovenia as a member of the European Union.


Pandit Nehru said in the parliament once that in the IFS, the government gets two people to work for one salary. The spouses play an important role in diplomacy, not just as hostesses and ‘glorified cooks’ as some of them characterise themselves, but as visible symbols of their nation. Many wives have sacrificed their professional careers to cope with their diplomatic responsibilities. In the old days, lady officers had to leave the service if they got married, but now foreign service couples are posted together to the extent possible. The spouses have to remain intellectually alive and knowledgeable in order to be able to have intelligent conversations and to correct impressions about their culture. This was part of the reason for the government to discourage foreign service officers from marrying foreigners. The recent liberalisation of this policy has only enriched the corps of foreign service wives. Diplomatic life plays havoc with the family life and education of children, but many wives like mine have seen life abroad as an opportunity to develop their talents, acquire new skills and give their children the best possible education. Considering the stresses and strains of their lives, it is truly creditable that there are many success stories of spouses as professionals, musicians, dances, painters and writers.

I had seen Lekha dancing in the college and friends commented that she danced her way into my heart. I encouraged her to continue her dancing, which blossomed as she learnt newer forms of Indian classical dances and even foreign dance forms and began performing abroad. Her dancing career extended from Tokyo to Vienna, and she was invited to perform even outside my jurisdiction. A dancing ambassadorial wife is rare in any diplomatic service. On many occasions, we were both asked to perform; she would give a dance recital after I delivered my address. She won much acclaim as a Bharatanatyam dancer and was in great demand at every place of my posting.

Encounters with various cultures and venues inspired Lekha to learn oil painting also. She mixed various styles in her creations and held exhibitions in different capitals alone and together with other artists. The transition from art to charity was a natural evolution for Lekha. She hit upon the idea that she could raise resources from her paintings and dance performances for charity work back home in India, and she established ‘Karuna Charities’ for the purpose. ‘Karuna’ grew into a multi-national, multipurpose charity organisation and helped the needy in different parts of India and also in countries like Kenya. Her work helped establish various groups around her, some of whom proved more durable and intimate than the official and personal circles I had cultivated. Some of our best friends around the globe, Mathew and Lily Illickal, Jayant and Amrit Kalotra, Charlie and Mary Kannankeril, Kishen and Rita Gehlot, and Dinu and Sheelu Bhattessa, were Karuna activists.

Our farewell to Vienna and the foreign service and my sixtieth birthday were celebrated together on 17 June 2004 at a reception in the rose garden of our Vienna home. Mohamed ElBaradei, who celebrated his own birthday on the same day, and our other friends from all walks of life came to the event. From India, we had Lekha’s brother Mohan and his wife Latha. We were deeply touched by the warmth of the affection we received from each of them. We left Vienna on 1 July 2004 with a sense of gratitude and elation.