Vijay Nambiar IFS
Three snatches of memories stretching across fifty years, encompassing a lifetime in the service of the Government of India:
Circa July 1967. On the lawns of Hotel Charleville at the Academy, the latest batch of probationers foregather in their black “bandgallahs” and colourful sarees, for their first formal banquet under the watchful gaze of a stern Director Pimputkar, his scholarly Joint Director Chaturvedi, genial DDS Khosla and dashing DDJ Shastry, all in serene attendance!! A clutch of bright eyed and bushy tailed youngsters constituting the 1967 batch meet for the first time in formal ambience introducing themselves and reaching out to each other. Soon the ice melts and the gathering is transformed into casual and familiar banter among colleagues, that reach across provincial, linguistic, academic, service and gender divides into one comfortable web of comradeship. An ethos develops and a “batch loyalty” builds up. This is what the Foundational Course is meant to bring about. A play is performed under the quirky title – “A Dummy from the ACA” (Archeo-Cultural Association). Training manuals refer to “officer-like qualities” being engendered, our colleagues speak ironically of KTPs, (Keen Type Probationers) but between these arch distinctions and diverse inputs, beyond the horse-riding courses and the Canadian Royal Air Force PT, a strong training content develops and an esprit de corps ineluctably grows within each person. By October, and after a wondrous, exhausting 5-day trek to Kedarnath, some of us are done with the course and head back to Delhi. The short five-month foundational stint in Mussoorie is over but the experience will fill a lifetime.
Early autumn in Beijing. The year is 1970. This is the time of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in China when fiery Red Guard students from the countryside still roamed the streets of Beijing though with reduced stridency. The city is littered with anti-US and anti-USSR posters, Mao quotes and directives. Each Thursday, I spend the afternoon cycling through the outskirts of the city with a colleague from the UK mission, taking in the sights and recceing for way-out eating-places. We move along the main east-west axis on the 12-laned Chang An Avenue along with a sea of humanity on cycles but with only one automobile or two on the entire horizon. We move then towards the Moon Temple Park, along the western district and stop at a small eatery where we engage in conversation with a hard-faced, wrinkly maître-d. He gently queries whether we have “food coupons” on us to be able to serve us. We don’t. He, nevertheless, warmly invites us into his establishment, pumps up draft beer into two tall glasses from a contraption using bicycle pedals and chains, then moves swiftly into an inner room and within minutes, turns out some simple but fresh, wholesome and sizzling dishes of meats and vegetables that remain vivid even today in my memory. As he serves us, he converses with becoming ease and simplicity, satisfying his curiosity, even as small crowds of youth gather around us to gawk and giggle before they move off to their tasks.
Meanwhile, as we return to our bikes, on the street within visible distance, we find them commandeered by a local policeman who wants to teach us a lesson. He rebukes us, foreigners, for leaving the bikes unlocked, which, he claims, was done deliberately to corrupt the morals of the locals and tempt them to make off with the bicycles. He has locked the bikes and refuses to hand us the keys, intent on humiliating us before a gathering crowd. We wait patiently for a while, but as tension slowly mounts, we up the ante by accusing him of stealing the keys to our bikes. We suggest we would complain to higher officials. After a brief standoff, he relents and with grumbling admonishments, he hands us back the keys. We resume our rides to some quiet chuckles from the crowd.
Late October 1992 in Kabul. I have already spent two terrific years in Kabul as Ambassador. Incredibly enough, I am also Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and face daily pressures from the moujahideen government as I try to ensure security for all diplomats in a capital besieged with tension, insecurity and fear from the pitched factional battles inside Kabul as well as the indiscriminate bombardment of the capital from the outside by its Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar!
I have come to end of my assignment and have paid my final farewell calls on President Rabbani and the Foreign Office as well as received a lavish farewell dinner from Foreign Minister Salman Gailani. There is no shortage of hyperbole or extravagant reference to the bilateral relations between our two countries. I feel a tinge of personal sorrow at parting with friends and acquaintances that I had grown so fond of during the preceding months of my stay in the capital. One such acquaintance is a tailor I had known over the months before the fighting began in the city. This grand old man of ninety, Khalifa Mohammad Hassan, had a tailoring outlet in Shahre Nau that was devastated during the April fighting in the city, which also took the life of his only son. Closing his shop, the old man has moved to the northern suburbs. Before leaving I am keen on seeing this venerable old man but I am able to get an idea of his location only with much difficulty. On the day before my departure from Kabul, I get to his home traversing areas controlled by different factions and negotiating prior free passage with them. When I reach his home, he receives me with great warmth and plies me with tea, fresh and dried fruit. He speaks warmly of his regard for me and for India. He says he knew I was leaving because he had seen clips of my farewell meeting with President Rabbani on the limited TV transmission the previous evening. He then tells me somewhat blandly: “Your coming to see me today is more important than your meeting with the President!” Seeing that I am a little nonplussed by his statement, he pauses and explains: “As Ambassador, you had to see the President before you left. You didn’t have to see me. But, still, you came. Your meeting with me is therefore more important.” In all my years of service, I have never been so overcome with sentiment than by the honest and dignified simplicity of that statement!