Glimpses of Days Gone

Shyamala B. Cowsik, IFS


At the outset, I would like, in the standard bureaucratic fashion, to disown all responsibility for the infliction of this piece on all of you. It was all Ashok Jha’s fault. This is in case it bores you to death. If you happen to like it, I shall of course claim all the credit!


Preface: My entry into the AICS, and the IFS in particular, was the result of my trying to get away from a conventional career as a homemaker from 19 or so. In doing so, I think I conferred a huge benefit on some faceless male of the species, for I would have been a most incompetent housewife! And the civil services were the only goal my conservative family was prepared to countenance as a reason for putting off the, in their eyes, sole reason for a woman’s existence. So one thing led to another, and in April 1969, I found that I had been selected for the civil services, and had in fact ended up on top of the heap. This was a source of great surprise to me, as also some pardonable pride, for I was the first woman to have done so.


My subsequent choice of the IFS was a shock to my family, including my feisty and extremely supportive mother. They all wanted me to go for the IAS. My father was in the totally opposite camp, of the immediate shaadiwaalas. However, I managed to get away with it, and on July 2, 1969, a day late, I landed up in the Academy for the foundation course of our IFS batch of ten, where I was the sole girl.


The Academy: My time at the NAA, as it was then, is by now, I am afraid, a blur. But an extremely pleasant blur: of scrumptious food, private movie showings, cultural events, long walks on mountain roads to the Kempty Falls, and the delight of the mist rolling up from the depths of the mountainside to the tiny wooden balconies of our hostel. Yes, and the radiogram in the lounge that worked only after Santosh Kumar kicked it!


I was, quite frankly, enchanted. Of the lectures I don’t remember much, though the habit of being a good student must have carried me through. The only thing I can recollect of my academic activities in those 4 months was an essay I wrote on Marx, Thoreau and Mahatma Gandhi, hopefully a good one.


I don’t know what my batch mates thought of me, but I know what I thought, much later, about myself at the Academy. I should have been much more outgoing, and I should have made many more friends. My only excuse is that I was a raw, small town girl, pitchforked into an unfamiliar environment. I was shy, and not outgoing, which probably came across looking like snootiness. At this distance, I am really sorry for it.


When our course ended, in October 1969, I simply did not want to leave. I felt exactly like the guy in the old Pepsi ad, or Oliver Twist: yeh dil maange more Of course that did not count, and I was trundled off to Delhi and the rest of my training, aimed at making a decent diplomat of me and the rest.


The IFS: It was as well that I was a nomad at heart, for the IFS is not for those who like stability. In the over 37 years of my service, I was shifted 12 times, to 9 different countries – being sent to Geneva, twice to Washington, and to Bangkok, Belgrade, Manila, Nicosia, The Hague, Ottawa – and that was less than many of my IFS colleagues went through. Since success in diplomacy depends getting on with people, especially those in the foreign country of one’s posting who matter, one had to start from scratch every single time and try one’ s best to build a network of useful contacts.


The frequent shifts to totally different environments must have been tough on my son Siddhartha, aka Sasha, but luckily for me, he never complained, and has ended up as a balanced, self-sufficient and successful young man. He has also acquired a delightful wife without my having had to do anything about it!


Postcards of nearly four decades: To obey Ashok’s injunctions, and also make this a reasonably entertaining read, I shall put down, in no particular order, a few vignettes from my various postings. These are not about earth-shaking events, in which only a few of us get to participate, or even representative of what all I did in nearly 4 decades of conscientious and focused, if not spectacular work. They are more about the jugaads I thought up, as I went along, to cope with the demands of the profession. But first, a para about Indian women in diplomacy.


Indian Women diplomats: As to how my bosses in the IFS reacted to a woman working under them – for mine were still early days for woman IFS officers, though Ms. CB Mutthamma had joined the service in 1949 itself – my own experience was that after the first few weeks, they hardly noticed whether you were a man or a woman, provided you delivered professionally. If you were not good, however, there was a pretty good chance that the “woman” angle would be trotted out, as if there were no men who were duds!


In fact, before I was assigned the post of Joint Secretary of a key neighbouring country Division in the MEA in 1988, there was, I learnt later, a good bit of doubt at the top levels in our Ministry about whether a woman could handle such a difficult assignment. They finally decided, I presume, to take the risk, and I don’t think they had cause to regret it. Similarly, when I asked to be posted to Karachi as our Consul General, I was turned down on the grounds that it was “risky” for a woman. They again got out of sending me to Colombo as DCM, this time offering the excuse that I was a Tamil! Later, giving women officers charge of such “hard” Divisions and assigning them to tough stations became commonplace, and we got our first woman Foreign Secretary in 2001.


Now for the jugaads. MS Word lacks emoticons, which is a great pity, but it can’t be helped!


A narrow escape: This was in Bangkok, in mid-1984, immediately after Operation Blue Star. The Indian Embassy, where I was then the No.2, was situated at the end of a cul de sac on Sukhumvit Road. It was a small but beautiful building, which had won an award for architectural excellence. It had a concrete façade with an enormous peacock motif, and behind this was a huge sheet of plate glass, for the building was centrally air-conditioned against the horrendous Bangkok summers.


My Ambassador was away at lunch at the Dutch Embassy one mid-morning when, out of the blue, a crowd of over 5000 Sikh protestors overwhelmed the two policemen at the entrance of the cul de sac, filled the whole access road to the Embassy, and prepared to stone it. Any idea of calling the police was a non-starter, for they could never have got through that crowd in time to save the building.


To tell you the truth, I was more worried about the plate glass being smashed than about any of us being injured. Also, I felt that aurat hone ka kucch to fayda uthaya jai! I didn’t think they would stone a woman, so I put my pallav over my head in the proper fashion and went down to the gates to negotiate with them. I persuaded over a dozen of the buzurg in the crowd to accompany me to the conference room, while the rest waited outside, stones at the ready. The delegation heaped prolonged and virulent abuse on the GoI, and handed over to me a petition to be forwarded to New Delhi, which I dutifully promised to do. When they had exhausted their anger, they allowed me to escort them to the gate, where they assured the crowd that their grievances had been registered and got them to leave.


Heaving a huge sigh of relief, I then called the Ambassador, whom I had earlier warned not to return from his lunch as he would have been trapped and manhandled by the crowd, that he could now safely come back. The next day, the Thai Supreme Army Commander banned all such demonstrations under pain of deportation.


I honestly think I should have got at least a brass medal for having saved the GoI the expense of redoing that glass wall, which would have swallowed up half the annual budget of the embassy. But of course I got nothing!


A hijacking: This was in August 1982, when my Sasha was less than two months away. A Sri Lankan had hijacked an Alitalia plane with over 250 passengers, and had landed it at Bangkok airport, threatening to blow it up with dynamite sticks strapped to his body, unless his estranged wife in Italy took him back. My Ambassador was on home leave in India, and I was the Charge d’Affaires. So naturally I had to handle this crisis, given that there were 23 Indian nationals on board, including 4 MPs and an MoS.


I camped at Bangkok airport, along with our very efficient Air Attache, who later became an Air Marshal, for most of the next three days, while the negotiations dragged on. Part of the passengers were released in driblets, and we had to welcome our folks and have them safely escorted to the airport hotel. Perhaps characteristically, many of them querulously demanded that their carry on luggage be immediately retrieved for them!


The advantages of having no ego: I have often explained the significance of our most evocative and magnificent icon, the Shiva Nataraja, to foreigners. What impresses them the most is the concept of the Abasmaaram, the little demon that Lord Shiva crushes underfoot as he dances in the cosmos, which represents the human ego, the destruction of which is essential for attaining salvation.


It was the same with much of professional work, especially diplomatic work. You cannot let yourself, like even J.K. Galbraith did in India, be carried away by the high of being called “Your Excellency” by all and sundry once you are an Ambassador, for then you lose touch with the lesser mortals, who are often vital for your work. I always took care not to fall into this particular trap, and made it a point to be extra polite to the secretaries, executive assistants etc. of my major contacts, calling them directly to get my counterpart on the line, sending them little gifts at Christmas and so on. At times, this approach helped me get out of very tight situations.


On my first Ambassadorial assignment to the Philippines, I had managed, by getting to know the Agriculture Minister really well, having him invited to India, and making sure that he was very well received and shown our best meat export plants, to secure the clearance for our meat exports to that country after a ban of 29 years. It was a straightforward and well-deserved success story, or so I thought. I had, however, not bargained for the dirty tricks that our rivals in that market, Australia and New Zealand, would play. When our first six containers of meat were on the way to that country, they indulged in some skulduggery, circulated a fake report about alleged rinderpest in India (which was what had triggered the original ban 29 years earlier) and managed to have a ban order on our shipments issued at a (well chosen) time when the Agriculture Minister was away in the US. If even one of these containers had been refused entry, it would have immediately hit the local press, and this nascent market, reopened after so long, with so much effort, would have been closed again for good.


There was no way of locating the Agriculture Minister through the usual channels, as he was on a private tour. It was his secretary who bailed me out by giving me his private cell number, so that I was able to contact him and explain the problem. I had already got both our Animal Husbandry Commissioner and the supplier over from India post haste, but without the Minister’s intervention, nothing was moving, and meanwhile our containers were getting ever closer to the ports.


The situation was saved only when the Minister issued instructions for a special committee to be set up to look into the ban order. Pending his return three days later, the three of us spent all day each day with this committee. Since our case was a totally clear one, the matter was sorted out once we got a fair hearing. Our containers sailed into port, were duly cleared, and we went on to capture over 60% of the local meat market over the next two years, all thanks to that helpful secretary.


This sort of thing, I should add, is one of the few areas where professional women have a gender advantage. If a man in my place had tried to cultivate secretaries by sending them gifts and talking to them nicely over the phone, the conclusions drawn, and the end results, might have been very different!!


Feminine influence: In general, I worked to develop personal, as distinct from purely official relationships with my most important contacts, including with the spouses, mostly of course the wives. Often this proved very useful, and once it was vital. There was the sister of the President of a country where I was the Indian Ambassador, an eminent personality in her own right, who was invaluable for gaining access to the top levels of the local establishment. In another country, it was the wife of the President who was equally helpful.


Once this jugaad literally saved me, for had it not worked, all those who had hesitated to give me – a woman and thus presumably an abla naari meant only for soft seats! – charge of that above-mentioned neighbouring country Division at the Ministry would have chortled and said “I told you she wouldn’t be up to it!”. Grr…


I had to get to know and get on well with the top man in one of the countries in my portfolio, a strategically very important one for India then and now. But this gentleman had till then never dealt with a senior woman official on the Indian side, and at our initial meetings, he was so shy that he would not even look at me, and I did not know how on earth I was going to manage!!!


It was then that the feminine route idea first occurred to me, and I zeroed in on the gentleman’s wife, a very sophisticated and elegant lady. I had to devote an inordinate amount of time and effort to making friends with her, but she came to really like me, and this to the point when, on my visits to that country, we would sit and eat a pizza together in the official guesthouse, like schoolgirls at a forbidden midnight feast!


The end result of all this was that her husband too very soon began to feel quite comfortable with me, which was a blessing, as you can readily imagine! And she and I are still friends, nearly 30 years after those days.


A starry aside: In April 1991, when the afore-mentioned lady was visiting Delhi for a week, we of course did our best to take care of her. However, by the end of the week, I had quite run out of ideas for evening entertainments that would really entertain her – for example, a ghazal evening was ruled out as she did not understand Urdu. Suddenly, I had a brainwave. She was a fan of Amitabh Bachchan’s, and I decided to get him to either host a small private dinner for her or attend one she would give. This was a very tall order, for he was a huge celebrity whom I did not know at all, and our External Publicity Division declared themselves unable to help me. Luckily, Lord Pashupatinath bailed me out.


Before you conclude that the whole of this is one big fib, let me explain. I used, since my neighbouring country division covered Nepal too, to often help organize, through our Embassy in Kathmandu, VIP darshans at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu for my Indian official and other contacts. In the process, I collected a lot of IOUs from these persons. One of these was Jaya Bhaduri. Amitabh Bachchan’s Man Friday one Guru Dutt, had seen me for arranging such a visit for her, which apparently went off very well. So now I cashed in my IOU, and got Guru Dutt to arrange this dinner for me. I must say he turned up trumps!


Mr. Bachchan, doubtful to the last whether or not this was a hoax, duly turned up at the Taj Palace Hotel, having flown down from Bombay just for this. He spent over two hours at a very pleasant dinner, making himself most agreeable to his hostess. He coped manfully with a table full of women with nary a man in sight. He was even unfazed by the wife of the Delhi-based Ambassador of that country – who seemed to be barely informed about Big B – making soulful enquiries about Dev Anand!!


My charge was delighted, and to this day, she regrets that she did not, for protocol reasons, have photographs taken. If she had only asked me in advance, I would have taken them for her. I duly collected an autograph inscribed to my Sasha, something that gained me a solid lot of brownie points with my son!


The oddest thing in the whole was the gift that Amitabh Bachchan brought for his hostess. I expected a gigantic flower basket, or a large box of chocolates, or both. He brought nothing but VHS tapes of his two latest films, Hum and Ajooba!!


Dinner diplomacy: Normally, diplomatic dinners, especially at the Ambassador’s level, have a predictable mix of top-level guests. Selecting mutually compatible and potentially useful ones is, however, an exhausting business, and sometimes faux pas occur, as when I ended up inviting a top CEO, his current wife and his ex-wife (she had remarried). Luckily, there were no fireworks!


However, on my first ambassadorial assignment, facing yet another wall of aloofness that I had to break down to survive, I got an idea that saved me all this trouble and worked beautifully from the Dale Carnegie angle as well. This concerned the Director General of the Foreign Office of a country none too friendly to India – as were most of my assignments! I asked him to select the entire guest list for a dinner that I hosted in his honour, not confining himself to the Foreign Office or the Government, but extending to his interesting friends whom I might otherwise never meet. He was surprised, for this was a first for him, but pleasantly so, and he went ahead with astonishing gusto. I got a readymade dinner list, I met an artist, a movie star, an architect, and a historian, and the Director General had the time of his life, relaxing in the company of his close friends who were, for their part, very pleased to be invited to dinner at an Ambassador’s residence.


From then on, the DG became far more accessible and surprisingly friendly. He later became the Secretary General of ASEAN. And this trick worked for me every time from then to the end of my diplomatic career.


Manipulating internal power equations: Acquiring, and exploiting, such knowledge about the countries one is dealing with is often crucial for tackling serious problems in time, as I found out at first hand.


During my above-mentioned tenure as Head of Division in the MEA from 1988-1992, there was a hydel project built, and built very well and very economically, by Indian engineers in a crucial neighbouring country.. Its smooth operation naturally riled our competitors, especially Japan, who sought some opening, justified or not, to run down the plant and, with it, Indian expertise, so as to oust us and penetrate this market. Thus, when there was a landslide which damaged part of the entry tunnel to the hydel station, these characters suddenly swarmed all over the streets of the capital city and started a whispering campaign against India using, as a front, a local Minister who was at odds with the other Minister who was Chairman of the Project Authority.


When I learnt about this, I realised that we had to move very quickly to demonstrate, beyond all doubt, that our project was sound and that the damage had been the result of a natural calamity. The best way was clearly to rope in the Project Chairman, who not only stood to lose if this project was declared unsound, but also ran the risk of being supplanted in this position of authority by his rival. I briefed him, and it was decided that we should urgently send a top-quality Indian engineering team to the project site, to survey the damage and produce a clear and convincing report about the reasons for the incident. This was done within a matter of days, and the team landed up at the site without the rival Minister having even got to know of it. Before he could move to float any canards about the quality of the project, our team had produced an excellent report, which the Chairman was able to present to his Head of State within a month of the incident. The Head of State was convinced that there was no defect in the project, the Project Chairman had his authority reinforced, the rival Minister was chastened, at least for a while, and our competitors were foiled. In short, a happy ending.


The postscript is that we have built and are building many more and larger hydel projects in that country.


Co-opting the NRIs: I cannot find the Latin term for the species, but non-resident Indians, especially in the US, are a telling example of the Darwinian theory of evolution. When I was first posted in Washington in the late 1970s, it was all I could do not to punch them in the nose after watching them run down their motherland India – which had funded their technical degrees – in front of the Americans, who surely despised such behaviour. But by the early 1990s, when our economic reforms had created business opportunities for US firms, the same NRIs evolved to fit in with the new scenario and to acknowledge their Indian roots.


I took over as DCM in Washington in the autumn of 1995, right at the beginning of this Great Reformation. I too evolved, and was in some sort a pioneer in co-opting these rebooted NRIs in the good cause of cultivating the all-important and none too friendly US Congress on behalf of India, for a large number of them had solid congressional contacts.


A test case in which they came through with flying colours was our campaign to defeat the obnoxious Burton Amendments to the annual US foreign aid bill, aimed at slashing US aid to India because of alleged human rights violations in the Punjab. The aid was a token amount, but Congressman Dan Burton aimed only and landing India one in the eye. I would have liked to land him one too, but he was 10 inches taller than I!


Co-ordinating and pooling the influence of the big US firms doing business with India and the NRIs, the latter right down to the Indian-American interns at our embassy, who could phone and canvass the Congressmen, and even collar them as they walked into the Chamber to vote, over 2 years, we literally demolished Dan Burton. His Amendment was defeated 320 to 80 in September 1997, one of the biggest margins of victory ever in the House of Representatives.


Our success was the result of an excellent team effort, to which I had the opportunity to contribute and also act as the coordinator. Mr. Burton, I should mention, never offered any more of his amendments after 1997. And the Congressional Caucus on India and the Indian Americans is now a huge affair.


Miscellanea: Ashok must be already having the willies about the length of this piece, so I shall wind down fast. There are so many delightful, if jumbled vignettes that flit across my mind as I walk down memory lane.


Making Mother Teresa comfortable during her halt in Bangkok airport in 1984. Escorting HH the Dalai Lama from New Delhi Airport on his return after getting the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1989, when Tibetan devotees lined the exit road for 4 miles with their kids and their candles. The privilege of meeting him so many times during the four years that I headed the Division that looked after him.


A wonderful tenure in the land of Aphrodite/Venus, Cyprus, the only friendly country posting I ever had. My 1981 cross-country drive of 8000 kms to almost all the US National Parks. driving up Mount Vesuvius as far as they would let me with my little Fiat in 1973. The anguish I felt for the lovely land of Yugoslavia, where I spent 4 wonderful years when it was still one, when it was destroyed, as much by Western manipulation as by internal strife. The madhouse of organizing Prime Ministerial visits, no matter where. Cheering for the Indian cricket team in, of all places, Amsterdam (they lost, most disobligingly!)


It was a long and variegated journey, but throughout, if that does not sound frivolous, I would say that I had fun. A lot of fun. As I am sure all of you, my dear batch mates, did in your respective careers. For is that not the key to peace of mind in one’s working life, to enjoy one’s work and play alike?


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