Rajendra Rathore, IFS
Here I was in my room in Charleville at LBSNAA, Mussoorie trying to relax, lying on my stomach as it was too painful to lie on my back after a tiring horse-riding session. Our instructor, Mr. Naval Singh a doughty moustachioed, retired Subedar Major who thought that every Rajput should be a born rider was so embarrassed at my lack of riding prowess that he had held me back for an extra half hour of intensive riding lesson. Out of nowhere Rajendra Chaturvedi IPS came marching in and as was wont for a police officer to snoop around he even peeped into my almirah and chanced upon two tins of ‘Three Nuns’ pipe tobacco.
He could not believe that I was hiding all this time two tins of one of the best pipe tobacco money could buy and enquired how I acquired them.
It was a long story, but he pushed me off my bed, plonked himself on it stating that he had all the time in the world as the boring public administration lecture did not start for another half hour.
Resigned, I narrated that a friend and I had decided that after the interview following my qualifying the Civil Services Examination, we both would go on a hitchhiking tour of Europe. Another friend who got wind of our plans asked me to buy for him two tins of Three Nuns pipe tobacco and even handed over 5 British pounds (I regret that I have not used the pound sign as that button on my decrepit computer is not functioning). I quickly pocketed the money as an emergency fund for I was very short of foreign exchange.
To make a long story short, I travelled as deck passenger from Bombay (it was not Mumbai then) to Basra as that was the only way to leave the country without a P Form, armed with $ 8 that we were allowed to exchange, a reserve kitty of5 pounds and a book ‘Europe on $ 5 a day’. En route we earned another 21 Dinars at the Kuwait port by donating blood at the blood bank which was conveniently located to attract penury Indians to come trooping in for a quick buck. We had also brought along quite a few silk scarves, silver trinkets etc. which we sold at flea markets and bazaars along the way.
It was in Rome sitting on the Spanish steps near the Trevi fountain that I read the letter my father had sent through American Express that I had got into the Foreign Service and had to report to the Ministry of External Affairs on 2nd July 1969.
I will not elaborate on how we managed to travel on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Venice, commencing hitchhiking with girls who one had befriended reading palms at youth hostels, managing to get a permit to enter UK where I dutifully bought the two tins of tobacco, marooned on the highway between Antwerp and Brussels, smuggled into a girls’ hostel in Frankfurt, thrown out of the park in the middle of the night where we were cozily ensconced in our sleeping bags in Tehran, being almost kidnapped in no man’s land between Iran and Afghanistan, and finally managing to take an Indian Airlines flight from Kabul to reach Delhi on 30th June – as that is another story.
Rajendra Chaturvedi was only half paying attention as he was devising ways of not letting go of the 2 tins. He explained that by the time I got back to Jaipur my friend may or may not be there, the tobacco would not remain fresh and would not taste as good, which would be a pity. He came up with this Machiavellian suggestion that the two of us buy a pipe each and savor the tobacco while it was still in its prime.
As I was a non-smoker, I was naturally horrified at such a bizarre suggestion. Not one to give in easily he persisted that a pipe in the hand would be befitting a Foreign Service Officer. Besides, when confronted with an awkward question I could always start fiddling/lighting the pipe which would give me those crucial seconds to think up an answer. I did not need any further convincing and both of us trooped to the mall road and bought a pipe each. They were the cheapest pipe we could find as we were rather short of money, having pledged our monthly salary to Jackson for outfitting us with bandgalas, blazers, breeches, riding boots, pith hats etc.
My first experience with the pipe was obviously not a happy one. I inhaled it deeply resulting in bouts of violent coughing. Gradually I got used to it.
After the foundation course, we returned to Delhi and joined the Indian School for International Studies. Other Foreign Service colleagues, too, must have heard of the advantages of smoking a pipe as in the classroom, much to the chagrin of the professors, three of us Santosh Kumar, Tuhin Verma and I would fill up our pipes and pervade the small room with smoke while Shymala gave us those disapproving looks.
Days passed into months and months into years. I got posted to Jakarta, back to Delhi, then to Vienna, Bangkok, New York and back to Delhi. I was then posted as High Commissioner to Malaysia following which I landed in Havana, Cuba as ambassador. My pipe smoking continued. Fortunately, smoking was not taboo then even in the haloed halls of the United Nations and looked down upon as it is now.
Reaching Cuba from Malaysia, an affluent feudal monarchy to the other end of the spectrum of an impoverished communist regime where the slogan was ‘Communismo o muerte’ (communism or death) was a cultural shock. driving from the airport to the Ambassador’s residence was depressing. There were hardly any cars on the road except for an occasional pre-1959 vintage American car or the Russian Lada and a few bicycles. The houses were dilapidated and unpainted and people poorly dressed. It was as if I had landed in Cuba in a time machine and gone back in 50 years’ time. Though it was interesting watching Cuban girls dressed in tank tops and shorts cycling on 5th Avenue or even sitting on handlebars facing the male cyclist!
I arrived in Cuba in 1993 two years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. By then all the aid and essential supplies that Cuba received from the Soviet Union such as machinery, oil, food, clothes, cattle and even their fodder had dried up. There were no shops, literally no shops in Havana except for the Diplo Mercado where expatriates could buy limited supplies in US dollars. Cubans would only receive limited food and clothes from ration shops which were like holes in the wall and supplies ran out within 15-20 days. Our local maid who used to be a schoolteacher came to work in the morning after drinking just sugar water. She would starve herself to feed her children from the meagre ration received for the month. Even professors and doctors would moonlight in the evenings driving their cars as taxis to make two ends meet.
We survived partly due to the Diplo Mercado and partly due to the vegetable garden my wife started in the enormous garden at the Residence, which had three mango trees. Mangoes from two of these trees could easily compare with our own alfansoes and langda. A major part of our survival came from barter trade. In exchange for soap farmers would give us fruits, vegetables, wheat etc. stolen from state farms. Diapers and sanitary pads were at a premium and could fetch mutton, fish, prawns, lobsters etc. all stolen from the state.
A Cuban related an anecdote explaining the shortage of food. Once Fidel visited a state piggery and was shown a pregnant sow. Fidel declared that the Cuban sow would definitely give birth to 8 piglets. Unfortunately, the sow gave birth to only 6 piglets of which 2 died. The head of the piggery communicated to the head of the veterinary department that the sow had given birth to only 4 piglets. He, in turn, informed the Health Minister that 6 piglets were born who in turn went to Fidel and said, “El Commandante, you were so right. The Sow in that piggery did indeed give birth to 8 piglets.” Fidel replied that 4 should be exported and the other four be kept for the home market. Four were indeed exported but none were left for domestic consumption.
Despite all the shortages there was no homelessness. Mansions deserted by families who fled from Cuba following the revolution were partitioned to accommodate several families. There was compulsory education and the medical facility could rival in any developed country.
The shortages and hardships notwithstanding, Cubans still managed to have a good time with their monthly quota of rum, music and salsa. And Fidel was revered- as much out of admiration as fear. I recall at a reception when Fidel arrived. The effect was electric. A hush enveloped the gathering. One could hear a pin drop. Suddenly, like a storm after a lull there was a mad rush towards him to wish him, to shake his hands or just to be near him. As Miami Herald later commented, it was as if Robert Redford had arrived!
But I am digressing.
It is customary for Ambassadors, soon after arrival to call on other Ambassadors. In Havana it was during my call on the Venezuelan Ambassador that he suggested that I should give up smoking a pipe as I in Cuba, which produced the best cigars in the world, I should switch to smoking cigars instead. He explained that I should try different cigars but ultimately stick to only one brand of cigars. He added with a twinkle in his eye that if my wife did not like the aroma of my brand of cigar, I should change my wife!
I did give up smoking a pipe. Whether I started smoking cigars? That’s yet another story.