LOOKING BACK… By Girija Madhavan
Piquant or embarrassing moments adhere to the memory like fluff on old woollens. I recall some nuggets from life in the Indian Foreign Service. A battered Rangoon diary for 26 January 1960 read: “RAIN at the Republic Day Garden Party today!”
Rangoon in Burma [now Yangon in Myanmar] was our first post. I had gone there immediately after Madhavan and I got married, celebrating my 21st birthday in Rangoon. We were the youngest of the diplomatic staff. For the garden party, I had chosen a “Crinkled Georgette” saree [embroidered with sequins] from a Mysore shop, said to be the “latest style” and dressed it proudly.
January is Myanmar’s dry season. But that day the skies suddenly opened up in a deluge. The guests began fleeing to their cars. Madhavan, snatched a tray from a passing waiter, holding it over their heads to protect them from the downpour. I tried covering my head with my pallu, but found it had become a narrow strip. The saree pleats too were shrinking in uneven lengths between ankle and knee while the cotton petticoat alone held its ground. My stylish saree had ended up as a shrivelled and shrunken one.
The rain was attributed to the anger of a Nat [tree dwelling spirits revered by Burmese people] because the embassy gardener had axed his favourite one. The Ambassador’s daughter, Rita [fresh from Geneva, sporting a beehive hairstyle and the latest fashions in clothes] propitiated the Nat with offerings of coconuts and bananas, a new sapling was planted. It did not rain again in the Residence on Republic Day.
Berne, Switzerland, was next, my first time in Europe. Opposite our apartment was a twin signpost reading “Thun-Luzern” where the highway forked to go to these two lake towns. Our Ambassador’s son-in-law visited us. “See,” he boasted,“I have just come to Switzerland and already I understand German! Thun/Luzern means Turn Left”. I could not control a giggle, earning a hard stare and a muttered remark about ill-mannered young wives.
In some countries, the Vatican has its own Embassy called the “Papal Nunciate”. Monsignor Carlomagnio was the Papal Nuncio in Berne. A handsome, elderly man, he was imposing in his crimson, purple and gold robes. He was the Doyen of the Diplomatic Corps in Berne. Our Embassy in Berne was accredited to the Holy See in addition to the Indian Embassy in Rome. Pope Paul travelled to Bombay, India, for the Ecumenical Council in 1964. Monsignor suggested Madhavan should go to Rome to see him off and receive him back in Rome. In the photograph with Pope Paul, the elegant lady in the saree is First Secretary N.N. Haralu, then posted to the Indian Embassy, Rome. She was the first IFS woman officer from Nagaland. After serving in many prestigious posts, she became Ambassador to Panama. She passed away at the age of 98 in 2016 in her home in Nagaland.
Monsignor Carlomagnio was planning his annual dinner for the Diplomatic Corps. He chose Madhavan to help him with the seating protocols and choice of wine. Madhavan, in turn suggested an Australian diplomat who knew more about wine.
“Of these two glasses, this one is fruitier with a strong bouquet while the other is milder but has a spicy after-taste”, pronounced the Australian. Monsignor cut him short, “Both these glasses have been filled from the same bottle.” Thereafter, the Monsignor concentrated on Madhavan, calling him early mornings, until one morning, a sleepy Madhavan exclaimed, “Oh, Monsignor Carlomagnio! Good Mornio, Good Mornio!” A miffed silence followed. The early calls were curtailed too. But the dinner was a success.
Back home in New Delhi, I was seated, all ears, at a dinner between a senior Indian diplomat connected to the Nehru family and the brilliant orator, Clovis Maksoud, Ambassador of the Arab League. Maksoud was born in Oklahoma, USA, and grew up in Lebanon. He was a brilliant orator. The Indian diplomat was eloquent. “We are from different countries and cultures. Yet we get along so well. I wonder what binds us together?”
“Yes indeed,” answered Clovis Maksoud. “What is it that binds us together but MUTUAL HYPOCRISY!”
In Peking during the Cultural Revolution, a British diplomat, was seated by the hostess, the French Ambassador’s wife. A Chinese waiter, bending to serve him, instead fetched him a blow to his head with the tray. “Madame,” exclaimed the diplomat, “I was very struck by your entrée. In fact, I was almost struck unconscious by it!”
We were posted to London and had to go house hunting. We found a charming house with a lawn bounded by flowering pear trees. I loved it and the rental suited our allowance too. Seniors advised us not to take it because our address would then read “No. 7, Dog’s Lane, Neasdon…”
So we lived instead in Pymer’s Mead, Dulwich. I usually walked down to a grocer in nearby Herne Hill, wearing an anorak with a hood, pants and bootsagainst the London cold. After a party, however, I went in a saree with a very large “Bindi” on my forehead. The grocer stared at my face and said, “You gave me ever such a fright, love! I thought someone had put a bullet through your forehead.”
Many personages from India visited London. An apocryphal story was of an Indian politician, a strict vegetarian. A simple man, he opted for just a bowl of assorted nuts that he could nibble on through the meal. He was said to have been seated next to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Sherry was served with the soup, other wines followed. Mrs. Thatcher absent-mindedly kept helping herself to the nuts with the wines until the bowl was empty.
Every post gave me some incidents to smile at or to gloss over with embarrassment. I am hoping that readers will smile too.
[To be continued]