Pages from a diplomat’s life

Print edition : November 20, 2020

December 16, 1964: Indira Gandhi, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, with Mrs. Ne Win (second from right), at Mingaladon airport in Rangoon (now Yangon), during a four-day visit. Photo: The Hindu Archives

November 21, 1961: Japanese Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda and his wife when they called on Dr S. Radhakrishnan, the Vice-President. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Pascal Alan Nazareth’s autobiography is a riveting account of the life and times of a distinguished diplomat equally at home in philosophy, art and literature.

IT has been said that life is lived forward, but written backwards. Here is a life, still going strong, but at a stage where it makes sense to write about it. Ambassador Pascal Alan Nazareth needs no introduction to the reading public. Many readers might recall his book Gandhi: The Soul Force Warrior, reviewed in Frontline (”Abiding relevance of Mahatma Gandhi”, June 21, 2019).

Former Foreign Secretary Maharajkrishna Rasgotra says in his foreword: “There is so much in this book that will delight, inform, intrigue and enlighten readers about the ways in which Indian diplomacy engages with the world.” The reader will agree. This book also tells us how Alan Nazareth and his wife Isobel engaged with the world, as they encountered bloody military coups affecting the safety of the Indian community, and navigated through life with its ups and downs, always keeping their equanimity. They also suffered a personal tragedy when they lost their younger daughter Seema in March 1999, in whose memory they have instituted an annual prize for journalism.
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Alan Nazareth comes across as a kind and gentle human being, equally at home in philosophy, art, and literature, Indian as well as Western. When he was on his first posting in Tokyo, Air Chief Marshal Subroto Mukherjee paid an official visit. Mukherjee died in Tokyo after a piece of sashimi (marinated raw fish) got stuck in his throat. The Japanese hosts took great care to transport the body to the airport in Tokyo with due honours. Alan Nazareth, then 24, recalled the immortal lines of Thomas Grey:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th'’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Tokyo days

Incidentally, Alan Nazareth’s mother went with him to Tokyo on his first foreign posting. This reviewer cannot immediately recall any other IFS (Indian Foreign Service) probationer whose mother went with him or her on their first posting abroad. The background is interesting. Alan Nazareth’s father was a District Judge. The father-son duo indulged in ‘legal reasoning’ on family matters. Alan Nazareth, madly in love with Isobel, wanted to get married and take her to Tokyo. Asked why he wanted a wife to be with him in Tokyo, he responded that he would need to give dinners as part of his diplomatic work. The Judge immediately replied that his wife would go with Alan Nazareth to Tokyo and take care of all that.

Another instance of ‘legal reasoning’ had a significant impact on Alan Nazareth’s life. His parents wanted him to choose the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) whereas he was determined to take the IFS. When he returned from Delhi after the final interview for the IFS with the Prime Minister, who was also the External Affairs Minister, the parents insisted on his joining the IAS. Finally, it was decided that the three of them would go to Praxy Fernandez of the 1952 batch of the IAS, argue their case, and abide by his verdict. This time Alan Nazareth won the case.

Eventually, on passing the Japanese language test, he was promoted as Second Secretary. He applied for leave to come to India to get married as with the promotion his added ‘representational’ responsibilities needed the presence of a hostess. The Ministry concurred. Alan Nazareth went back to Tokyo with Isobel. The next day, October 20, 1962, the news came that China had invaded India.

By way of background, when he passed through Tokyo on his way back to India from China in June 1961, Ambassador G. Parthasarathy had said that China was turning increasingly bellicose, that its economy was in a shambles, and that Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward had cost over 20 million lives. Parthasarathy argued that India needed to deepen its relations with the United States and Japan. Accordingly, the Indian Embassy in Tokyo made a proposal to the Ministry of External Affairs to invite Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda to India, a visit that occurred in November 1961.
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In 1963, while holding temporary charge of the commercial section, Alan Nazareth met Dharma Teja, founder of Jayanti Shipping Company. “With his 6.4 feet height, Saville Row suits and suave manner he was an imposing figure,” he says. Years later, as Consul in New York, he would be pursuing the extradition to India of the same man and he almost succeeded. Ambassador B.K. Nehru in Washington called Alan Nazareth “our James Bond”.

In March 1963, Ambassador Mehrotra and his officers, along with their spouses, had a ride on a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya. “The train went so fast that the verdant countryside looked like a blurred mass of green but we could see beautiful Mount Fuji clearly.”

Sense of history

Alan Nazareth has a deep sense of history. He was transferred to Rangoon from Tokyo. He and Isobel sailed on the cargo-cum-passenger ship Hailee and Alan Nazareth discovered that the same ship had carried General Aung San when he fled Burma in 1939 to seek Japan’s assistance to liberate his country from imperialist Britain.

Alan Nazareth gives the reader a brief account of General Ne Win’s rise to power through a coup, toppling Prime Minister U Nu. In March 1964, Burma forbade departing Indians from taking their jewellery, including the mangalsutra. Departing Indians left their jewellery with their Indian friends who chose to remain. Those who kept their jewellery ran the risk of burglary or raid by police. Eric Gonsalves, the Charge d’ Affaires (CdA), with the Ministry’s permission, arranged for the Embassy to keep the jewellery and Alan Nazareth was put in charge of collecting it. The idea was to send the jewellery to India. The Burmese authorities arranged for daily anti-India demonstrations outside the chancery.

Alan Nazareth tells us that during his time the jewellery was not sent to India, as Burma would have resented the Embassy’s sending it as diplomatic cargo. I asked two of my colleagues who served as Ambassador to Burma. One recalled nothing about the matter and the other that there was a safe whose key was missing. Let us hope that one of the readers might help us solve the mystery.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru passed away on May 27, 1964. General Ne Win told the CdA that he and his wife wanted to go to Delhi after the funeral. The visit was arranged and the Ne Wins invited Indira Gandhi to come to Burma for a “quiet, recuperative holiday as their personal guest”. She accepted and one day Indira Gandhi and Mrs. Ne Win set out to swim in the bay near the house they were staying. The beach, as part of the house, was secure and the hostess had told Indira Gandhi that it was safe to swim and nobody would come. While swimming, Indira Gandhi saw a pair of eyes peering at her from behind a tree. A few moments later, another pair of eyes peered at her behind another tree. Troubled, she asked Mrs. Ne Win, who calmly replied that they were security guards and not voyeurs.

There are many such real-life stories that the reader will enjoy and will never forget.

Taking care of Indian community

There is an impression that a diplomat spends most of his time at cocktails and dinners. He or she moves around with the high and mighty. Alan Nazareth had his share of such company. But when it comes to taking care of the Indian community, he and Isobel spontaneously acted with diligence, courage, and compassion.

Alan Nazareth went to Accra, Ghana, as High Commissioner on June 2, 1979. Early morning on June 4, around 3 a.m., Isobel woke up hearing gunshots. That was the beginning of a military coup. The Embassy Residence facing the Army headquarters had sustained bullets in previous coups.

One morning in early July, Alan Nazareth was told by an Indian woman that her husband had been taken away for interrogation. Isobel offered to go to her house and Alan Nazareth dropped her there on his way to office. He went to the Foreign Office seeking a call on the Foreign Minister. The Chief of Protocol told him that as he had not formally presented his credentials the Foreign Minister would not see him. Alan Nazareth responded that he was India’s High Commissioner and the standard Commonwealth practice was to let the High Commissioner function without waiting for the ceremony of presentation of credentials. He asked his interlocutor to check with the British High Commissioner, who corroborated his statement. Finally, the Foreign Minister met him, but pleaded inability to intervene in view of the coup when all authority was with the military. Alan Nazareth countered this and reiterated his demand for the protection of the Indian community.

On his way back from the Foreign Office, he went to pick up Isobel only to learn that the two women had been taken away in a military truck half an hour earlier. On reaching the chancery, he learnt that Isobel was back at the Residence. When the truck had come to pick up the woman, she, panic-stricken, clung to Isobel who offered to go with her. The military arranged for Isobel’s return.
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The reader will note that Alan Nazareth has a Teutonic thoroughness in recounting events. He reached Metcalfe House in Delhi to join the service at 8.30 a.m. on May 11, 1959. He paid $2,900 for a Jaguar when he was Consul in New York.

I asked Alan Nazareth how he could recall such details. He replied that he always kept a diary and that he always collected from his private secretary all the records of his engagements. The diary was gifted to him by Isobel when he left Bengaluru for Metcalfe House. Obviously, without Isobel’s gift we would not be discussing this book.

The title is thoughtfully chosen. The indefinite article before “ringside” shows that he is not ego-centric. He gives credit to others as appropriate.

The last chapter, titled “Post Retirement Joys, Tragedies, Travels and Spiritual Awakening”, is of compelling interest. In fact, the chapter headings show much imagination.

The value of this elegantly brought out book is enhanced by the priceless photographs. There was a time when it used to be said, “publish or perish”. These days it is possible to publish and perish.

This book will be read not only by practitioners and students of diplomacy and international relations but also by the general public. One wonders whether Alan Nazareth will consider publishing his diary one day.

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