A diplomat for all seasons

Print edition : October 24, 1998
Arthur Lall, 1911-1998.

CERTAIN personal qualities, apart from a keen intellect and a ready wit, are essential for success in a diplomatic career. A perpetual smile on the face and a sense of humour are two of these.

Arthur Lall, the first ever Indian ambassador, had it all. Betty Lall gave able support to her husband. On a warm, pleasant day, if one happens to stroll down the streets of New York, be it uptown, midtown or downtown, the chances were that one would meet them.

The last time this writer had such a downtown encounter, Arthur Lall said, "It is nice to see you still here. Look how wonderful the day is and how everyone here likes to talk. What a difference between here and back home." Betty Lall nodded approvingly.

Arthur Lall, 87 at the time of his death on September 13, will be sorely missed whether it be an Independence Day gathering, an Indian function or a small private cocktail or dinner reception. He was one of the most pleasant personalities one met in New York. Whenever he was called upon to say something to an audience, he compelled attention with his amusing anecdotes and a quaintness of humour that never failed him.

Arthur Lall was among a handful of Indian Civil Service (ICS) officers who were handpicked by Jawaharlal Nehru for responsibilities abroad. His immense erudition was attained at Balliol College, Oxford, after he obtained a firm grounding at home on all basic subjects. Nehru was a strong critic of the ICS officers but he relied heavily on bright young people belonging to the ICS cadre in building the foreign service. Arthur Lall measured up to Nehru's expectations.

Arthur Lall at the United Nations in 1957.-UNITED NATIONS

Another mentor of Arthur Lall was V.K. Krishna Menon, who took him as his assistant during the famous United Nations Security Council debates on Kashmir in the 1950s and on Goa in the early 1960s. Krishna Menon inducted Arthur Lall into U.N.-related work from his position as the Consul-General for India in New York.

For several years after Krishna Menon faded out, Arthur Lall, as the chief Indian delegate and Ambassador, waged many a diplomatic battle for India at the U.N. But his style was different from that of his mentor: he was the permanently smiling Permanent Representative at the U.N. and he created the same effect in his adversaries. After retiring from the foreign service, Arthur Lall became a Professor at Cornell University and later at Columbia, teaching international relations and diplomacy.

Many people paid tributes to Arthur but the most touching tribute came from B.K. Nehru, another distinguished diplomat and his companion at Balliol. B.K. Nehru tells an amusing story about how the two friends, both underweight, went on a fattening diet of bread and cheese and a pitcher of rich, creamy milk. The physical standards needed for entry into the ICS had somehow to be met. While B.K. Nehru attained the requisite dimensions, Arthur retained his underweight figure, a figure that he maintained until the end.

B.K. Nehru says that both he and Arthur passed the ICS in 1933. "Though he was two years younger than I, Arthur had more grey matter in his cranium," he says.

"Arthur came to see me one day and said he had been offered a fabulous salary - I had the impression that it was seven or eight times more than what we were getting - by one of the foremost British commercial houses in Calcutta," B.K. Nehru said. "He wanted to know whether he should accept it or not. I told him if his aim in life was to make more money, he should of course accept it. But he should remember that whenever he came to see me, I would keep him waiting outside my door for a minimum of one hour."

Both he and Nehru corresponded frequently and Arthur Lall's interest in India and patriotism remained so high that he held B.K. Nehru personally responsible for all the wrong things that India did. "And he used to order me from East 81st Street, New York, where he lived, about what to do and what not to do with our beloved but inefficient, incompetent and badly run country."

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