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The charming diplomat

By T P Sreenivasan
Last updated on: May 31, 2005 10:10 IST
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As an aspirant to the foreign service, I had regarded K P S Menon as a role model long before I met him. I eagerly read his books, Delhi-Chunking, Many Worlds and Russian Panorama, and enjoyed the many anecdotes in them.

They gave me a flavour of diplomatic life, which whetted my own appetite to be a part of the charmed circle. I heard him speak of his experience as a member of the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) Board, which interviewed candidates for the civil services and picked up tit-bits that might help if I made it to Dholpur House for the personality test.

One story he liked to narrate was how a lady candidate from Kerala, J Lalithambika, my senior in the university, literally sang her way to the Indian Administrative Service.

Apparently, Lalitha, the bright and self-confident person that she is, answered every question put to her by the board and when it came to Menon's turn, he decided to ask her not about foreign affairs or even English Literature, in which she had a Masters degree, but about G Sankara Kurup, a Malayalam poet, who had just been honoured by the Jnanpith Award.

She gave a brilliant assessment of Kurup's contribution to Malayalam literature, which prompted Menon to ask her whether she could recite one of Kurup's poems. She asked whether she could sing one of them. Lalitha then enthralled the UPSC Board by singing a poem that had been tuned for a movie.

Not accustomed to such entertainment in the board room, the members agreed with Menon that she should get the highest marks ever given to a candidate for the personality test. Though she made it on account of her overall performance, the legend of the time had it that it was her singing talent that got her the high grade. Menon used to say that his only regret was that she did not choose the foreign service. I was advised to take singing lessons as part of my preparations for the competitive examination.

Menon had retired to his village, Ottappalam, in Kerala by the time I joined the foreign service and I sought a meeting with him when I was in Kerala for my district training. He promptly invited us to lunch at his home, but on the appointed day, he had to go to Delhi and he arranged for his family, including the young bride of his grandson, to take care of us.

There was some consternation when we spoke in chaste Malayalam as Menon had presumed, on the basis of my name, that I was a Tamil Brahmin and ordered a vegetarian meal for us. When Menon was the foreign secretary, probationers were never sent to their home states for district training and that was another reason why he thought that I would not be from Kerala. Every time I met him subsequently, he apologised for his grave mistake in serving a vegetarian meal to a full blooded Nair.

The word, 'charming' is used rather glibly for describing diplomats. Some Indian diplomats, who are described so, are hardly charming, certainly not to their colleagues. But 'charming' is the only word that would describe Menon and his wife.

Even those who did not know anything about his accomplishments as an administrator or diplomat would instantly succumb to his charm. We enjoyed every meeting with him, particularly during their annual pilgrimage to Moscow. The Soviets valued him most and arranged an annual retreat in Sochi or some such resort town and he would spend a few days in Moscow on his way in and out. It was a delight to spend time with him.

The many anecdotes that filled the pages of his books came back to life in the conversations and the Moscow setting gave the narration an authentic setting. Every time I went to the 'Dom Druzhbi', the Friendship House, I remembered what the mother of the sugar tycoon, who built it, told her son when he took her around the building for the first time. 'My son,' she said, 'till today, I only knew that you are a fool, but now the whole world will know it.'

We often wondered how many times his wife, Anujee, would have heard his stories. But each time he narrated a story, she burst into a girlish giggle, with an appropriate blush when the stories became risqué. She encouraged him to tell one story or the other from time to time and even filled in the gaps. But she waited for the punch line and laughed loudly as though she heard it for the first time. Once I was toasting in English and Anujee asked Menon to tell the story of how he had invented a Hindi equivalent of "bottoms up!"

After drinking 'dadna' several times, (Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev asked Menon what the Hindi equivalent of 'dadna' was. Menon did not want to say that there was no Hindi equivalent and that we were still using the imperialist expression for such a joyous action. We say, Ek Dum, said Menon and 'Ek Dum' it was for the Soviet oligarchy ever since whenever Indian dignitaries were present. Some uninitiated Indians protested that there was no such expression, but Menon's instant invention went into the Kremlin style book and could not be erased for long.

Our embassy in Moscow had the only squash court in the whole of East Europe, at least till 1990. According to Menon, it was built as the result of a misunderstanding in the Kremlin. When Pandit Nehru said something laudatory about the Soviet Union in the Indian Parliament one day, Khrushchev was so happy that he called Menon and said that he wanted to acknowledge the gesture by doing something for the embassy and asked for Menon's wish in this regard.

Menon consulted his colleagues and asked for a tennis court. Soon enough, construction materials arrived at the embassy and Soviet engineers began building a strange structure, which nobody could recognise. Once the order was given from the Kremlin, it was not possible to alter it. It turned out to be an excellent squash court as someone in the Kremlin did not know the difference between tennis and squash!

Another favourite Menon story was about a performance of Kathakali in the Kremlin. The episode of the evening was Dussasana Vadham or the killing of Dussasana, in which Bhima kills Dussasana in the battle field. It was a gory scene, in which Bhima rips open Dussasana's stomach, pulls out his entrails and drinks his blood before going with his blood stained hands to tie Draupadi's hair. Draupadi had vowed that she would tie her hair again only with his blood as he had tried to disrobe her in public to humiliate her.

Khrushchev was struck by the degree of violence depicted as he obviously did not know the nature of the crime committed by Dussasana and the justice of the punishment meted out. He turned to Menon in horror and said, "Mr Ambassador, you still call yourself a non-violent nation?" The story repeated itself many years later in 1979, when the same scene was enacted in Warsaw in the presence of the then prime minister Morarji Desai and the then foreign minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This time the reaction was from our own leaders, who thought the scene was excessively gory and crude. They brushed aside my feeble effort to defend the scene and decreed that it should not be performed abroad.

I marvelled at the way the Menons carried gifts for every one when they came to Moscow. They brought little things from Kerala for all of us, including our little son, whose growing measurements were carefully noted each time. Since they came during the Onam season to Moscow, we received them like the legendary King Mahabali, who came to visit his subjects every year. The celebrations of Onam in Moscow were timed to coincide with their visit.

The Soviets were so respectful of Menon that they admitted any student he recommended for admission in the Patrice Lumumba University. A large number of students acknowledged that they came to Moscow only because of Menon. Most of the students who did not have a Communist background came with his recommendation.

Once he sent a totally blind man to Moscow to see whether he could regain his eyesight at the famous eye hospital in Odessa. The Soviets agreed to give him free treatment, but somebody had to take care of him when he was outside the hospital. Menon asked me to see whether "a kind soul" would take care of him and I agreed to do that as it was difficult to find another person to do it. Menon never forgot that and he kept thanking my son, Sree, who, he heard, was guiding the blind youngster around the house. Sree conversed with the Menons in chaste Russian!

I had no experience of K P S Menon's legendary diplomatic and political skills except through his writings, but if there ever was a personification of all that is best in personal diplomacy, it was him. He apparently was very kind to his officers even when he was in office and often overlooked their faults. He gave such high grades to everybody that the foreign service board discounted his outstanding reports. For him, kindness and generosity were greater virtues than objectivity.

The tradition continues with K P S Menon (Junior), who is now a respected senior citizen himself. The junior too is elegant, charming and courteous, like his illustrious father. We sat next to each other years ago at a training programme for ambassadors, as he was the senior most and I was the junior most. He talked about his retirement from Beijing, but by the time I returned to my post in Fiji after the training programme, he had become the foreign secretary. His appointment was a master stroke as no other person would have healed the wounds inflicted on the foreign service by the sudden removal of his predecessor.

He left for Thiruvananthapuram the day after his retirement, an example I emulated years later. Our encounters here are few and far between, but they are always pleasant and inspiring for me.

Photograph: Kind courtesy, Malayala Manorama

T P Sreenivasan was India's former ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and former governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

Earlier in the series:
India's honoured guest: The Dalai Lama
The King of Tonga
India in his marrow: Zubin Mehta
A colossus who died alone: Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara
A true friend of India: Steve Solarz
Dixit was short, his presence gigantic: J N Dixit
Rao could stick to his guns

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T P Sreenivasan