EVER SINCE, AS A TEENAGED COLLEGE STUDENT, I read Alphonse Daudet’s L’Élixir du Révérend Père Gaucher in his Lettres de Mon Moulin I have found it impossible to think of the City of Paris without remembering the rhyme the semi-literate monk in Daudet’s story would break into when drunk with sniffing and tasting the alcohol he distilled for the commercial benefit of his monastery: Dans Paris il y a un Père Blanc / Patatin, patatan, tarabin, taraban … *But I should treat Paris with greater reverence, for I have rarely met people whose eyes have not opened wide in holy awe at the mention of its name, each for different reasons. So many could ‘die to see the city’. For so many, living and working (or, better still, not working but just being) there was all that mattered. For some, such feelings were genuine. Others pretended they felt that way— Paris could not possibly not captivate with its charm a person of fine sensibilities! And, there are more than white fathers who people the place.
When, at Oxford, in May 1975 or so I said to two Balliol College dons that I expected to go to Paris for my next diplomatic assignment, one of them, congratulating me, said that Paris was the only 24-hour city in the world and the other said that London was another. The first said that London went to sleep at about four in the morning. That closed that discussion. Even about a quarter century ago Paris in the minds of many outsiders still existed in la Belle Époque: it was the city of van Gogh and Paul Gaugin and other denizens of the Montmartre bohemia of the fin de siècle, the city of Le Moulin Rouge and Les Folies-Bergeres (add the more modern Crazy Horse and the Lido to that list), the city of Can Can and, very importantly, the city of 19 th century Parisian bordels and prostitutes. To be fair, throw in the Tour Eiffel and the Louvres somewhere near the edges in that tableau and you have the visitor’s view of Paris when we knew it. In that view Eros, or more accurately Aphrodite, was indisputably the presiding deity of the city. This could create some piquant situations. I shall tell of one.
In the third quarter of 1976 a six or seven-member Indian parliamentarians’ delegation came on a goodwill visit to France. It was led by the Deputy Chairman (the Chairman being the Vice-President of India) of Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian parliament and had in it, in addition to four or five other members of parliament from its two houses from different political parties, an official from the secretariat of the lower house, the Lok Sabha. Their programme of visit had been drawn up in consultation with the secretariats of the French National Assembly and the Lok Sabha. The Ambassador of India participated in the events where protocol and form required him to and gave a reception in honour of the parliamentarians but had left the rest of the conduct of this visit to me. In Paris, the delegation met members of the National Assembly, called on the President of the Senate, went to a lunch in their honour given by Edgar Faure, the President of the French National Assembly, visited the Louvres and was taken to a recital of some Stravinsky pieces at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées, a performance that left those who were awake during it, cold. After Paris they were taken on a short trip to the Tours region which took in a visit to one of the Loire châteaux, a luncheon in their honour by the mayor of one of the smaller towns and a vineyard and its cellars, which included wine tasting. None of that evoked much curiosity or enthusiasm.
At the end of the ambassador’s reception the official from the Lok Sabha secretariat speaking for all the delegation said to me that the programme that had been worked out for them was all very well but it did not include any of the night life for which Paris was so famous. I passed this on to the person, by now a friend, from the National Assembly secretariat with whom I had been dealing. He said that in his office people were quite used to this kind of expectation and request from their foreign guests and their practice was to deliberately leave one or two evenings without any official engagement. Our people were quite free to go where they wanted, after the ambassador’s reception for example, and they were free to use the cars that had been placed at their disposal by the National Assembly. I translated all this truthfully to the Indian delegation. But, they said, they did not want to use the National Assembly cars. One of them said that they did not want the French to know where they were going. I said that the only other car was the one from the embassy which I had been using since early in the morning, moving with the delegation. With its diplomatic registration plate it would be even more easily recognizable than the National Assembly cars; besides the chauffeur after fourteen hours at the steering wheel needed some rest. ‘So’, said the person from the Lok Sabha secretariat in a huff, ‘ you do not want to show us the real Paris.’ I said that I had told them my problem with the embassy car but would gladly let them have it for the rest of the night if that was what they wanted. By now quite peeved, they said they would go back to their hotel. I suspected they had questions other than cars in their minds. A good thing about a half hint is that you can decide to be dense. I went back home, not knowing to this day if later that night they went out on their own. Some of them might have thought me incompetent, others a prig. There were other official visitors to Paris for whom a flying visit to the Montmartre/Pigalle area was a must.
MY WIFE, OUR TWO YOUNG CHILDREN and myself arrived in Paris in the last week of September 1975. I was to be first secretary dealing with political matters in our embassy. Soon after arrival, the ambassador told me that I should in addition supervise the work of the head of chancery who is the main official in an embassy responsible for detailed financial management and housekeeping. The ambassador was D.N.Chatterjee, easily the finest I have come across in the Indian Foreign Service, a cultivated man of good taste, understated, reserved and, from what I saw of him during seven months, devoid of pettiness. He had continued as ambassador in Paris after his retirement from the Foreign Service and was by then well into his seventh year there.
Paris being Paris there were at any time a number of people impatient to go there as ambassador, some of them in key positions of power and authority in the Ministry of External Affairs. The smaller among these people said that Chatterjee had manoeuvred to get his repeated extensions of stay there—some said his main connection was P.N. Haksar who was the head of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office till around the middle of 1973. It was beyond these petty manipulators, to think that Haksar on his own or Mrs. Gandhi who also knew Chatterjee personally from London in the 1930’s might have decided that he was doing well there and should continue. Probably aware of what was said about his prolonged tour of duty there, D.N. Chatterjee once said to me that he and P.N. Haksar had been close friends since the late 1930’s when both were students in London. He valued that friendship and would do much to keep it. He also knew that one way to destroy a friendship was to ask your friend for a favour. For this reason he had never asked Haksar for anything even during the days when there was much in his power to give.
For about one year before our arrival in Paris the atmosphere in the embassy had been foul. From what I learnt later, the cast of characters in the embassy had included a part-time philanderer, his hysterical wife, a hypochondriac of a bachelor with an active imagination and a dipsomaniac lady, the wife of another person. By the time of our arrival, the philanderer, his hysterical wife and the dipsomaniac and her husband had left. The hypochondriac was still there. A minor lapse in reporting by the philanderer about the original, American, nationality of a locally hired Canadian clerk had been built up by people in Delhi into a major story of infiltration of the embassy by the C.I.A. This had in its turn been embellished by tales of intrigue woven by the hypochondriac—the hysterical wife had taken to crying on his shoulders about the ‘misdeeds’ of her husband. He had been sending, gnomic, unsigned notes to Delhi.
Another complication was that the philanderer was distantly related to the ambassador. Some spy chasing continued till the beginning of 1976. I received a letter from Delhi at the end of December 1975 asking me to send my comments on the lifestyle of the philanderer and his wife and also to say if someone in the same position as the philanderer could maintain his lifestyle with the kind of money Government of India paid him. It was curious that the person who wrote that letter should ask me such a question as several months ago he himself had visited Paris and made detailed enquiries at a time when the entire cast was present there. In his report he had suggested that the philanderer had been subverted by the C.I.A. When I received this letter I told Chatterjee that I would not send an answer based on hearsay and gossip for that could be the only basis on which I could write, several months after the departure of the people on whose lifestyle I was expected to comment—people I had not met or seen.
I did not write but Chatterjee passed on to people in Delhi my views. He later showed me all the papers about these weighty matters of state. It was clear to me that the charges could not stand, as indeed they did not—after a formal enquiry, the philanderer’s name was cleared. Then I could see that the real target in all this was not the philanderer but D.N. Chatterjee and the purpose was to be able to say to the powers that were in Delhi that he was not running his embassy well; in support they probably cited not only the tale of espionage but also the public behaviour of the dipsomaniac. Some people in Delhi worried that Chatterjee would stay on longer in Paris, in spite of them. The spy chasing ceased as soon as it became clear that Chatterjee was not continuing beyond April 1976. Since then I have known the odour of bureaucratic intrigue and intriguers and loathed them both— trying to keep myself at the greatest possible remove from them.
FOR FRANCE IN THE AUTUMN OF 1975, the Presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, already into its second year was still new. People and newspapers even one year afterwards talked about the presidential campaign the previous year and of Jacques Chirac’s ‘treachery’—Chirac, a Gaullist had supported Giscard d’Estaing rather than his fellow Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas for the presidency, making possible the victory of Giscard. Chirac became Giscard d’Estaing’s Prime Minister. King and Kingmaker do not remain friends for long. Besides, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic in France suffers from a major weakness—it allows for a two-headed executive. In the relationship between Giscard d’Estaing and his first Prime Minister lay the seeds of many developments in French domestic politics in the next five years. Also, in the autumn of 1975, the air was full of the cantonal elections of the ensuing spring, of the prospects that at these elections the Socialist-Communist combine under the Common Programme would do well. Here lay the seeds of another set of political developments in the next six years.
In the wider area of relations between the West and the Soviet Union, the Final Act of Helsinki at the conclusion of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe had been signed, the Mutual Balanced Force Reductions talks were making progress and in Portugal the fear of a communist take-over had ended—developments which normally should have strengthened the East-West détente but in reality the dissolution of the Portuguese empire and the establishment of ‘Marxist’ governments in Mozambique and Angola had begun to heighten western fears of Soviet expansionism in Africa. It was being said that the East-West détente, started with the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972, was dead.
Almost as if to underline French interests in Africa, the story that dominated the newspapers and magazines in the days immediately following our arrival in Paris was that of the disappearance in the desert in Chad of Mme Claustre, a French sociologist, and then her reappearance as a captive of Hissène Habré, a Chadian rebel against the French backed Government of Chad who was described by the French media in quite lurid terms. I did not follow the progress of Mme Claustre and do not remember what happened to her other than that she was eventually released. I could not help following in later years, somewhat discontinuously, the progress of Hissène Habré who went on to become the President of Chad and whose Government was defended against attacks from yet other Chadian rebels by a combination of French troops and troops from other countries in Africa friendly to France.
BRITAIN, THE USA AND TO A CERTAIN EXTENT THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY did not approve of ‘the suspension of democracy’ in India by Indira Gandhi in her emergency régime. They followed an undeclared policy of avoiding high-level political contacts with India. In the French academia, clearly those sections in the academia which were interested in Indian affairs and which spoke and wrote about them—our constituency—there was disapproval of the curbs on civil liberties. A senior member of Mrs. Gandhi’s Congress Party, who later became the Chief Minister of one of the larger Indian states, was on a visit to Paris. In the hope that the politician would be able to give a better defence of the leader of his party than I, I called him and two ladies who were the leading India hands in Paris academia at that time, over for dinner at our house. We were all quite disappointed to see that the politician did not at all wish to discuss the emergency régime, leave alone defend it. In fact the politician had very little to say on anything at all.
Government and business circles in France were ambivalent about Mrs. Gandhi’s emergency régime. Jacques Chirac as Prime Minister visited India in January 1976. French media said almost in unison that Chirac’s visit should not be taken to mean that France was giving political approval to Mrs. Gandhi’s action but it could not ignore a country like India with the opportunities it offered for the development of economic and commercial relations. When in a political report after the Chirac visit, circulated to many embassies, I wrote that the unanimity in the French media about this view of the Chirac visit suggested official briefing, I was surprised and a little flattered to receive letters from two or three of our ambassadors in other capitals complimenting me on my insight, the acuity of my observation, the analytical quality of my reports and so forth. I was interested in understanding the nature of French interest in India. Chirac took in his delegation not only the Commerce Minister but also almost the entire who’s who of French industry or their representatives. French companies engaged in electronics, aviation, petroleum exploration, telecommunications, aluminum making and French banks, not to speak of French defence industries were making a push for finding a spot or enlarging the space occupied by them in the Indian market. And Chirac was by no means the only nor the last top ranking French political leader to try to give them a helping hand. All that he was doing was to set aside moral judgments about Mrs. Gandhi’s emergency rule in the pursuit of French economic and commercial interests in India.
It was our good luck that in France, we at the embassy were rarely called upon to defend Mrs. Gandhi’s authoritarian rule. The relief with which our small circle of embassy officials, Indian bankers, and officials from Indian Government enterprises in Paris reacted to the defeat of the Congress Party at the March 1977 general election was a revelation. This entire group was at our home in Paris on the day election results were coming in. The French television announcement that Mrs. Gandhi was trailing in her parliamentary constituency came as a shock to everyone except my wife who had taken a bet on Mrs. Gandhi’s personal defeat. Our press officer plunked in the seat in front of the telephone and kept us filled with the latest result from his friends in the Indian media in London. All we got was the name of one important figure of the Congress party after another losing and my guests cheered each announcement of defeat. With the fall of colossuses like Sanjay Gandhi glasses were emptied and refills asked for. When news of the defeat of Bansi Lal, thought to have been especially close to Sanjay Gandhi came, a Foreign Service colleague on a visit to Paris, usually a very staid gentleman insisted that I chill a bottle of champagne and open it to celebrate Bansi Lal’s defeat. I was glad there were no others interested in similarly expensive jubilation. We continued and the gathering became louder as more news of the defeat of the Congress came and the long evening wore on. If the happiness of one’s guests at the end of a party were the measure of its success, that was the most successful dinner party we have ever given.
There was one occasion when I had to deal with people trying to throw their weight around during the emergency régime over a minor matter. A third secretary, the daughter of a senior minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet was to transit through Paris on her way to her first embassy job in another European capital. The message from the Ministry of External Affairs telling us of her travel said that in Paris she and her children would like to stay with the first secretary, meaning me. If she, as a junior colleague had written to me to ask if they could stay with us, I would have gladly agreed. Not being prepared to receive official instructions on who should stay in my home I decided to ignore the message. A few days later an irritated Ambassador Chatterjee called me in to ask who this ‘maharani’ was who was transiting through Paris. The minister’s staff from Delhi and from Rome where the minister had come to attend an international conference had been pestering him about the Paris sojourn of the minister’s daughter. He asked me if I could not arrange some free accommodation for her and accepted my suggestion that we put her up in the temporarily vacant apartment of some member of junior staff of the embassy away on leave in India. That is what was done. I was quite glad not to hear any more of the lady’s stay in Paris.
I saw afterwards that I was wrong to think that the attitude of the minister’s staff had anything to do with the emergency régime. It was in fact normal behaviour in normal times. And it is not only people in government who try to misuse their influence with the official machinery for small, personal ends. I had on my staff in Paris, one Dubey, who in addition to working at the embassy was also engaged in research for a doctorat d’état in French literature. His wife had left him to live with an Indian newspaper magnate, Shirazi. Hearing that Shirazi was coming to Paris with Mrs. Dubey in tow, Dubey came and told me the murky story of his wife’s liaison with Shirazi, of the break up of his marriage and of the petty acts of vindictiveness and harassment of Dubey that Shirazi and Mrs. Dubey engaged in even after the Dubey couple had stopped living together. Dubey had accepted the situation. He told me that he wanted me to know this because he felt that when in Paris Shirazi would quite likely ask the embassy to harass him. One or two days after Shirazi’s arrival in Paris, Chatterjee’s successor, Ambassador Ram Sathe, whom Shirazi had met by then, asked me if there was one Dubey on my staff. Sensing the moment was right for me to speak for Dubey, I asked Ambassador Sathe if Shirazi had mentioned Dubey’s name to him. Ambassador Sathe told me he had indeed and had said that Dubey was a bad man. I told Ambassador Sathe the story of Shirazi and the Dubey couple, as I knew it. I suggested that we should judge Dubey by his work at the embassy, which, incidentally, was satisfactory, and not be distracted by others’ view of his personal life as long as it did not create an embarrassment for us. Ambassador Sathe had no difficulty accepting my views. We did nothing that would create problems for Dubey. Years later when I heard from a former editor of a newspaper controlled by Shirazi his totally unflattering view of him, I was glad I had stood up for Dubey.
I DID NOT KNOW whether any Englishman had ever thought of returning Napoleon Bonaparte’s compliment to his tribe by calling the French a nation of shopkeepers. To me their principal interest in India appeared to be that of shopkeepers. I was so strongly convinced of this that when, soon after his arrival, Ram Sathe asked me for my opinions on various aspects of French policy, I said to him, among other things, that France had no military or strategic interest to pursue anywhere east of the east coast of Africa. He asked me about India. ‘Only commercial and economic interests’, I said. ‘What about non-alignment and all that?’ he asked. ‘Only as talking points as a way creating the right atmosphere’, I said. I had the impression that Ambassador Sathe initially found some of my characterizations too stark, even extreme. I thought that in time he came to hold similar views. And I held that view despite my knowledge of the advantageous cooperation India had with France in the areas of nuclear energy and space exploration and some others.
Soon after the 1971 war with Pakistan, Government of India decided to buy a number of aircraft to do the job of what then was called a ‘deep penetration strike aircraft’ for the Indian Air Force. Committees in Government of India considered many possible alternatives through numerous evaluations until by around the second half of 1977 the choice had been reduced to one between the French Mirage F1 and the Anglo-French Jaguar. Not being involved in this matter I had mostly second or third hand knowledge of the criteria of selection. Once, in a conversation early in 1976, D. N. Chatterjee had expressed his shock at the scale of bribes that were talked about in the purchase of defense equipment and added wrily that unfortunately no one ever offered him one—after the passage of so many years, I could also say, ruefully perhaps, that no one ever offered me a bribe and thus no one ever gave me the choice of accepting or rejecting one. I do not know if D. N. Chatterjee had the aircraft purchase in mind, nor do I know if bribes played any part in the final decision between the Mirage F1 and the Jaguar. With the memory of the embarrassment faced by Prince Bernhard of Holland over allegations of bribery in the purchase of American fighter aircraft for the Dutch Air Force still fresh in my mind, I knew that if bribes played a role in the Indian acquisition, it would not be surprising.
Our Air Force Attaché in Paris in 1977-1979 was a former test pilot. Until the announcement in late summer in 1978 of Government of India’s choice the Air Attaché must have told me on a score of occasions that he thought the Mirage F1 a superior machine compared to the Jaguar and that he was certain that the final choice would be of Mirage F1, and on each occasion I told him that the final decision would be based in part on political factors and not merely technical. Prime Minister Morarji Desai visited London in June 1978 to attend a meeting of the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth and on the way back, stopped in Paris for a day at the invitation of Giscard d’Estaing. The French who had for a few years persevered in their efforts to sell the Mirage F1 to India must have sensed or heard during Morarji Desai’s stop in Paris that Government of India’s decision was not going in their favour. Soon after Morarji’s visit there came from them an offer of the same kind as are made in sales campaigns of consumer goods: buy one, get one free or at half price. That did not affect the Indian decision to buy the Jaguar.
Even as the French pursued the sale of fighter aircraft to India, they negotiated and concluded an agreement with Pakistan for the sale of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant along with reprocessing technology. It took all of the USA’s persuasive powers with France and with Pakistan including an incentive in the form of an American promise to sell to Pakistan some A-7 aircraft to get the agreement for the sale of the reprocessing plant and technology cancelled. Later when after March 1977, there started in Pakistan anti-Bhutto protests led by Jama’at-el Islami and a few other Islamic groups in addition to lay political parties, I asked someone in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who was in a position to know, if there was any outside support for the anti-Bhutto protests. He told me that they, the French, had had reports from Pakistan suggesting that the protesters had received at least financial support from some American ‘services’. I asked what the USA could have against Bhutto. He said cryptically that it was the same as us Indians, that is, Bhutto’s interest in acquiring the capability for reprocessing plutonium.
WHEN MORARJI DESAI VISITED PARIS, I was no longer the political officer of the embassy. Arrangements for the visit were not my responsibility but because of my supposed facility with the French language I was asked to take care of a few matters of detail from time to time. One of these was a message from Delhi saying that Morarji Desai with his conscientious objections to inoculations and vaccinations had no international health certificate. The message asked us to get an assurance from the French that there would be no problems at Morarji’s arrival in Paris. When I spoke to the concerned Sous-directeur in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs he told me that he would let the relevant authorities know and that he did not foresee anyone looking too closely at the travel documents of a visiting Prime Minister but if we insisted on a formal assurance there could be trouble. I thought it best to tell people back in Delhi nothing more than that we did not foresee any difficulty for if I told them anything about the inadvisability of insisting on a formal assurance there would be endless problems.
The Élysée had to be told about the Indian Prime Minister’s food habits for the banquet the French President was giving in his honour. After I had listed out over the telephone to the concerned official at the Élysée all that Morarji Desai ate and drank and all that he did not, the man called back to ask if they could serve scrambled eggs or an omelette—it was difficult for him to understand that someone could subsist on the kind of spartan food the Indian Prime Minister took. I told him that if they did anything of that kind I would lose my job. Some time later the man was back on the telephone to ask what kind of fruits could be served to which I gave an answer based on the message in front of me. Then he asked me if other guests could be served wine. I thought it best not to ask anyone and said yes though I learnt later from someone senior enough in the French Ministry of French Affairs to have been invited to the banquet that there was no wine at the table—he actually said that he had heard so much about the quality of wines and cheeses at the Élysée but on the only two occasions, banquets in honour of Anwar Sadat and Morarji Desai, when he had been invited there, to his great chagrin, no wine was served in deference to the sensitivities of the visiting personalities. When I thought I had finished with the business of food for the Prime Minister, the man at the Élysée was back on the telephone to ask what kind of milk. I said ordinary cow’s milk. He asked if normal pasteurized milk would do. I decided very quickly to ignore the voice of my conscience and without checking with my superiors, said yes to pasteurized milk. I never found out if that is what was served or whether the French double-checked elsewhere and found a way of serving fresher than pasteurized milk.
I was glad nothing went wrong during that visit on matters I had been asked to deal with. I recounted my experience of my dealings with the Élysée on the question of food for the Indian Prime Minister to a friend at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He told me of a prolonged visit to France of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandarnaike during which he had to accompany her on a tour of the French provinces stretching over several days. Apparently Mrs. Bandarnaike, a vegetarian, took eggs. As a result there would be scrambled eggs or omelettes every day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. This friend at the French Ministry told me that he had never eaten as many eggs per day in his life (and he was not young) as he did then. Another story I was told was about an Élysée banquet in honour of a visiting francophone African Head of State. On the printed menu card for the banquet, the dessert, a chocolate preparation topped with whipped cream, had been called Nègre en Chemise Blanche (Negro in White Shirt). Someone saw, about two hours before the banquet, the offense this descriptive name of the dessert would cause. At short notice the dessert was rechristened and a new menu card printed. Someone, not the cook, at the Élysée was chastised.
In time, I learnt of the numerous hazards ordinary functionaries of state, especially Indian, had to beware of when dealing with food and drinks and other amenities for the powerful. There were Indian newspaper stories such as a middle ranking Indian tourism department official in India being moved out of his job overnight because a Prime Minister visiting his area had found that sandwiches served at some place a tad too dry. About a quarter of a century after Paris, I headed an embassy in another country. A Government of India minister, my superior, a man whose pretentiousness bordered on fatuity, was on official business along with a large contingent of officials headed by a secretary in his ministry. Someone on my staff who knew the minister’s tastes told the embassy official responsible for making arrangements for the visit about his fondness for red wine and advised him that some red wine, not to be paid for by the minister, should be kept in his hotel room. At the embassy, knowing my views, they ignored this advice even though such had become the general practice in the Indian diplomatic establishment. The day after the minister’s arrival, the secretary from that ministry asked the embassy people why no red wine had been placed in the minister’s room and was told that such had not been the practice in our embassy. No questions were asked of me and none answered. Red wine was consumed and paid for not out of the minister’s pocket but out of his entertainment allowance. I was, I believe, in trouble with the minister because of my lack of imagination. But I have digressed again.
SOME TIME IN FEBRUARY 1976, Giscard d’Estaing went on the French television to say, citing the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, that the Prime Minister’s responsibility was ‘to guide and animate’ the action of the government. He went on to say that from then on Prime Minister Jacques Chirac would lead the parliamentary majority as well as the government. In brief he appeared to be delegating all governmental authority to the Prime Minister. Anyone vaguely familiar with the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the Fifth Republic in France would know that the Constitution of the Fifth Republic was designed to give supreme political authority and power to General de Gaulle as the President of France. Under de Gaulle the Prime Minister was a secondary personality, the words in the Constitution defining his power and authority notwithstanding. General de Gaulle changed his prime ministers at will—Georges Pompidou had complained that he had been thrown out like a domestic servant. In this constitutional scheme the seeming delegation of all authority by Giscard d’Estaing to Jacques Chirac was more a harbinger of trouble between the two than a deliberate strengthening of the office of Prime Minister.
Soon afterwards, in the cantonal elections, read also as a countrywide opinion poll, the leftist coalition of the French Socialist and Communist parties together made impressive gains. In a survey of the contemporary French political scene I wrote about the incipient trouble between Giscard and Chirac, saying that the two might soon part company. I also said that from then on the question that would dominate French internal political debate till the election to the French National Assembly in 1978 was whether the leftist combine of the Socialists and the Communists—who had joined hands together on a Common Programme—would win a majority in the National Assembly. If that happened a number of other questions would arise including one about whether France would be governed from the left or the right, the choice not being the classical one between ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’. Ambassador Chatterjee decided to forward my survey to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi with a covering note of his own in which, quoting André Malraux in a conversation with him he said that Jacques Chirac was a Gaullist under de Gaulle, a Pompidolian under Pompidou, and a Giscardian under Giscard. I do not remember whether Chatterjee added, though I think he did, that in reality Chirac was a Chiraquist.
In August 1976, Jacques Chirac resigned as the Prime Minister of France. He was parting company with Giscard in whose side he would become a thorn during the remaining five years of his presidency. In December that year he set out to recast the old Gaullist party under the name of Rassemblement Pour la République. This exercise concluded with a public rally in the exhibition grounds at the Porte de Versailles in Paris to which Ambassador Ram Sathe had asked me to go on his behalf. The gathering at the rally, obviously mobilized, was very large by French standards. In the morning Jacques Chirac was confirmed as the leader of the new Party, or the old Party with a new name, by wildly cheering crowds. Apart from talking about the glory of France and such other matters of higher importance he said very little else. By the time I returned to office in the afternoon I had forgotten what Chirac or the others had said at the rally but remembered the demagogy, the plebiscitary style, the utter mindlessness of the meeting whose only purpose would have been to impress friend and foe with the strength of popular support for, and the capacity for mobilization of the newly elected leader. Lunch at which I found myself at the same table as Louis Joxe, a senior Gaullist, and a counsellor from a West European embassy followed the morning proceedings. During much of the lunch the counsellor kept coming back to questions, all addressed to Joxe, about the rising curve of Chirac’s popularity then on and the slope of that curve a few months later. Neither Joxe’s reticence nor his unwillingness to make definitive prognostications discouraged the counsellor who continued with his questions till Joxe decisively changed the subject. He was clearly thinking of his report about the rally—most diplomats’ concern. Back at office in the afternoon one of my junior colleagues asked me about the rally. I said to him that I was coming round to the view that politicians and gangsters belonged to one kinship just as diplomats and fools belonged to another. That was hyperbolic but having seen or read about mass political rallies in other places, both in democratic and non-democratic societies, I have been struck by their similarity.
About the kinship of diplomats I came across another description at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Customs authorities in India sought on charges of contraband an Indian businessman who had got an African Head of State to declare him his adopted son. He travelled on a diplomatic passport and a diplomatic title. We had instructions from Delhi to request the French authorities not to recognize this man’s claims to diplomatic immunity and privileges but treat him like a common criminal, arrest him and hand him over to our law enforcement agencies. The official in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs I spoke to heard me out and promised to ‘sensitize’ the concerned people in the French Government. He then tut-tutted and added with an air of mock meditativeness: ‘It is said that rugby is a game made for street boys (the French word he used was voyous) but played by gentlemen. It could also be said that diplomacy was a profession meant for gentlemen but practiced more and more by street boys.’
I have known only a few cases of diplomats behaving like street boys but stories of diplomats breaching customs rules or rules controlling trade in antiques in small or not so small ways are common. I knew of a Lao diplomat who had been named ambassador of his country to France having been sent back by the French Government even before he presented his credentials because the customs people found opium or heroin in his baggage. In another capital, a West European and an African ambassador, both of whom I knew well, were in the habit of buying ivory (it did not matter that international trade in ivory had already been banned), getting it carved by a local man and sending it out or taking it out in their personal baggage. They did this in an arrangement at least of mutual consultation. On one occasion the local ivory carver, having gotten into a payment dispute with one of the ambassadors, tipped off the customs men at the airport just before his departure on vacation. The customs men, in spite of his claiming diplomatic privilege, opened the ambassador’s baggage and found ivory. The story of the two ambassadors became a subject of local gossip. The West European ambassador was quickly moved out of that country by his government and sent to another. The African, claiming proximity to the Head of State of his country, said to the host government that relations between their countries would suffer unless the case was closed, stayed on and brazened it out. In yet another capital, I knew of the great problems faced by the dean of the diplomatic corps, a West European ambassador, and his wife at the time of their departure because of the large quantities of old objets d’art in their baggage. I never learnt how they resolved their difficulties.
AFTER THE ESTABLISHMENT OF HIS RE-NAMED POLITICAL PARTY, in the spring of 1977 Jacques Chirac stood and won against Michel d’Ornano, Giscard’s official candidate in the first direct election since 1870 of the Mayor of Paris. That gave him a platform from which to create more problems for Giscard during the remaining years of his seven-year term as President. In the municipal elections held all over the country at the same time as the election of the Mayor of Paris, the partners in the Common Programme polled more votes than the government parties—François Mitterand’s Socialist Party polling more than a quarter. These results gave rise to renewed fears of a leftist majority in the National Assembly, a Socialist led government with Communist ministers and a possible constitutional crisis in the ensuing year—cohabitation had not yet been invented.
In mid 1977 Leonid Brezhnev came on an official visit to France. His discussions were naturally mainly with people in the French Government, but Georges Marchais of the French Communist Party had a separate meeting with him. Within weeks of the Brezhnev visit, Georges Marchais asked for a revision of the Common Programme, posing conditions that were impossible for François Mitterand to accept. It was unlikely that Georges Marchais would not have known that he was in effect wrecking the Common Programme and in doing so was denying the Left the possibility of forming a government in France, under a right wing President, after the National Assembly election in 1978. In the event, in 1978, the right wing parties won a majority in the National Assembly and the feared constitutional crisis did not happen. It was difficult not to see a connection between Brezhnev’s visit and the behaviour of Georges Marchais.
I remember going to a lecture in late 1976 or early 1977 by André Fontaine who was then Rédacteur en Chef (it is difficult for me to find exact equivalents of people on the editorial staff of British, French and American newspapers) of Le Monde. Having read his two volume History of the Cold War I was familiar with his outlook. In his talk, André Fontaine mentioned a meeting he had with Brezhnev at the concluding Helsinki Summit on Security and Cooperation in Europe. In the course of that conversation the situation in Portugal came up. Brezhnev said that President Ford had raised Portugal with him at Helsinki saying that Portugal must not be destabilized because Portugal was on ‘this side’. Brezhnev then said to André Fontaine that Ford was right as Portugal was indeed on ‘that side’. That side of what, asked Fontaine. Well, that side said Brezhnev. General de Gaulle had denounced the Soviet action of sending troops into Prague in the spring of 1968, blaming the Yalta Agreement for the division of Europe. Yet, almost certainly because of Yalta, Communist Parties in West Europe, even in countries where they were strong such as France, Italy and, later Portugal did not seriously upset the power structure or attempt to seize power.
In 1977 and later an issue that was debated widely was the decline in the fortunes of Communist Parties in West Europe—their share of popular vote had been diminishing. Of the many explanations being put forward at that time the most elegant was about the embourgeoisement of the working class in West Europe—people, who enjoyed a higher standard of living than ever before and had most of their consumption needs satisfied, were no longer interested in upsetting the social order. Others said that the West European Communist Parties had failed to shed their reputation of working at the behest of the Soviet Union. Yet others said that these parties had been strangely pusillanimous about taking advantage of opportunities that came their way.
IN FRANCE, as in the entire industrialized West, the quadrupling of petroleum prices by the OPEC simultaneously with an embargo on the export of oil by the Arab states in 1973 soon after the Yom Kippur War had caused great anxieties. By 1975, some of the more radical Arab leaders, notably Houari Boumedienne of Algeria, in an obvious attempt to get the political backing of the developing world for the OPEC move to gain control over the supply and pricing of petroleum, had started presenting the OPEC as the vanguard of developing nations, producers and exporters of primary commodities and importers of manufactured industrial goods, in a confrontation between the developing and the developed countries. Some developing countries saw an opportunity in this confrontation for improving the terms of trade for themselves if not actually also improving their bargaining power by forming cartels of the producers of different commodities. There was already talk in some quarters—I had come across it for the first time at Oxford—of diverging interests of OPEC and what was facetiously called NOPEC, the non petroleum exporting developing countries. In these circumstances, Giscard d’Estaing’s proposal for a Conference in Paris of a limited number of developed, developing OPEC and developing NOPEC countries was a shrewd move. By around the end of 1975 most of the details about what was to be called the Conference on International Economic Co-operation or, in journalese, the North-South Conference had been settled.
In the opinion I had of the Conference at that time, Giscard’s initiative served two purposes. One was to enhance his position as a statesman of stature on the international stage. I saw the second purpose as an attempt to stall if not altogether thwart the further consolidation of OPEC’s power, an attempt to stall or thwart the formation of a Third World block behind OPEC and at the minimum an attempt to prevent or delay further abrupt and significant increases in the price of crude.
In January 1976, as the man in charge for the time being at our Embassy in Paris for a period of two and a half weeks, I had to perform the duty of eating a luncheon with other Heads of Mission of the Commonwealth. As a temporary Head of Mission of very short standing my position at the dining table was the lowest. The British Ambassador having very recently presented his credentials was seated opposite me though his standing in Paris society would probably have far exceeded that of any Indian Ambassador. He talked of how one of his predecessors, Sir Christopher Soames dealt with the problems of moving from Paris to Brussels with his stable of racehorses and his wine cellar—two interests capable of sending any Ambassador in Paris into circles in Parisian society likely to be out of reach for ambassadors from republican India. Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador expressed his appreciation of the excellent Gevrey Chambertin that was served and even gracefully advised the Kenyan host not to spend so much money. At one stage the conversation turned to the North-South Conference and the British asked me for my opinion. It was perhaps the wine, which had won the Ambassador’s approval, which encouraged frivolity. I said that Giscard had already achieved half his purpose by the mere fact of launching the Conference. ‘And the other half?’ the Ambassador asked. I said that he should know best as Great Britain had made such an ado about getting a seat independent of the European Community at the Conference table. He said that that was for reasons of domestic British politics. I did not have to give a more serious answer to the Ambassador’s second question as, with more food and wine, interest in the North-South Conference round that dining table flagged.
India was happy to have been considered an important enough member of the international community to be invited to participate in this Conference. The Conference soon acquired a Secretariat and a senior Indian diplomat successfully lobbied to become the principal aide to the Latin American Secretary General, Perez Guerrero. Soon enough India also set up a ‘permanent mission’ to the Conference complete with an ‘ambassador’, a counsellor and a first secretary. Yet, unlike the industrialized country consumers of petroleum and unlike the OPEC, India did not have any clear national objective to pursue. As a country whose external payments had gone into severe imbalance because of the whopping increase in crude oil prices in 1973 it should have been concerned, like the West, or the North in the jargon of the discourse of international economic cooperation, with preventing similar shocks in the future. But that would have meant being seen on the same side as the developed countries in their ‘confrontation’ with the developing countries, which was a political impossibility.
Having failed to persuade the OPEC even to take a serious look at the proposal to introduce differential pricing for crude for the developing countries, India like other developing countries was mainly concerned with allaying the harm done to its economy by high prices of crude. Thus the one battle Indian delegates fought the most energetically was for keeping India in the MSN (the Most Seriously Affected Nations) category, which would have meant greater access to concessional financial assistance. For the rest India pursued the tired old UNCTAD agenda, complete with all the excrescences acquired in diverse locales since the founding of UNCTAD in 1964. Indian warriors from various UNCTAD battles were not discouraged by the fact that much of that agenda had withered on the vine or was in the danger of doing so, the most eye catching being the UNCTAD target of 0.7% of the GDP of the developed countries being given out as Official Development Assistance. At times it seemed to me that just as for Giscard d’Estaing the fact of convening the North-South Conference in Paris was achieving half his objective, for India too the fact of sitting at that Conference table already meant travelling half the distance towards whatever objective India was pursuing.
At the North-South Conference in Paris, it was only in the power of the affluent industrialized countries, and to a limited degree the OPEC flush with windfall earnings from high prices of crude, to give what the non-oil exporting developing countries were asking for: debt relief, greater and more liberal financial assistance, technology transfer, stabilization of commodity prices, greater market access for their exports and all the rest. In the developed world, preoccupied with questions such as persistent stagflation, the need to safeguard standards of living, the need to hold the price of crude down and above all the need to ensure that the black viscous fluid would continue flowing, there was no audience for these demands. Soon enough the North-South dialogue was in a stalemate.
There was one occasion when Ram Sathe, our Ambassador to France organized an informal meeting over cocktails in his house between the senior most official in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs dealing with the North-South Conference and one or two of his colleagues and our own ‘ambassador’ to the North-South Conference. I was present. The French thought that this could be an opportunity to try some new ideas and see if India could change the way it saw the problems. Our ‘ambassador’ to the Conference had nothing to say beyond the UNCTAD formulae. As the evening wore on the French became more irritated and our side more repetitive. That evening’s dialogue of the deaf typified the larger dialogue of the deaf at the Paris Conference all through 1976 and a good deal of 1977. This emperor had no clothes. I am not sure if any innocent said so in public at that time but soon enough diplomats were to draw up a final declaration to wrap the emperor in for his appearance at the finale. Even while the mostly barren discussions at this Conference continued, annual summits of a powerful international group—the Group of Seven (most industrialized nations of the world)—were becoming institutionalized, almost unnoticed by the Third World.
In mid-1977, the Paris Conference on International Economic Cooperation came to a close. Ministers from the participating countries came for the formal closing. The concerned Indian Minister also came, along with two secretaries from his ministry and some others. The minister had a separate meeting with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs to discuss bilateral matters. Under persistent prodding from his advisers the Indian minister raised a question about the difficulties of Indian textile exports to France. The French minister pulled a woman’s brief out of his desk drawer and said that earlier on the same day at the National Assembly a deputy from one of the left parties had waved that brief, imported from an Asian country, and called the import of such goods the greatest danger to French textile industry and to French jobs. He said that the French Government was constantly under pressure from its own industrialists and trade unions. That was the end of the discussion on Indian textile exports. Whether on other issues the Indian minister’s discussions with the French minister were more detailed and conclusive, is unknown.
There was a valedictory dinner by the French Foreign Minister, the host, for the minister and his senior most aide from each participating delegation. From the Indian delegation the Minister and the senior secretary of his ministry were expected to go. Ambassador Ram Sathe had invited everyone else in the Indian delegation to a dinner at the Residence. My wife and I were also invited. In the afternoon before those two parallel dinner parties Ram Sathe, for reasons unknown to me, telephoned to ask me to stop by at the Indian minister’s hotel on my way to the Residence and make sure that our minister left for the French Foreign Minister’s dinner on time. At the hotel, leaving my wife in the foyer, I went up to the minister’s room and knocked. No one stirred. I persisted for a few minutes and yet there was no movement. I went looking for the minister’s special assistant (chef de cabinet) who was not in his room either. In panic already, I went down to the lobby to check if the minister had not gone out and back again to knock at his door. Still no answer. Going up once again to the special assistant’s room, I met him in the lift and asked where the minister was. He said he did not know. When we went down together and as he knocked at the minister’s door, a waiter asked if we needed help and at our request opened the room with his master key. As I waited in the sitting room of the suite the special assistant woke the Minister up, asked him to dress for dinner and went away. When the minister was ready, I accompanied him to the lobby where he asked me about the senior secretary. The senior secretary told me he did not know about the French Foreign Minister’s dinner and was dining out with the French Ambassador in Delhi. When I repeated this to our minister he asked me if he must go to the Foreign Minister’s dinner. I said that that was what would be proper. Then he asked me if he was not going to be late. I said that with the outriders escorting his car he would be perfectly on time. Thereafter, reluctance written all over his face and mumbling something to the effect: ‘Let me then go by myself’, he allowed himself to be escorted to his official car. That has remained the last scene of the North-South Conference in my memory.
IN FEBRUARY 1977, at my request, Ambassador Ram Sathe moved me from the political to the commercial section in the embassy in Paris. The basket of Indian exports to France those days consisted of animal feed, particularly oilcakes, gems and jewelry, textiles, including ready-made garments, tea, jute, leather products and small quantities of seafood and coir and coir products. Negotiation of trade agreements and other parts of the régime governing trade was no longer negotiated with individual governments of the members of the European Community but with the European Commission at Brussels. This meant that the main responsibility of the commercial officer was export promotion and the resolution of specific problems. The most important promotional activity was the participation in various trade fairs, all of them in Paris, which was essentially taken care of by promotional bodies in India, with marginal assistance from the embassy. The Indian Handloom Export Corporation had an office and retail outlet in Paris. In addition there was in Paris an office of the State Trading Corporation of India (STC) exporting mainly ready-made garments. I argued futilely that since Indian exporters were able to export ready-made garments in any case up to and beyond the quota limit independently of the STC, the STC office should concentrate its energies on promoting those products which were difficult to export—quite clearly, the STC, anxious to show performance, preferred to deal in goods that moved easily. There were products like oilcakes and gems and jewelry, more important in value terms than others, which moved without the embassy having to lift a finger and, most of the time, without the embassy’s knowledge except from trade statistics.
On the other hand the export of some 1000 tonnes of coir, not very significant in value, attracted disproportionate amount of attention. France still had four antiquated but functioning mills making coir yarn and other products such as coir mats. With their own organization complete with a secretariat and a Secretary General, anxious to protect this industry, they would not permit the import of coir in any but the simplest form to be used as raw material by these mills. As France was the only country in the European Community with a coir industry, the problem was specific to it. There would be long arguments in Brussels where Indian official spokesmen would talk about some 600,000 people in a ‘politically sensitive’ state like Kerala, who depended for their livelihood and sustenance on coir; they would also talk about the desirability of the industrialized countries shifting from the import of simple raw material to the import of value added products from the developing world. In answer to all that the old curmudgeonly French industrialists and the Secretary General would talk of their investment in the development of ever-newer coir products and promoting them; they would also talk of the need for more stringent quality control on the Indian side. They would even talk of the beauty and universality of coir doormats and say that they as manufacturers knew that housewives in Europe would like neat looking doormats at the their doorsteps, implying that Indian manufacturers with their lower quality standards could not fulfill the demand in that market. None of these discussions resulted in larger European import quotas for coir or coir products from India. Some exporters of coir products from Kerala would join the Indian officials in Brussels. The most significant among them had a few factories in Kerala for making coir yarn and mats. In our discussions in Brussels we were supposed to be defending and promoting the interests of people like him and, by extension, the interests of workers employed by them. I had the impression after one of these discussions in Brussels that this person was quite happy selling coir products where he could and selling simple coir as raw material to the French industrialists with whom he had a cozy and long established relationship. It is these relations more than our discussions in Brussels or Paris that took care of the export of coir and things made out of coir.
Ready-made garments, being part of a well-established quota régime between India and the European Community should normally not have been problematic, if, that is, the clockwork functioned as precisely as it theoretically should. Yet they were problematic, because, for at least some articles of clothing from India the demand in the French market far exceeded the Indian quota. Most of what came under this régime from India was made of cotton. Every spring many consignments of garments from India would be blocked by the French customs at airports because by the time they arrived, import quotas for France had been used up. At a certain level this came down to a case for larger import quotas or no import quotas at all.
I knew that at practically all negotiations in Brussels or elsewhere our people argued the case for larger quotas or the abolition of quotas or for a free international trading régime in textiles, basing themselves on elegant arguments about the international division of labour, about the developed countries graduating to the manufacture of goods of higher technological sophistication or about the need to recognize natural strengths of different manufacturers. These arguments produced no more than slow progress towards larger quotas. It is a measure of the protectionist pressures in the industrialized West (or North?) that a quarter century later, in spite of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, the establishment of the World Trade Organization and the political commitment to the abolition of all restrictions on trade, in spite of the agreement to phase out the Multi-Fibre Agreement which has governed international trade in textiles, trade in this group of goods remains problematic.
For me the immediate problem on the ground in Paris in 1977 and 1978 was that of consignments of garments from India lying at French airports. Ambassador Sathe had left me the freedom to deal with such problems in ways I thought best and keep him informed. I congratulated myself on this show of confidence in my abilities and beat about for a solution. The easiest was to say that if people had tried to import goods into the country in violation of formal international agreements, it was their problem with which we at the embassy would have nothing to do—which I found very difficult to accept. Many of the importers whose consignments were held by French customs were small people with little access to the French Ministry of Industry whose responsibility it was to manage these quotas and enforce protectionist restrictions. They turned to us at the embassy for help—something, I suppose, that appealed to my vanity. Besides, I argued to myself that the relationship between Indian exporters and French importers was a precious link in this trade which should be preserved, but if the importers in France started viewing their textile trade with India as too complicated, this link could not survive for long.
I tried to engage the senior most person in the French Ministry of Industry dealing with these issues in a series of discussions, in office and over lunch. On the larger question of quotas he made a suggestion. He said that he sympathized with our point of view; he said that it was unfair that the import quotas for a country the size of India should be small compared to the quotas for ‘miniscule’ Hongkong, adding that Hongkong was the tip of an iceberg. I asked if he was talking of China. He said he was also talking of the fact that Germany had made large investments in the garment industry in Hongkong which explained generous quotas for textile imports from Hongkong into the Community. He went on to say that the best to his thinking would be for the Community to have single global quotas for import of different categories of garments and textiles within which different exporting countries would compete freely with each other. I passed this suggestion on to the Ministry of Commerce in Delhi—the Ministry dealing with India’s foreign trade— and waited for an answer. None came and none was given to the French Ministry of Industry. Later, when I asked the concerned people in the Indian Ministry of Commerce what they thought of the French suggestion, they told me that they were not in favour because of the fear that Indian garment exporters might not be able to compete with exporters from other countries within such global quotas.
My problem of consignments of Indian manufactured garments in customs warehouses at French airports remained. I tried persuading the French to allow in, in excess of the quota limits, whatever was already at French ports or airports against a promise from us that in future we would stop our exporters from exceeding the quota limits. I had two very tough people, who knew their figures very well, to deal with. They came back with the suggestion that they would clear half the consignments outside quota calculations and clear the remainder against the next year’s quota. I asked the Ministry of Commerce in Delhi for their approval, saying that was the best deal we could get, and got no answer. In the end I told the French we agreed and told the Ministry of Commerce I had done so. There was still not a word from the Ministry of Commerce. I wondered if some people were happy they had been spared the agony of decision-making. I was in any case spared any trouble over the problems of import quotas for textiles in the French market or of uncleared consignments of Indian textile products at French airports in the remainder of my time in Paris.
Many French companies pursuing real interests or chimeras in India thought it useful to keep us informed of what they wanted to do. There were others we came in touch with because official visitors from India on the lookout for suppliers of technology or equipment wanted to talk to them. Contacts of this nature were regular and constant and covered major names in French industry or banking—Alsthom Atlantique, Thomson CSF, CIT-Alcatel, Pechiney-Ugine Kuhlman, Crédit Lyonnais, Charbonnages de France and Compagnie Française des Pétroles to name some, not to mention the manufacturers of engines of death whose activities were outside my area of responsibility. There were three things common to all these companies. One was that their managers thought of and presented France as a modern country whose industrial and technological prowess were at the same level as any other in the industrialized world—France had much other than good wine, cheese and haute couture to offer, many of these people would say. Secondly, most of them were perfectly at home in the English language—someone we knew told us that before the Second World War, German was the most popular foreign language learnt and taught in French schools but after the War, English had completely replaced German. The third point common to all these people was their feeling that their efforts at doing business in India were quite disproportionate to the results achieved. This feeling was summed up in nearly all Indo-French parleys by saying that Indo-French economic and commercial ties were far below their potential. I cannot remember how often and in the discussion of India’s relations with how many other countries I have heard that expression repeated since those days in Paris.
More than any other, it is people at the Compagnie Française des Pétroles, better known by its initials CFP, especially people at their TOTAL International division and one or two of their middlemen friends who kept in continuous contact with me. The CFP had been involved in the exploration for oil and gas in the Bombay offshore area and were interested in business in the expansion of these oil fields and in the development of neighbouring gas fields. In so many of these meetings, most of them over delectable lunches, these people tried to educate me about the techniques of secondary extraction or about the manner in which they had dealt with specific problems in the Forties or in the offshore fields in the Persian Gulf where TOTAL was engaged in operations. They talked about their frustrations in dealing with the ONGC (the Oil and Natural Gas Commission) in India—their special bugbear was one particular conservationist senior official at the ONGC while the CFP/TOTAL argued for speeding up extraction. I did what I had to do to communicate the CFP’s case back home. They used all channels of communication available to them, including me, to try and advance their interests in India without making much progress.
There arose political problems in India about some contracts given to them in the past. After the defeat of Mrs. Indira Gandhi and her political party at the March 1977 general election, a new government run by the newly founded Janata Party and led by Morarji Desai took over in Delhi on March 22, 1977 or thereabouts. At least one minister in the new government wanted to swiftly start criminal cases against Mrs. Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi and put them in jail. Among the first actions of the new government was to start an enquiry into some decisions about petroleum exploration and extraction. B.B. Vohra, the secretary in the Petroleum ministry was temporarily removed and there was the possibility that he might be arrested. Around this time or a little later I had sent a telegramme to the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi, which was widely circulated among different departments, including the Ministry of Petroleum. I had done so under instructions from Ambassador Sathe. I do not remember much about its contents but I remember it had something to do with the CFP and the production of crude in India. Some time afterwards, H.N. Bahuguna, the Minister for Petroleum in Morarji Desai’s government transited through Paris. Ambassador Sathe went to the airport to meet the Minister and had asked me to come along. I was introduced to the Minister. After some time, referring to the telegramme I had sent, Minister Bahuguna told the Ambassador that his commercial officer seemed to be a greenhorn. My telegramme had clearly not amused people in Delhi.
In addition to Indian exports to France and the interest of French companies in doing business in India, questions about foreign economic assistance to India and, in a marginal sort of way, discussions over French credit to India or the annual World Bank sponsored donors’ meetings in Paris to discuss economic aid to India were the commercial officer’s business. On the global question of economic aid the most important question on which we lobbied at that time, particularly with important members of the World Bank like France was that we wanted to continue getting 40% of the total disbursement of assistance from the IDA, the soft credit (no interest but a service charge of between 2% and 0.5% and repayment periods of 30 years or more) window of the World Bank, which we had been getting since the inception of IDA—we almost wanted to establish a natural claim to that share. On French credit of 300 million French Francs annually, a small delegation from the Indian Ministry of Finance would come to ‘negotiate’ terms every year. They would also ‘negotiate’ a rescheduling of past debts. The French would routinely complain about very slow utilization of their credit—short hand for saying that India was not buying enough from France. The Ambassador of India would later sign the agreements that the team from the Finance Ministry would have negotiated.
The economic affairs secretary in the Indian Ministry of Finance would lead the much larger Indian delegation to the World Bank sponsored donors’ meetings in Paris. These meetings would comprise one or two plenaries at which the Indian delegation would make a presentation about the state of the Indian economy, Government of India’s economic policies, their rationale and the future course of action. Different donors would announce credits or grants already bilaterally agreed or say that new loans and grants would be announced at some forthcoming bilateral event. Some of the donors would express satisfaction over some aspect of policy and some others would advocate change. Many would complain, directly or indirectly, of the slow pace of utilization of their grants or credits. Aside from the plenaries there would be an in camera meeting of the heads of delegation and the senior World Bank staff at which Indian policies would be much more closely examined. After these meetings, the Indian delegation would quickly add up all the assistance already announced at the meetings or likely to be announced by individual countries and the World Bank group in the course of the year and give out the total to the press—Indian press—as the outcome of that meeting in such way as to suggest that the size of the total was a measure of the success not only of the meeting but also of the Indian delegation. I was a tail ender in the Indian delegation to two such meetings. I was aware of the criticism in India of India not being able to use concessional assistance agreed by the World Bank and instead paying a commitment fee to the Bank for long periods of non-utilization of that assistance. I knew all the arguments justifying our continued need for foreign economic assistance and had rehearsed them. What I could not reconcile in my mind then or in the years after was the contradiction between the policy of seeking ever-larger quantities of external economic assistance on concessional terms and that of claiming Great Power status for India.
AMBASSADOR SATHE must have thought, rightly, that his commercial officer was under-employed. He occasionally gave me some additional odd jobs. One of these, given towards the end of 1977, was to look at a problem that had been taken care of till then by our Air Force Attaché and even earlier by the Indian Embassy in Berne. In 1974 or 1975, Government of India had bought for the Indian Air Force, three used Caribou transport aircraft from an American company registered in the Bahamas. It had been arranged through the Cologne subsidiary of this company that these aircraft would be refitted by them. They in their turn had asked BALAIR, a Swiss company affiliated to Swissair to do the job. After the refitment the aircraft had been parked in BALAIR hangars at Basel Airport. In the mean time a payment dispute had broken out between the Cologne company and Government of India—whether the change of government in Delhi had anything to do with the dispute was not clear to me. BALAIR had gone to a French court in Mulhouse—French courts had jurisdiction over Basel airport because it was situated on French land on lease to Switzerland—claiming that the Cologne company might forcefully or stealthily take the aircraft away without paying BALAIR’s dues. The court in Mulhouse had issued an injunction and ordered the attachment of the aircraft.
I had barely had a quick look at the papers that had been passed on to me when the secretary in the Indian Ministry of Defence came to Paris for parleys on the purchase of Mirage F1/Jaguar for the Indian Air Force. I was called in to discuss the Caribous. I ventured the opinion that in international law, those aircraft, being the property of a sovereign, were immune and could not be attached. He accepted that view and promised to consult the Legal and Treaties expert in the Ministry of External Affairs who in turn confirmed that the principle of sovereign immunity should apply to this case. Meanwhile I had a closer look at all the papers including the order of the Mulhouse court. Government of India was not a party in the case before the Mulhouse court. All that the court had done was to adjudicate a commercial dispute between a Swiss and a German company. Whether or not the two colluded, as our people suspected, was irrelevant. It was also clear that Government of India would either have to start a new case at Mulhouse claiming ownership of the aircraft or go in appeal over the Mulhouse judgment to a higher court in Colmar. In either case it would mean more litigation.
I translated the entire text of the Mulhouse judgment and, in spite of Ambassador Sathe’s solicitous advice that I might be assuming too much responsibility for my own good, forwarded the English version of the judgment to the secretary in the Defence Ministry with the advice that Government of India might consider the cost of prolonged litigation in French courts. I was told clearly that we should talk to the French government to say that the aircraft, being Indian government property, could not be attached on the principle of sovereign immunity. The French answered that since a French court had pronounced a decision, only another, higher French court could overturn it and there was little the government could do. On one occasion one of my interlocutors at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me that the principle of sovereign immunity could be effectively applied if the three aircraft had been in our physical possession, or else, he added light-heartedly, it could equally effectively be used if we organized a commando raid and took hold of the aircraft. Each time I reported the French government response, I would have sovereign immunity thrown back at me so much so that I started cursing myself for having tried to show off my little knowledge of international law, mentioning sovereign immunity at the start. This principle had become a mantra for our people precluding all rational discussion.
Some weeks later the Indian secretary for defense and the Chief of the Indian Air Force were back in Paris for another evaluation of the possible deep penetration strike aircraft for the Indian Air Force. I was asked to call the French lawyer engaged by our people to handle the court cases about the Caribous in Mulhouse and Colmar. The secretary for defense had a long discussion with the lawyer in which he became progressively more frustrated, as the lawyer would not agree with him that the problem could be solved by invoking the principle of sovereign immunity with the French government. When the lawyer left, the secretary, by then quite annoyed with him told me that he found him sub-standard. As we in Paris had not engaged him, I said nothing in his defence even though I thought he was right. I could see that Government of India was in the danger of choosing one of two equally sterile courses of action: get into an endless, indeed a circular discussion with the French government over the principle of sovereign immunity, creating irritation all around or get into endless litigation in French courts, wasting time, money and energy. The Caribous would meanwhile lie grounded and untouched at Basel airport, probably deteriorating in the process.
To me a compromise with the Cologne Company appeared the best solution of which people from Delhi did not wish to hear a word. For them it was simply inconceivable that my reasoning could be sounder than that of the person whose interpretation of international law was officially the most authoritative in Government of India. Beginning to despair, I suggested that I be authorized to seek the advice of an eminent Parisian expert on international law, a professor and a member of the International Law Commission whose name had often been mentioned by the Legal and Treaties expert in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. The secretary and Ambassador Sathe both agreed. With a bagful of papers and armed with the authority to offer an honorarium I met the professor. After I had briefly explained the case to him, showed him the papers I had brought and requested for his opinion in writing, I offered the professor an honorarium asking him to name a figure, which he did; not a large sum. He said he would prefer to receive the money in cash. A few days later he gave his opinion in which, citing a number of Hague Conventions and some decisions of international tribunals, he said that the principle of sovereign immunity was not all that universal in its application, that it did not always apply to commercial disputes, that in this case we would have to fight court cases in France in order to establish our ownership of the aircraft and that, since a judgment had already been given under the municipal law of France, we should consult practicing French lawyers too.
Orally he suggested the name of a lawyers’ chamber and also suggested that in the circumstances we would be best off with a compromise with the Cologne company. Ambassador Sathe allowed me to consult the lawyers and authorized payment of an honorarium, which was severalfold what we had paid the professor and this time we paid by cheque. The lawyer said that establishing our legal rights would mean litigation, probably years of it. His opinion, which we passed on to people in Delhi, also pointed towards compromise with the company in Cologne. That is what Government of India finally decided to do but not before an Indian team had visited Paris and talked to the same lawyer and to have repeated to them the advice he had already given.
IN SPIRIT, in the mid to end 1970’s, Paris was far removed from la Belle Époque, though many of its outward manifestations were still there, more as tourist attractions or good business propositions than the embodiments of the spirit of an age. It was the sedate capital of a prosperous West European country in which the last great social upheaval—the student revolt of 1968—had already been forgotten about. There were no fears of another. It knew no major intellectual or political controversies of earlier years. When in 1977, Raymond Barre, who had succeeded Jacques Chirac as Prime Minister, started dismantling some of the statist controls and regulations which for long had been part of French life, there was no more than mildly critical comment in newspapers. Probably the most talked about book of that time was Alain Peyréfite’s Le Mal Français, a book about the centralization of authority in France and its consequences, most notably the atrophy of the spirit of enterprise. Jean-Paul Sartre, still alive, was already a figure from another age. A large number of people read Alex Haley’s Roots in French translation—hearing so many people talk about it, I also read it there in French translation, the only English book I know from its French translation. Another book people read widely and talked about was Dominique Lapierre’s Cette Nuit, la Liberté (Freedom at Midnight) — or that might be an illusion, because as an Indian, I would tend to hear them talk about that book with me more than another. Other than the Pompidou Centre, there were no important architectural innovations in the city—the only other important new architectural landmarks Baron Haussman would have found in 1978, if he came back, would have been the Palais de Chaillot, la Tour Montparnasse, the Nikko Hotel on the Seine and the concrete towers of la Défense on the city’s western edge. In religion, the controversy started by Cardinal Lefebvre’s rejection of the changes in Roman Catholic liturgy introduced by the Second Vatican Council was hardly more than a curiosity for most people. There was no fear about the Socialists, and with them the Communists, forming the next government—the only reason why a friend of ours once said she would not vote for Mitterand was that he had a salle gueule, which can be translated roughly as ‘dirty mug’. For her the mug of Georges Marchais was equally dirty. The occasional strikes called by the trade unions were looked upon as no more than inconveniences. And, it was long since Paris could make a serious claim to be the sin capital of the world. Others had overtaken it.
Foreign policy and strategy experts in the West talked about the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Many officials at the working level in the French government talked of how difficult it was to deal with it. Someone at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me of the delays in getting permissions for the completion of some French embassy buildings in Moscow until the French told the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the Soviet embassy in Paris would not move into its newly constructed building, a large box like structure on the edge of Bois de Boulogne in the 16 th arondissement, before the French embassy in Moscow moved to the buildings the French Government was constructing there. After that there were no more delays for the French construction project in Moscow. I was told this story as an illustration of the narrator’s opinion that the only language Soviet officials understood was that of toughness. Yet, I did not at any time get any sense of general anti-Soviet paranoia. I remember only two conversations with ordinary people in which the Soviet Union was mentioned.
One was at Boulogne sur Mer. In the hot dry summer of 1976, when rainfall in most of West Europe had been so deficient that lawns in France and Great Britain had turned brown, we went on a motoring holiday to Great Britain which was to take us up to Inverness. Waiting for the hovercraft, I got talking to a Frenchman who wanted to know where we were from. Then we talked about the wretched summer. The Frenchman, a teacher at a lycee, said that it was because of the Soviet Union. When I asked him how, he explained that he had read that the Soviet Union had carried out some climatological experiments in its arctic region which had disturbed the normal climatic cycle. And the second was a story a Parisian friend told me of an encounter he had over a meal with a Soviet diplomat in Paris. They talked business about shipping. At the end of the meal, the diplomat opened a bottle of Soviet kognac. Their glasses were filled and drunk and the diplomat asked his guest how he found the kognac to which the Frenchman said politely that it was good. The glasses were refilled and drunk, the same question was asked again and the same answer given. After the second refill, the Frenchman said that this Soviet kognac was good but French cognac was better. ‘Do you have cognac in France too’? the surprised Soviet diplomat asked.
Being a middle level diplomat in Paris brought to my family and me some simple but memorable pleasures. We came to know a dozen or so Parisian families which were glad to accept us among them asking for nothing in return. They, some of them much older than us, liked our company, not because it was scintillating, nor because we were very interesting but simply because we were a diplomat family. Some of them were government functionaries, some employees of business houses but all of them would qualify to be called average French men and women. One of these people was at the Imprimerie Nationale (the National Printing House). Had it not been for the numerous gifts from him of some beautifully produced books, including a leather-bound volume of a collection of Baudelaire’s poems and two leather-bound volumes of two of the best known comedies of Beaumarchais, I would not have known that the Imprimerie Nationale was much more than a press producing plain looking government publications. During two of the three summers we spent in Paris, we spent so many Saturdays in the country homes of these people. Most of these homes were within a radius of about 200 kilometres of Paris. All these outings would mean outdoor or indoor lunches, a great deal of conversation, a walk in the village or in the surrounding countryside spiced with small local tales and occasionally a light meal before returning to Paris. There would be minor variants. One of our hosts tried hard to teach us how to play pétanque after a pleasant but substantial meal. Another took us out picking snails in his garden which then were put inside a used carton to rest overnight so that those that had eaten poisonous herbs would die—only the survivors would be cooked. The poor snails did not have much choice. One of these couples had a very well appointed Basque house at Saint Jean de Luz where we stayed as their guests for a couple of nights during a tour of the region. Another had their country home near Concarneau, not far from Belon-sur-Mer. When we stayed with them, they treated us generously to the famous Belon oysters and tried to show us how to appreciate the earth tones of the landscape on the Breton coast so loved by landscape painters.
There are very few human groups which discuss the qualities of the food they eat, the wine they drink and the restaurants they go to with the same earnestness, concentration of mind, pleasure, discrimination and analytical detail as average Parisians. As a result, foreigners living among them are conditioned into assuming that good French food and wine are so good and delicate that not liking them is a sign of boorishness. I thought I had been so conditioned—something I did not regret then or later. There were two dishes in two different parts of France, which we ate with great relish, but I doubt if we would not have been overwhelmed by upper caste Hindu squeamishness about strange food if we had been introduced to the same dishes in India, Africa or Asia, as local dishes. One was a soup of anguillasses—little eel hatchlings that looked and felt on the tongue like chopped up spaghetti—which was offered to us at a beach restaurant in Biarritz when we visited Saint Jean de Luz. Another was a seafood platter we ordered in a restaurant on the Breton coast, not far from Point de Raz. It had oysters which we were used to but it also had other shells of different appearances and sizes from which the edible part had to be scooped out with small two-tined forks or small pins which looked part like safety pins and part like minuscule swords. We liked these platters—nothing was left uneaten.
It is a mark of French gastronomic refinement or a reflection of our—mine and my family’s—gourmandise that so many memories of our stay in France should be associated with food: a meal at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant near Lyons where a delightful truffle soup was named soup V.G.E. after Giscard d’Estaing, who by inviting Bocuse to prepare a banquet at the Élysée had made him a celebrity; an all champagne lunch at a major champagne maker’s at Reims; a bouillabaisse taken at the ancient port of Sète, following the advice of someone who had said that Sète was the original home of bouillabaisse and restaurants at the port had some of the best; having our fill of crêpes with all kinds of stuffings in a small town in Brittany well known for its crêpes; and…the list is long. But our best remembered French meal was of an altogether different kind.
My family and I were returning by car from Great Britain. For some reason that I cannot remember we took the ferryboat from Dover to Pas de Calais where it was already past sunset by the time we arrived. It had taken irritatingly long to take the car out. It was wet and windy—welcome change of weather after an unusually hot and dry summer—a kind of weather in which, hungry and a little angry with myself, I did not feel like looking for an eating place near the port of Calais. We drove on and not chancing upon any eating establishment on the roadside as we drove, we were quite famished by the time we arrived quite late in the evening in the central square of Arras. A dimly lit small café was the only eating place open and the only food he could give us was croque monsieur—grilled ham and cheese sandwich—and coffee. The memory of that croque monsieur and coffee is as sharp in all our minds as that of feasting for days on a whole foie gras truffe nature someone brought home once. Perhaps, not accidentally, one of my all time favourite French films is Cigalon, based on a Marcel Pagnol story and the scene I best remember in that film is a take off on French cuisine and French chefs.
A VISITOR FROM DELHI asked the wife of a colleague in our embassy what she did in her leisure time. She said there was so much to do in Paris that one was never at a loss. The visitor persisted and asked what precisely she did. She said she visited museums and saw plays. Evidently sceptical, he said sure enough, visiting museums and seeing plays could not take care of all her leisure. He was right to be sceptical about this lady’s posturing. Art students spend a great deal of time in museums just as for drama, music and dance critics watching presentations of these can be the main occupation. If you are neither, there are only so many museum visits you make and there are only so many plays or musical soirées you go to. Paris had famous museums no doubt. There were also many offerings of drama, music or dance recitals and all kinds of fairs and exhibitions. From all these offerings we chose what caught our fancy of the moment. At times when there was nothing else to do, it was such a pleasure to just walk around—not surprisingly flânerie was such a great Parisian pastime.
Likewise seeing the rest of the country was a rewarding experience for almost anyone. During our Paris stay, we visited nearly all the regions of France. The aroma of some the places we went to has lingered through the years. Having heard so much about them, we went and saw all the famous Gothic Cathedrals: Paris, Amiens, Rouen, Reims and Orleans. These and Canterbury and Cologne, which we had seen earlier, are all magnificent but for me the best and the most attractive of them all is Chartres—standing in the middle of flat plains, the Cathedral floats from nowhere into your vision, growing bigger, its lines becoming clearer as you drive towards the town. And then when you arrive at the portal you feel rewarded by the presence of a building so rich in sculpture and yet so simple in its lines. Inside, in the nave you have hundreds of pairs of arms rising towards heaven in prayer—Notre Dame de Chartres is one Cathedral where that simile seems exact.
Other places in France evoked other images and associations. In the Dordogne valley, the tourist industry never allows you to forget the Cro-Magnon man. The deep hues, the mist in the valley, the rounded hills, combined with the knowledge that this was the habitat of one of the oldest known specimens of true homo sapiens created a curious feeling of having been transported to another, very primitive age in an ancient land, as we drove around. A regret that has remained from that journey is that we were unable to visit the caves of Lascaux. They had been closed to ordinary travellers to save the cave paintings from human breath and moisture. Academic researchers could still visit them with special permits. If I had known this before going to the region I could have tried to get past the conservationist barrier under the cover of diplomatic privilege. I might not yet have succeeded.
Elsewhere, even limited readings of French literature coloured my vision. Ambassador Sathe, the Railway Adviser in our embassy and myself went on a trial run of the new French High Speed Train from Bordeaux northwards before it was put into service between Paris and Lyons. It ran through the landes. On the upward journey I was too interested in the technical details being given out to us and too fascinated by the fact that at 360 kms per hour I was travelling at the highest speed at which I would ever travel on land to look out of the windows at the surrounding country. It is only when the train, approaching the end of its upward run, slowed down that I noticed the landscape. I was, quite unknown to myself, transported to the country described by François Mauriac, visualizing some of the remembered scenes from his novels—the effect was heightened by the late afternoon sun and the illusion of stillness created by the excellent suspension system of the train. On another occasion, standing at Pointe du Raz on the Brittany coast, not far from the Church of Our Lady of the Shipwrecked, looking down at the huge waves of the Atlantic breaking on the rocks into foam and jets of water swept landward by the wind, I did not notice when I had been wafted into the world of Pierre Loti’s Pêcheurs d’Islande. And, the rocks of chalk in the sea at Etretat along with the aiguille are such obvious reminders of some of the more extravagant Arsène Lupin stories. In truth, the only reason why we went to Etretat was that I wanted to see the setting of some of these stories.
On the way back from Grenoble, we stopped at the monastery of La Grande Chartreuse. I might have been tempted to go there because of what I remembered of Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme. I was disappointed. Since the monks of the Carthusian order live in complete seclusion from the outside world no visitor can enter any part of the monastery. For satisfying the curiosity of visitors the order had made arrangements in a reception room for describing and depicting through a short film the austere lives of the monks, their days filled with prayer and meditation. Not far removed was an outlet for selling the Chartreuse, the well-known eau de vie produced by the monastery. I found it difficult to chase out of my mind the figure of Père Gaucher from the Alphonse Daudet tale. For the Hindu in me the association of alcohol and commerce with asceticism and monastic life or worship was at first sight a little disconcerting. But I should have thought of the numerous Hindu god men who had turned religion, meditation and yoga into marketable commodities.
An Egyptian Minister-Counsellor, who later rose to stratospheric heights in his government, and his wife told us that they wished someone put the Versailles Palace on fire and burnt it down. Their reason for this incendiary urge was that they had been obliged to take so many of their friends and relatives visiting Paris to see that Palace so many times that they could not bear to think of another visit. A friend at the Quai d’Orsay said to me that everyone at the Indian Embassy in Paris visited the Loire château of Blois. We must have visited the Versailles Palace three or four times and I found each visit rewarding—we never quite reached the saturation point the Egyptian Minister-Counsellor had. France had many more architectural or archaeological monuments to offer.
In the Loire valley our interest took us beyond Blois to half a dozen other well-known châteaux, between Chambord and Usse, each with its own history and its own associations. Going to see these places, so steeped in the history of France or in its miscellanies, was a pleasure, but I was left with a few questions too after each such visit. The Versailles Palace is about the same age as or half a century less old than the Red Fort of Delhi. The Red Fort of Agra, the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri are slightly older. Many of the châteaux in the Loire Valley are older. Each of these French buildings, especially Versailles, is so well preserved, some complete with furniture, paintings, tapestries and carpets, which they could be lived in at any time. The Moghul buildings of Delhi and Agra seemed in comparison to be crumbling. Looking at the Red Fort of Delhi it was difficult to believe that a Moghul Emperor had lived there till 1857. I did not know where the explanation lay: climate, lack of resources, wanton destruction by successive contenders for power or wealth as part of our gory past, simple vandalism or our apathy towards historical monuments, apathy indeed towards history.
A THIRD SECRETARY at the British Embassy in Vientiane, Richard Ralph and his wife Margaret had been good friends. We had lost track of them until about two and a half or three years ago when we saw his face on the television screen. He had become the Governor of Falkland Islands. An Australian friend from Vientiane who visited us soon afterwards at Bangkok told us some more of the news about him. Richard and Margaret had caught up with us when we were in Paris. Richard asked me if there was more work in Paris than there had been in Vientiane. I said that there was not for me personally. Perhaps there was more for the embassy but there were more people to do it. ‘Do you think this is all a huge con trick?’ Richard asked. I said I was beginning to think so. That feeling became stronger with time.
Around that time I also read in one of the Parisian newsmagazines a write up about one of Giscard’s junior ministers. His father had been an ambassador. He also started as a diplomat but while serving as a counsellor in a French embassy he decided that rather than continue in the diplomatic service, rise to higher positions but still be ‘a little diplomat’ somewhere, he would enter politics. If I have remembered that passing remark about ‘a little diplomat’ in a minor story about a junior minister in the French Government in a news magazine it is because it echoed some of my own growing doubts about the importance of the profession I was engaged in. There were other questions in my mind about the ways of people in Government of India or in Indian society generally, about the aimlessness of some of our actions, about the knavery of some and the stupidity of others and many such matters. There were some personal conclusions I was coming to about my own conduct in the future and about the things I should value and those I should not much care about. There had taken shape in my mind my personal code of conduct from which I would do my best not to deviate no matter what it cost.
IN THE SPRING OF 1979, there was a new Indian Ambassador in Paris. He wanted that I stayed on till the end of that year and, unknown to me, had said so to the Ministry of External Affairs. People in our High Commission in Dhaka, where I had been asked to move assumed that I was manipulating to stay on in Paris, and were pressing for my immediate arrival there. This tug of war ended with my being asked to go directly to Dhaka in the beginning of May that year without spending any time on much needed leave in India on our way, which would have been the normal thing to do. Just as in the game of monopoly you pull out a card which reads GO TO JAIL. GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL, I seemed to have pulled out a card which read GO DIRECTLY TO DHAKA. DO NOT STOP ON THE WAY IN INDIA. I had so much wanted to do this journey by road but had been dissuaded from thinking of it because, already in 1978, of the serious possibility of an upheaval in Iran. The card I had pulled out finally buried that thought.
Some of the confusion and the consequent inconvenience to us were unnecessary and had been caused by someone deciding that I was indispensable in Paris.We eventually left Paris on 2 nd May 1979, in the middle of an unseasonal snowfall and arrived in Dhaka on a hot afternoon on 4 th May—undergoing a process opposite to that of tempering steel. I was going to be counsellor dealing with press and information at the High Commission of India there.
* I would translate this as: ‘In Paris there is a White Father/ Ta di da, la di da…’