The profession of diplomacy is all about multi-tasking and crisis management. A diplomat has to be like Janus, too. He has to engage with foreign interlocutors with widely differing temperaments. But interfacing with the high and low of his own motherland may often require more diplomatic finesse than when serving abroad. It is this complex challenge that is reflected in Alan Narazeth’s immensely readable autobiography, A Ringside Seat to History. He has interwoven a narrative of personal and professional encounters with humour, pathos and an abiding faith in a larger humanity. Most of us in the foreign service end up as cynical creatures with a deep scepticism about the human condition. There is not even a single strand of cynicism in the author’s recounting of history he has been witness to and, indeed, been a participant in.
There are several memorable anecdotes in the autobiography. The call on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a fresh entrant to the foreign service in March 1959, when the then foreign secretary Subimal Dutt came in to inform the PM that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had entered India after his dramatic escape from Lhasa, surely counts as an early instance of witnessing history. Nazareth’s relentless pursuit of J Dharma Teja, whose shipping empire was enmeshed in allegations of fraud, reads like a detective story. This is an early example of how business and politics feed on each other and is a tradition that continues to this day but with more astronomical sums involved. Having served in Myanmar, I enjoyed reading the chapter ‘Spiders, Tree Spirits and a “Jewellery Crisis”’. I can testify to the continuing hold of superstition and a pervasive belief in spirits in that country and how it can infect even transient foreigners. The author’s account of the revenge of the spiders, whose home among the dense foliage in the housing compound had been thoughtlessly hacked down, resonated with me. I confess to having paid several visits to the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda to ask for a variety of boons and for help in overcoming both personal and professional crises though none as serious as the author faced. I recall having an ancient iron safe in the ambassador’s office, with no key to be found, which had to be literally melted open. Inside were several pouches of gold and jewellery left behind by Indians fleeing Ne Win’s socialist Burma which are mentioned in the chapter.
The other chapters cover Nazareth’s assignments in Africa, Latin America and the US and cover a tumultuous period in the history of several countries but also of India’s engagement with them. India’s envoys had access to the highest level of leadership but there were coups and counter coups which required extraordinary nimbleness and constant vigilance to safeguard India’s interests and to stay out of harm’s way oneself. Some close calls have been recalled with an admirable sense of humour. The reader also gets to enjoy, though vicariously, the many encounters with celebrities, among them Mother Teresa, Zubin Mehta and Morarji Desai.
As an autobiography, the book recounts several bittersweet events in the author’s personal life. His unabashed and deeply moving accounts of his early romance and long years of loving partnership with his wife, Isobel, the sense of acute loss on the death of his daughter Seema and the relief and joy at the miraculous recovery from cancer of his son, Anand, are truly moving. After retirement, Nazareth has devoted himself to the propagation of Gandhian ideals and his book Gandhi’s Outstanding Leadership (2006) has won international acclaim and has been translated into several languages. What struck me was a deep and abiding faith in the power of prayer to heal and to succour that runs through these accounts. This did shake the cynic in me.
A Ringside Seat to History reflects a more informal milieu in which the foreign service functioned in its early years. The service was extraordinarily small and almost familial in its intra-service relationships. There was easy familiarity among colleagues, and, sometimes, deeper bonds were formed in the course of one’s career. That ambience is slowly diminishing. Nazareth’s autobiography gives us a rare glimpse into those early years of the service and its steady transformation since.
Former foreign secretary MK Rasgotra’s foreword is a fitting tribute to the author and his valuable contributions to India’s foreign relations. This is ample recommendation to savour this engaging autobiography.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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