Former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh is clearly someone who doesn’t need the support of modern marketing to promote his new book, Walking with Lions - Tales from a Diplomatic Past.
All he has to do is turn up and deliver one of his insightful, anecdote-filled delightfully humorous speeches like the one he did Tuesday at a launch co-hosted by the Madras Book Club and publishers Harper Collins India.
Mr. Singh recalled that his first visit to the city was in 1954, when he had accompanied a Chinese cultural delegation to perform at Mylapore.
K. Kamaraj, who was Tamil Nadu Chief Minister at the time, was meant to felicitate Chen Chen Tho, Vice Minister (Culture), after the performance. But to Kamaraj, all members of the visiting delegation must have looked alike, and he ended up garlanding the interpreter. “And the more he resisted the more the Chief Minister insisted,” Mr. Singh recalled.
He shared several experiences from a long-spanning diplomatic career, such as the occasion when he earned Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s ire for not promptly circulating a draft letter to the King of Nepal, his occasional spats with Morarji Desai, and the international escapades of Chandraswami, the godman.
Mr. Singh also offered glimpses of his worldview, on how much he valued friendship, his pessimism about the moral vacuum India was in today and also his optimism that Indian democracy would survive because of the “inner strength” of its people.
He responded to questions from the audience, expressing his view on how the election of Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister of Pakistan was welcome “as a stable neighbour is in India’s interests,” while at the same time saying that like some irreconcilable problems in families or institutions that had to be lived with, the LoC would remain the border for both countries.
N. Ram, Director of Kasturi & Sons Ltd and former editor in chief of The Hindu, said a hallmark of Mr. Singh’s book was its direct and engaging tone and an economy of expression that gave readers an insight to various moments of diplomatic history.
Recalling that writer R. K. Narayan regarded Mr Singh as one of his “constant friends,” Mr Ram said Mr Singh’s book records a meeting he had with Dev Anand in New York in 1961. Anand wanted a letter of introduction so that he could get Narayan to sign over the film rights for his famous novel, The Guide.
The letter was given and the rights duly signed away. But when the film eventually came out as the Dev Anand-Waheeda Rahman blockbuster, Guide, and an English version, The Guide, by Hollywood director Tad Danielewski, R. K. Narayan responded with a stinging essay “The Misguided Guide” in LIFE magazine, satirising how his work had been twisted beyond imagining.
Mr Ram concluded, to laughter all around, that Natwar Singh was responsible for this because of the letter of introduction he provided to Dev Anand.
Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor of The Hindu, who also spoke, said Mr. Singh’s book was unlike the usual kind of writing on India’s foreign policy - the scholastic and ponderous that offered little insight for the modern reader, the semi-anecdotal that was limited by the silo-based structure of the Indian bureaucracy or the academically fashionable “strategic studies” literature that looked at foreign policy only in terms of power politics.
Historian S. Muthiah of the Madras Book Club also participated.