It seems ironical that the former U.S. defence secretary and arch conservative Donald Rumsfeld, not known exactly for his diplomatic ways, should have his inelegant phrase ‘Stuff happens’ as the chosen title for a book of anecdotes by an Indian diplomat. Rumsfeld used the phrase to dismiss the concerns about the unravelling of Iraq after Saddam’s ouster. “Freedom is untidy... stuff happens”.
Former Ambassador Rajendra Abhyankar’s world view in his book with this title is totally different from Rumsfeld’s. Abhyankar combines his long and extensive experience of West Asia with a sophisticated and sympathetic understanding of the historical, religious and political cross currents buffeting the region. And yet the title is not inappropriate since the narrative of the book is episodic, with a selection of interesting stuff happening in esoteric places.
The book is not a conventional memoir, nor an analysis of foreign policy. Abhyankar had varied postings but with a certain curious pattern: islands with an ethnic divide as in Sri Lanka and Cyprus; hot spots with complex historical and religious connections — Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and as the Secretary in the Foreign Ministry, a ringside overview of the entire region; and some more. He has crafted a structure to string the selected anecdotes by grouping people, places, experiences and encounters that he regards as ‘unusual’. It is a somewhat artificial construct, but the stories are all about the ‘drama’ in his professional career. It is refreshing that there is nothing about the bureaucratic infighting, the interface with our politicians, the hubris of representing India, and such like which often figure these days in books by former diplomats.
All the anecdotes are not equally compelling and this should not be a surprise. Memories may linger in a diplomat’s mind, but not every narrative will find an interested audience. There are recollections from difficult days in Colombo in 1983 when communal riots first broke out leading to the exodus of Tamils to India.
The author witnessed the riots, but since then we have read greater horrific tales from that locale. There are reminiscences of happy periods in San Francisco, where each day presents a different and invariably interesting encounter for an Indian diplomat. It is certainly a happening place, but without the conventional sweat and tears. A rather lengthy transcript of the writer’s testimony in the Rajiv Gandhi murder trial is included, the value of which to the book is doubtful. The back cover, a reproduction of a ritual ‘proclamation’ from the U.S. is a bad choice and the quality of the photographs is very poor.
A pity, since the bulk of the book will fascinate the reader with the stories and valuable insights about West Asia. Many of the places and patterns are very much in the news. For example, the writer had to deal with the evacuation of thousands of Indian workers from Iraq in 1980, at the time of Iraq-Iran war, much before the Government developed some standard operational procedures for dealing with that kind of crisis.
He came close to being lynched by the Indian workers and had to be saved by Saddam’s policemen! His balancing act in talking to Israelis on counter terrorism and a beleaguered Yasser Arafat in Ramallah during the same visit to the region reveals the nuances in India’s diplomacy.
The recognition of the importance of knowing the diverse religious leaders in Syria, where the author finds 72 sects of Islam, is illustrative of the deep knowledge that a resident Ambassador acquires. His travel to Kurdish lands to understand the ground realities when India was being asked to consider locating its troops in that area before the U.S. war on Iraq is a tale that needs to be better known.
Abhyankar travelled incognito and had meetings with Kurdish leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, who tell him that Indians were welcome in Iraq, but should not get into other peoples fights. It is a blessing that the Government did not accede to the American request for Indian troops. His tributes to the members of the Indian embassy doing their work in extraordinarily difficult conditions and pen portrait of loyal local employees of the embassy are generous.
Though Abhyankar does not write extensively about ‘lessons learnt’, some come through. He stresses the importance of information, access and language as essential for all diplomats. A fourth is some specialisation and in depth understanding of a region as we see in his own case.
The substantial part of the book about the Arab world and its periphery testifies to his specialisation. For me, another former diplomat, it is heartening to see the writer take justified joy and pride in his career, and the assertion that he would do it again, if asked to make a career choice.
In these days, when many young aspirants to the civil services do not opt for the Foreign Service believing that it lacks action and adventure, the book’s many stories are revealing.
(B. S. Prakash is a retired Ambassador and currently a visiting Professor at Jamia Milia Central University)