The author, who as a senior officer in the Indian Foreign Service had a series of ambassadorial postings in Latin America and later headed the Latin America desk at the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi, clearly has the happiest recollections of his time in that continent. Some of his stories are fittingly serious, and detail his meetings with the continent’s major political leaders at a time when Latin America was emerging from half a century in which almost every country there had suffered hideously under military despots supported by the United States and then under economic brutalities inflicted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Others are about the kinds of contacts diplomats around the world assist and encourage, such as the development of trade and other commercial links between India and a Latin America which knows very well the benefits of such links with both India and China.
There are political lessons here. The ordinary people of Latin America decided in the late 1990s that enough was enough, and since then they have elected and reelected left governments; Viswanathan broadly approves of the new dispensation, and lists its benefits.
Viswanathan also conveys modern political history through analyses of recent films, one on the Mexican government’s massacre of protesting students only a few days before the Mexico Olympics started in 1968, and another on the life of the legendary Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
The real-life characters who appear in this book are thoroughly memorable, from the Gandhians whom Viswanathan runs into almost by accident, through the Punjabi agriculture student who now runs a mighty farming business on behalf of a multinational and is considered a Maharaja by the locals because he wears a turban, to the entrancing Victoria Ocampo, a writer, publisher, and patron of literature whose exchanges with Rabindranath Tagore after the latter’s stay in Argentina simmer with passion. And where else could anyone meet an Aziz Abdul, born in Viet Nam to a Pondicherry Tamilian father and a part-Vietnamese mother and therefore Francophone, an Argentinean by naturalisation, and a very accomplished viticulteur?
Some of the events are straight out of the magic realism which Viswanathan loves so much, and which has inspired his use of the title’s imaginary places, Malgudi and Macondo. Addressing 300 Spanish-speaking Sikhs, none of whom spoke English, in an Argentinean gurdwara, His Excellency spoke to them — of course — in fluent Spanish. And if his initial reaction to the amount of the human body on display could have come from a native, whether male or female, of Malgudi, he soon got to enjoy Carnival.
Viswanathan is well aware of predicaments which India and Latin America share, such as the degradation of productive agricultural land, and he looks at the legacy of slavery, but his book is as much about the spirit of two different cultures as anything else. He cites Julia Alvarez: “You go where your life takes you and the song comes out of that adventure.” What would they say to that in Malgudi — or Mylapore?