“This is one corner I never really explored,” said Mani Shankar Aiyar with a boyish, slightly embarrassed, grin as he blundered into the wrong door in search of the chapel where, a few minutes later, he was to receive a rare honour.

And, upon finding the right door, he sighed: “God moves in strange ways,” alluding apparently to the irony that a place of worship filled with religious symbols happened to be the setting for one of the most proud moments of this self-confessed atheist.

Exactly 47 years after he left Cambridge University, Mr. Aiyar returned here on Tuesday to be made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall, his alma mater, in recognition of his contribution to the “diplomatic and political life of the world's greatest democracy.” He joins the ranks of figures such as renowned scientist Stephen Hawking.

“I am more than honoured and privileged. I've a special feeling for Trinity Hall and Cambridge. They played a decisive role in my life,” he told The Hindu.

The often controversial Congress leader is the first south Asian in more than 50 years to be thus honoured. The last was Hajji Sir Khawaja Nazimuddin, Nawab of Dhaka, who became Pakistan's second governor-general and was briefly his country's Prime Minister after the assassination of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951.

Honorary Fellows are chosen on the recommendations of the existing Fellows. Mr. Aiyar's name was recommended among others by Mark Tully, the famously Indophile broadcaster.

The 14-th century chapel, where once proceedings were conducted in Latin, was packed. Mr. Aiyar's wife, daughter and grand-daughter watched from the loft as the Master of Trinity Hall Martin Daunton conferred the fellowship on him.

The citation, read out by Prof. Daunton, said: “Mani Shankar Aiyar, you have been elected an Honorary Fellow of Trinity Hall in recognition of your contribution to the diplomatic and political life of the World's greatest democracy, and of your deep understanding of the issues facing India as it experiences economic and social transformation.”

He is now entitled to “free” meals in the college “seven days a week” and to sit on the High Table.

Mr. Aiyar, who spent two years (1961-1963) at Cambridge as an undergraduate, described it as a “coming back home party” for him. He became particularly animated while talking about his role in the Cambridge Union. In his long political career, he has won and lost several electoral battles but after all these years it was his election as secretary of the Union that still brings a glint to his eyes. And what rankles in him the most? His unsuccessful attempt to become its president.

Mr. Aiyar said “absolutely nothing” had changed since he was here. “Except that the college now admits girls. There were no girls in my time.”

Also honoured on the occasion was Sir David Bell, chairman of the Pearson Group and The Financial Times — and a professed “admirer” of The Hindu.