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Ho Chi Minh reminded me of a bearded Gandhi chappals, unfitting tunic...

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Natwar Singh in China, 1957
Natwar Singh in China, 1957

"Spartan lifestyle of Chinese leaders admirable"

Kunwar Natwar Singh, posted as second secretary at the Indian Embassy in Beijing between 1956 and 1958, resolved fortunately to keep a diary of what he saw and experienced. "My generation have been loaded with luck," reads an early diary entry. "We have lived through such interesting times. The world and especially Asia has changed more in the past 10 years than it did in the past 10 centuries."

Here are some excerpts from Natwar Singh's Peking diary for 1956:

19.9.1956

[E.M.S.] Namboodiripad, [P.] Sundarayya and P.C. Joshi came to the Embassy for lunch. They have been here for the eighth Party Congress and were received at the highest level. P.N. Sharma, the well-known photographer, had photographed them with Mao Tse Tung. Heard this the other day. Indian Delegate and Miss Lee had this conversation:

Lee: I am very keen to learn English.

Delegate: You must go to England; that is obviously the best place for learning the language.

Lee: I cannot go to England now.

Delegate: When will you go?

Lee: After the liberation of England.

22.9.1956

Wrote to E.M. Forster some days back about "Let a hundred flowers bloom and let a hundred schools of thought contend." His pithy response "There is always the 101st."

23.9.1956

Preparations are in full swing for the 1st October parade, in the very wide and deep square in front of Tien An Man, a majestic structure from where Mao Tse Tung declared the birth of the People's Republic of China less than seven years ago. I am much looking forward to this parade. Chinese architecture is generally horizontal. Very few tall vertical buildings.

26.9.1956

To the shabby Peking airport, Nepal's Prime Minister is arriving. The welcome was "organised spontaneity". Buddhist monks were there and so were a few Nepalese. Chou En-lai was cheered by the airport crowd. He looks so fresh, spiritedly, unhurried and charismatic like our PM.

In a day or two President Soekarno of Indonesia will arrive. I last saw him at the Delhi University Convocation in 1950.

29.9.1956

Our parliamentary delegation arrived on an Air India plane. Delegation led by Speaker Ananthasayanam Iyengar. The delegation was received by Liu Shao Chi as he is the nearest equivalent to our Speaker. Chilly at the airport. While the Chinese were in their dark blue Mao suits, our MPs showed our chaotic sartorial idiosyncrasies. There is no unity in this sort of diversity. Mrs. Lakshmi Menon was friendly and made a good impression.

David Chibb of Reuters and Alex Jose, a New Zealand writer, drove with me in my Volkswagen Beatle beauty. Josey is doing a book on China. As Soekarno, the President of Indonesia, is arriving in a day or two, Josey said: "He is the Nehru of Indonesia and he can do no wrong. Only he could have survived after marrying a prostitute."

Went to the Waichaio Pu (foreign office) to collect passes for the 1st October parade. What a contrast to South Block. Huge reception rooms, no noise, no loiterers, business-like, impressive.

30.9.1956

Much excitement all round. Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam arrived and so did Soekarno. Chairman Mao Tse Tung, Chu Deh, Liu Shiao Chi, Chou En Lai, Peng Chen, Mayor of Peking, all at the airport. This was my first look at Mao Tse Tung. He got a cheer from the huge crowd that had been assembled to welcome Ho Chi Minh and Soekarno. I, of course, had my camera and took several pictures of the Chairman and other leaders at very close range. My camera is a Zorki 2000, given to me by Mr. Nikita Khrushev in 1955 after his and Bulganin's visit to India. Films cannot be developed in Peking and have to be sent to Hong Kong with the weekly couriers.

The contrast between Chairman Mao and President Soekarno striking. The Chairman wearing his light grey Mao Suit (the other leaders all in blue suits) and the Indonesian President in his very smart, well-made uniform with lots of medals and swagger stick under his arm. As for Ho Chi Minh, he reminded me of a bearded Gandhi chappals, unfitting tunic and uncreased trousers, ankle high. In his own way he is very impressive. I am admiring the spartan life style of the Chinese leaders. Mao Tse Tung and Soekarno drove to town in an open car, a la Nehru. The entire route of nearly ten miles was cheering crowd on both sides of the road. Everybody in blue. The first leader to travel in an open car was Nehru in October 1954. This has now become the pattern.

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