Tribute to a true Ambassador

Vasant Vasudev Paranjape, the former Ambassador, passed away in Pune on April 8, 2010, ending a chapter in contemporary India-China history. His grasp of the Chinese language was legendary, as was his role as interpreter during the talks between Jawaharlal Nehru and Zhou Enlai.

Though he was a generation senior, I had the privilege of knowing him. We had all heard of Bai Chunhui, as he was known by his Chinese name. Chinese officials often referred to him during my stint in Beijing in the mid-1980s, and he had an aura like none other. Even then, references to him were from a bygone era that marked the founding of the People's Republic of China and the halcyon days of “Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai” in the 1950s. He had been part of all the hopes and expectations of that era, of the meetings between Nehru and Zhou Enlai, including the marathon official-level talks of 1960 in Yangon, New Delhi and Beijing on the boundary question.

When I returned to the Ministry of External Affairs as Under Secretary (China) in 1987, I got to know him in flesh and blood for the first time. He would stroll into my room now and then, looking for some Chinese-language material to borrow. He was dressed simply, in a khadi bush-shirt, sporting sandals. He would often sidle up to the book-shelf in the corner, where Chinese-language books and sundry material often lay in an intimidating pile. He would then dust off the covers of a few, and pore over the contents for hours on end, occasionally punctuating his musings with animated readings of words and expressions that had caught his fancy. Sometimes, he would borrow a few magazines, slipping them into a simple sling-bag slung over his shoulder. He would devour pedagogic Communist Party journals like Hong Qi (Red Flag), and its successor Qiu Shi (Seeking Truth), with extraordinary ease and relish. Such was his voracious appetite for anything written in Chinese. It took a while for him to accept any of the youngsters because his own Chinese was so good. But once one passed muster, he was most friendly and genuinely opened up. Our interesting banter continued through the next four years that I spent in the East Asia Division.

He was a good raconteur, and had a treasure trove of stories to share. He did not spare anyone; in fact, he could be quite trenchant in his remarks. But he was not malicious at heart. Puckish he was, though, with a sense of humour. He had strong likes and dislikes, and I guess he invited his share of reciprocal feelings from others.

When I returned to New Delhi in 1996 as Director (China), he was most gracious. He was the first to invite me home for a meal, along with my predecessor Ashok Kantha. Once again, our interaction continued over the next four years. He was very excited when Ambassador T.N. Kaul, whose own association with China went back to the 1940s, invited him to accompany him on a nostalgic trip to China. Ambassador Paranjape even interpreted for him during meetings with old friends and associates in Beijing, as he had done earlier for Nehru, and subsequently during External Affairs Minister A.B. Vajpayee's visit to China in 1979.

“To everything there is a season,” as the line from Ecclesiastes goes. Bai Chunhui was aging, even mellowing, when I left for Shanghai as Consul-General of India in 2000. During my years in Shanghai, he had remained in touch initially, asking me to purchase for him some classical Chinese texts.

The 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and China had been marked with fanfare that year, with Chinese Ambassador Zhou Gang hosting a well-attended reception at the Chinese Embassy in Chanakyapuri. Ambassador Paranjape, recovering from a recent ailment, was mingling with guests in his inimitable style, now aided by a walking stick.

Just days before his demise, even as he lay in a hospital bed, his youthful visage was part of a photo exhibition on India-China relations over the decades, displayed on the occasion of the 60th anniversary celebrations in New Delhi on April 1.

As Alexander Pope wrote:

A little learning is a dang'rous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

And drinking largely sobers us again.

Throughout his life, Bai Chunhui took deep draughts of Chinese language and culture, in fact of the very soul of China. He had a genuine vision of better relations between India and China and worked in his own way to promote friendship and understanding. Mind you, he was also capable of equally deep quaffs of mao tai, the fiery Chinese decoction so vital to any successful banquet in China.

Farewell Bai Chunhui, and “Gan Bei” (Bottoms Up)!

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Printable version | Sep 30, 2020 10:18:36 PM |

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