Oddities, Eccentricities, Etc.


Diplomacy’s Lighter Side

robably the most entertaining part of B.K. Nehru’s well-written autobiography, Nice
Guys Finish Second,
is the section entitled "London" where, in his capacity as High Commissioner, Nehru experienced some of the most amusing episodes in his long and distinguished career.

One such occasion was when Nehru was invited to lunch at Prime Minister Edward Heath’s residence at Chequers. Showing him round the house, explaining the history of various pieces of memorabilia, Heath and Nehru came to a magnificent swimming pool which, Heath informed his guest without batting an eyelid, had been financed by a gift of £1,00,000 from the then serving American Ambassador, the multimillionaire Walter Annenburg, out of his personal funds. "I had considerable difficulty," comments Nehru, "in imagining the Indian Prime Minister accepting a similar gift from a foreign envoy, especially of a country to which one was beholden in more ways than one."

Perhaps Nehru lived in happier times when corruption had not plumbed the depths that it now has in our country. But that’s by the way. In another anecdote, Nehru recalls that there was a distinction between High Commissioners and Ambassadors visiting Buckingham Palace on formal occasions, in that High Commissioners’ coaches were drawn by four horses and those of Ambassadors by only two. Having heard that the Deputy Chief of Protocol had decided that Ambassadors, High Commissioners, everybody was going to be limited henceforth to two horses, Nehru safeguarded his position: "I asked him to hold his egalitarian zeal in check and make sure the change was effected only after my legitimization. That is what was done; I did have my four horses."

As High Commissioner, Nehru had to undertake a round of calls on the new ministers in Her Majesty’s Government. Among these was the affable Tony Benn, then Industry Secretary, one of whose idiosyncrasies Nehru reveals was "to hang up the map of the British Isles upside down in his office. He said he understood his country better if he looked at it standing on his head!"

One of Nehru’s earliest contacts in London was with Lord Mountbatten who, it may be recalled, became the first Governor General of free India acceding to the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s wish. However, Mountbatten mentioned to Nehru two grievances he had against the Government of India. One was that Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister had removed his portrait hanging in Rashtrapati Bhavan and consigned it to the basement. Nehru took up the matter with the then President Fakruddin Ali Ahmad who, agreeing with him that Mountbatten’s complaint was justified, said, "‘Zara aap unse keh deejiye (Do please mention this to her).’ I did not say anything to ‘un’ who was well aware of the case, and it was no business of mine to interfere in the relations between the Prime Minister and the President. That portrait, I fear, remained in the basement."

Charming Encounter
Mountbatten’s second complaint concerned his request to the then Indian Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram to send, when the occasion arose, a contingent of the Indian Navy to participate in his (Mountbatten’s) funeral procession, details of which had been prepared while he was still alive. In spite of several written requests made to the Defence Minister, Mountbatten complained to Nehru that he had received neither the courtesy of a reply nor even an acknowledgement. This problem Nehru solved in his own inimitable fashion: "I wrote a letter to Babuji asking him to agree to sending this contingent and to explain to Mountbatten in his letter that his long silence had been due to the fact that Indian tradition regarded it as inauspicious to talk about the death of people whom we respected and admired. This was done. Babuji wrote to him directly and he accepted the explanation."

But the most charming perhaps was Nehru’s encounter with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when he presented his credentials. Inquiring about how Mrs. Gandhi was tackling the many difficulties facing her country, the Queen said, "Being a woman, it must be even more difficult for her." The remark gave Nehru the feeling that the Queen herself must have felt that her gender placed her at a disadvantage. Nehru sought permission from the Queen to tell her a story concerning Indira Gandhi when he was India’s Ambassador to America: "I then related in detail the incident in Williamsburg on Indira’s visit to the United States regarding the President’s inquiry about the way she should be addressed. At the punch line, "When I described to her the imperious hauteur with which the Prime Minister told me to tell the President that her cabinet colleagues called her ‘Sir’, the Queen could not help but burst out laughing." And all formality was gone. To such an extent that Sir Thomas Brimelow broke protocol, picked up his sword and moved to the centre of the room. I was explaining that when we spoke English we were really literally translating our Indian mother tongue into that foreign language. The Indian ‘Sir’ was really a translation of ji, which was a genderless term of respect like the Japanese san. Sir Thomas helped me to explain by tracing the etymology of the word ‘Sir’ in English — he was a well-known classical scholar — from the original Latin word which applied to man and woman alike."

Courtesy: "Nice Guys Finish Second", Memoirs of B.K. Nehru, published by Penguin Books (I) Pvt. Ltd. in 1997.