Tuesday, March 20, 2012
My Ocean of Memories
This article was published in monthly magazine Identity, March 2012
I may start with a bit of a startling confession. My worst fears about joining the Indian Foreign Service with duties of 'lying abroad' had indeed stared squarely in my face during the first posting abroad to Tehran where I had joined on September 29, 1975, the day of the anniversary of the martyrdom of the 1st Shia Imam, Ali. My wife and I had lost, suddenly and quite prematurely, our fathers at ages 56 and 58, in December 1977 and April 1978 respectively. We, the eldest in the families, were feeling an overwhelming burden of emotional responsibilities. I was advised by sympathetic colleagues to make a representation to the 'dear Ministry' requesting for the next posting in one the 'neighboring countries' on 'compassionate grounds'.
The invisible and inscrutable hand of 'Mighty Ministry' struck like a proverbial 'bolt from the blue'. I was posted to, what appeared to me, the most mysterious piece of planet Earth, which could technically or more appropriately 'geographically', be termed to be situated in the neighborhood of Bharat! In the afternoon of the 'Bag Day' on 7th Sept'78, the friendly but often stressed Private Secretary to Ambassador V K Ahuja breezed into my room and intriguingly scribbled 'MALE' in my table diary. I reflexively quipped, "Bhadgal Sahib, who has been blessed with a son?" Her returned to my room after the 'bag fever' had subsided and explained to me that I have been posted to Maldives and that 'Male - pronounced Maa-Le' was the name of its capital! I continued to be in a state of shocking disbelief about the decision of the Ministry over my petition for a posting to a place in the periphery of the country. Before leaving office for the day, Ambassador Ahuja called for me and told me, holding the letter of the Ministry in his hands, that I have been posted as Charge D'Affaires in the recently established Embassy in the Republic of Maldives and added, "You will be the monarch of all you survey."
I was literally and metaphorically 'at sea' about my posting to Maldives and even considered making another representation to 'Dear Ministry', a recourse Ambassador Ahuja firmly rejected. Meanwhile Iran had started witnessing street processions with the students in the forefront. The protests gathered strength and had culminated into crippling strikes by end of November. I was able to sell my car but had to leave my TV and refrigerator with Shri Bhadgal to salvage some reasonable amount. The professional packers had become unavailable in view of the disturbed conditions. We packed our wares in the Indian style to catch the last civilian flight departing in the late evening of 11th December from Mehrabad Airport just before the revolutionary guards took it over. The Ministry had turned down my request for a brief leave in India, even a week's consultation duty in the Ministry during the transit in Delhi. Leaving my wife and four year old son behind, I reported in Male on 12th December 1978, flying Indian Airlines up to Trivandrum and further by a small Avro plane.
Like most of the Punjabis and a majority of the north Indians, I had the least opportunities to see the sea in its magnificent moods. Many in Punjab wondered what the hell promising singer Ishmeet who had crowned Voice of India had gone to do in Maldives in July 2008, but driven by the destiny of a watery grave! I remember how my well read school teacher Giani Sucha Singh Ji was singing songs of the sea after having actually seen the ocean in Bombay for the first time - he was at great pain for more than a month to explain how what we read in books could not exactly convey the vast expanse and massive might of the real oceans which cover the four-fifths of the surface of the planet. I myself had 'Sagar darshan' as late as in Feb 1973 during the offical Bharat Darshan tour and later around Nourouz in March 1977 in Iran during travels with Dr SS Johl who was then serving in Iran as ans adviser with UNDP.
When I reached Maldives, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom had just taken over as President. India was the first country to open diplomatic mission in Male, to be followed by who else, but Pakistan!
Hulule Airport. It was indeed a challenging task with even the soil and sand imported from India and the German Consultants engaged by the donors, the Kuwait Fund pressing hard on the quality of the work. The project proved to be a long drawn affair with series of controversies it was being said that everyone had made a good profit out of it except the contractors, i.e. the IAAI.
I had tried to cope with the most trying conditions of living in terms of the hot and humid climate (no air conditioning) and non availability of the provisions of daily food, particularly the vegetables. The medium of cooking was kerosene stove. The rain water was collected in a well and boiled for drinking. The messenger cum-driver Mohamad Naeem who had served in a ship and had also lived in Mumbai, was very efficient and dedicated young man. The other house help Ismail would ask us when we would go to our island! A snake was found near the refrigerator and there were too many large sized lizards and chameleons roaming about the house making my wife run in panic.
Male, and island of one and a half sq Km, wore a neat and clean look. But during the rains the streets became pools of water for days. I had not imagined all this to be a part of the Indian Foreign Service. The only advantage of this experience was, perhaps, that we became toughened to face any odds in future.
The interaction with a few Pakistanis in Maldives proved quite interesting. The Pak CDA Amir Mohammad Khan, an elderly gentleman with four pretty young daughters had been transferred from Kenya. I remember that he gifted me a cassette of songs by Didar Singh Pardesi. My staff member Gurchetan Singh told me one day that Hanif of Pakistan embassy had greeted with Sat Sri Akal saying that he was a Punjabi with ancestral link with Hoshiarpur and had further added that it was nice that the CDA of India was also a Punjabi. Gurchetan said that when he asked bout the Pakistani CDA, Hanif had replied that 'he was from UP/CP'. It was my early lesson in the ethnic divides and the Mohajir issue. The manager of Habib Bank, Baz Mohamad Khan and his charming family had been very friendly towards us. He surprised me by telling, on the eve of my departure, that Parvez Hasan Cheema (he too professed great friendship with me), the Maulvi, religious instructor, deputed by the government of Pakistan in Maldives, had complained to the Pak authorities against him for being friendly with me. Baz Mohamad added that such so called religious but foolish people as Cheema posed a serious threat to not only the good relations between Indian and Pakistan but peace all over the world. How prophetic from someone belonging to the tribe of Badshah Khan!