Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Ocean of Memories

This article was published in monthly magazine Identity, March 2012

Maldives, India's oceanic neighbor in the south, surfaces in the media but once in a blue moon - often for the attempted coup plots, with a tailor made role for India to thwart them. The nature and consequences of what happened on 7th of February this year forcing President Mohamed Nasheed, the first to be democratically elected in the history of the nascent republic, to resign his post, is still being debated in the concerned diplomatic and political quarters. India has, in the meanwhile, rushed its two top diplomats to help restore calm in troubled political waters. These entire goings on made me look back and reflect with the mellowed wisdom of decades of hindsight on my own 555 consecutive days of duty as an envoy of India to this country of a garland of islands of the Indian Ocean.

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!

My predecessor in Maldives, a well meaning Tamilian who had risen from the ranks (he was reputed to be an expert in 'decoding' the handwriting of Shri TN Kaul, I.C.S., had been at logger heads with the India experts on deputations particularly the school teachers. The State Bank of India and the Indian Airlines wielded a larger presence, and an obvious clout, than the embassy, a Padmini Fiat, imported from India came with some manufacturing defect and could never function properly and the local driver, in disgust, had once pushed it in the sea! The International Airports Authority of India (IAAI) was executing the project of 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.

Let us know more about our lesser known neighbor. Maldives, also earlier called Maldive islands now, formally Republic of Maldives, Divehi Jumhurriyyah consist of a chain of about 1,300 small coral islands and sand banks. They extend in Indian Ocean for more than 820 Km from North to South and 130 Km from East to West. The Maldive Islands with a total land area of about 298 sq Km is built of coral on the crowns of an ancient submerged volcanic mountain range. All the islands are incredibly low lying, none rising more than 6 feet above sea level. The clusters of islands or atolls have sandy beaches, lagoons and luxuriant growth of coconut palms, breadfruit trees and tropical bushes. The tourism potential of the country was envisioned in seventies by the western tour operators and several islands around capital Male were developed with necessary facilities. The chartered flights from European countries to this 'Paradise of Sun, Sand and Surf' have indeed transformed the entire life pattern of the people of Maldives. Fishing and shipping are the other pillars of the economy of the country. The smallest in term of land surface and the ocean arrested Maldives scores over other members of the South Asian community in several vital indicators of socio-economic development including education and health with only 16 percent of its total population of about 400,000 counted below poverty line.

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 16 mm projector in the embassy proved to be a real blessing. We could screen several popular feature films received from the Ministry; I do recall that we had repeatedly screened Kora Kagaz, Garam Hawa, Shatranj Ke Khilari and Satyajit Ray's Gopi Gayan Bagha Payan. We could also arrange the facilities for Table Tennis and Badminton which became quite popular involving Maldivian officials also. I started building up a small library. I particularly remember having read there Balwant Gargi's Naked Triangle among many other books. The Radio Maldives played popular film songs and the only so called cinema showed pirated copies of Indian films using several TV screens. The audio cassettes were becoming popular and the two in on sets were indeed considered a prize item.

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!