More than a diplomat’s diary
Sridhar K Chari

Words, Words, Words
Adventures in Diplomacy
T.P. Sreenivasan Pearson Longman. Pages 253. Rs 600

TP Sreenivasan draws upon the rich material of his diplomatic career to come up with a fascinating, easy-reading, insider account of the curious world of the Foreign Service bureaucrats, where the mundane, the trivial and the enormously consequential, all co-exist in a heady mix.

The book leads with an autobiographical My Story that sums up his life and career, before dealing with four specific aspects centred around multilateral diplomacy, the United States, the Fiji islands and Kenya, and finally, Vienna.

My Story evokes the charm of a Kerala upbringing and the draw of a services career, not least because of how, on its threshold: "Relatives popped out of the woodwork and friends were rediscovered. Proposals for marriage poured in from all of them`85" Surely, one thinks, for all the fading appeal of a career with the government, this draw still exists in many a pocket of India where it works its magic, bringing joy and pride to many a youngster and his or her family, successful at the civil services examinations.

Also narrated are those early decisions and challenges – of Mussoorie, postings, more marriage proposals, not to mention handsome dowries. "The highest-known bid," we are informed, "was Rs 12 lakh for a probationer from Bihar," which was halved when he was not offered his parent cadre but Tamil Nadu. That was because "his influence in Tamil Nadu was less valuable to his prospective father-in-law."

Another such nugget, rather incredibly, is how the owner of a canteen in Mussoorie ended up marrying his three daughters to IAS officers, "in exchange for writing off their credit."

On the diplomatic front, the book is of great value in offering insights into India’s diplomatic relationships and how they have evolved, with countries like Russia, the US, and Burma, and institutions like the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Sreenivasan’s service in Moscow provides for many interesting accounts at a time when the two countries were great friends. It was not all peachy however, and a particular stand-out account is of Morarji Desai’s visit, and how he practically snubbed Brezhnev, dismissing the latter’s idea of sending an Indian into space on a Soviet Rocket, as "India did not have anything to gain." Of course, it eventually did happen, after Indira Gandhi returned; and Rakesh Sharma got his ride.

What was perhaps not quite intended (or may be it was, considering the uninspiring title of the book) was the paper-pushing, clerical nature of much of a bureaucratic career. "I could be described best as the shuffler of papers for the foreign secretary," Sreenivasan says candidly about one particular period. Moreover, quite amusingly, he takes pride, rather like any good secretary, about certain skills: "If he (the boss) called and asked for ‘that paper’, I could determine, by a quick calculation of the time, the kind of visitor who was with him and the tone of his demand, which paper he was asking for."

Without doubt, though, the papers that these men and women were pushing, and taking care to draft with attention paid to every word, eventually affected millions of people in large and small ways.

The section dealing with his time in the United States, for example, titled "Nuclear Winter, Kargil Spring" is outstanding in the understanding that it provides about a critical period in modern India. India tested nuclear devices, resulting in the big international freeze-out which lasted till, very foolishly, Pakistan invaded Kargil, and handed India more than a military victory. Indian policy was vindicated, greater international understanding of our security concerns was gained, and the US changed, to such an extent, that today we are discussing a civilian nuclear deal.

Hard-working diplomats like T.P. Sreenivasan were behind such transformations, and this book should engage anyone interested in such matters.