Book Title: A Diplomat’s Garden: An Autobiography
Author: Aftab Seth
AFTAB SETH’S ‘A Diplomat’s Garden’ is aromatic, scenic and delightful; just as every garden should be. Once we set foot on Aftab’s turf, we realise how cultivated the man is and how curated each of his passions is, from poetry, drama to diplomacy, and so much more in between. Probably his early years at The Doon School gave him the licence to skill. Aftab stood first in practically every subject, became a Rhodes Scholar and finally, a much-acclaimed Ambassador of India.
He has had luck on his side, like every gardener must, for he was born in a family where cultures mingled. Hindu, Islamic and Welsh Anglican genes flow happily in him and by choice, he, in turn, has done his bit to enlarge his family’s gene pool. As if all these blessings were not enough, he has had the superb luck of the draw in Pola, his talented and ever supportive wife.
It is refreshing to read an account of a life where there is no rancour, or resentment, at any point, but joy in receiving every little gift of friendship and goodwill that comes one’s way. It is also uplifting to read how kind human nature can be when, on several occasions, at great personal risk to themselves, Aftab’s friends and colleagues, in foreign locales, came unhesitatingly to his help. They often did this while bullets were flying and there was rioting on the streets at some of the places Aftab was posted at. It is because Aftab notes each such act with fondness that they appear magnified to the reader. Not one of these were taken as an entitlement, official courtesy, or systemic reciprocity, but as sheer abundant generosity.
These sections are the sweetest spot. Do friendships emerge out of chance or people just get the friends they deserve? The latter is surely the case with Aftab and his family. In his days in Lebanon, Egypt and Pakistan, his colleagues and friends abroad, some of whom were even unfriendly to India’s policies of the day, stood by his side. There were matters of medical emergencies and ill-health but Aftab and Pola pulled through each of them because their goodwill radiated outwards to embrace so many.
I have hardly any talent or taste for international relations and it is bad manners to be so ill-informed, but there is little I could do to correct the situation. This is why it was such a pleasure to read Aftab’s book. Matters that were remote and impregnable suddenly appeared accessible. Now, the politics of post-Independence Indonesia, or post-revolution Vietnam, or the strange power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon have come alive. I am, as a result, sufficiently curious to know and read more. The chapters on Pakistan perhaps reveal how adroitly Aftab managed to mingle hard diplomacy with soft touches of friendship.
As in every profession, there are rivalries, bickering and pettifogging, and it is clear that Aftab had his fair share of those, but when he relates these, there is always a happy ending. There are vignettes too that tell you, in a glimpse, so much about the host country. Such as Melina Mercouri’s careless cavorting while in a rather formal setting. Or how Benazir’s mother pulled up her staff for not attending to Aftab who, as a guest, deserved the most gracious courtesies. Or, at a grander level, how Japan’s Imperial family treated Aftab and his wife with dignity and respect.
Of course, Japan is Aftab Seth’s true love. It began as a teenage crush and grew into an adult romance. He brought Japan to India in a way no diplomat ever has. Aftab was also given a full Japanese name which tells one of the respect he earned while he was serving there. Additionally, he is on the boards of several Japanese educational institutions and is a Visiting Professor at Keio University as well. His writings have won him laudatory reviews from the highest Japanese quarters, including the monarchy. These are great achievements for any diplomat.
As a diplomat, he spent a lot of quality time and energy not only in sorting out political and economic matters, but in learning about the culture of the countries he was in. To this end, he successfully showcased Indian arts, dance, drama and philosophy wherever he was posted and, at the same time, brought to India the best of other cultures. It is here that his wife, Pola (aka Nilima), was an invaluable asset. A trained exponent of classical dance and a connoisseur of fine arts, she purveyed the best of Indian culture to whichever country Aftab was posted to.
Diplomats today are often so immersed in sorting out trade and arms deals that they lose sight of the essence of diplomacy, namely, bringing ordinary people across continents closer. Hopefully, this book will inspire fresh foreign service recruits to change gears and press the pedal on the cultural and human dimensions, just as Aftab Seth did.