Published in The Independent, September 3rd., 2010
M. Serajul Islam
My posting in New Delhi was one of the most exciting in my entire career. One of the main reasons that made New Delhi exciting was the fact that it was then and still is Bangladesh’s most important diplomatic mission abroad because of the importance of India to the country. However before I had the opportunity to experience the importance of New Delhi, I had so many problems that my life in Canberra did not prepare me to face. In fact, diplomatic life in Canberra was comfortable from all respects in settling down in a new post; New Delhi, was not so.
Before we got posted to an Embassy those days, we used to read a document called the Post Report that was supposed to prepare a diplomat for the post to which he/she was being posted. If ever there was a document that was redundant for the purpose for which it was prepared in the first place, it was the Post Report. Before going to Canberra, I read this Post Report for Canberra almost with religious devotion but on landing there, I found it of little use in settling down to my first diplomatic post. Fortunately, in case of Canberra, things turned out too good and I would not have missed any trick even if I had not read the Post Report.
Upon arriving at a diplomatic post, the personal issues that worry a diplomat most are getting a house, getting children to school and acquiring a car. On all three counts, Canberra was the ideal post. Nevertheless, I had to settle those issues immediately upon arrival before I could start my diplomatic work. Those days, the government allowed an officer 28 days for staying in a temporary accommodation during which the officer and his/her family was paid daily allowance that was pretty good. Most of us could save some money out of it for many things that a family needed in a new station far away from home. On a first posting, inexperience is a big obstacle to resolving those issues. My High Commissioner was very supportive in seeing that I settled down smoothly. My colleague Hosne Ara Karim too was very helpful. I could thus find myself a house to step into after my 28 days’ stay at a temporary accommodation was over.
Getting a car was just too easy. In Canberra, when I was posted there, most cars to Australia were imported. There was a hefty duty on such cars. A diplomat could of course buy imported cars without paying duty. Luxury imported cars such as Mercedes had a very high rate of duty and a diplomat could buy such a car and then sell in the market after 2 years that allowed a handsome profit. I could have done so as most diplomats did, particularly those from the developing countries, but I chose a Honda Civic instead as I thought that someone who never owned a car as was the case with me, I would just not feel comfortable driving a Mercedes as a Second Secretary. The whole process of buying my first ever car took me half an hour!
Admitting our daughter in school was even easier. Before going to the post, I had collected her school transcripts, other reports, afraid that missing out on one or another document would land me in great problem. When my wife and I took our daughter who was just over 6 to her school, the principal just saw her birth certificate then called a teacher who came within minutes and the next thing we saw, without a word said, was my daughter walking away with the teacher! We clung to the documents and returned home ecstatic but feeling somewhat like happy fools!
The contrast in resolving those issues in New Delhi was unbelievable. I had a house ready, left by my predecessor with the choice to take it or to hire a new house. In between his departure and my arrival, a month had elapsed. In that one month, the house and its furnishings were taken over by rats and cockroaches with no one from the High Commission even caring to consider how we would stay in that house. That first night was a nightmare. We were awake the whole night afraid that we would be run over by those who had taken over the house in that last one month. The next morning, the High Commissioner’s wife came to see us. She had received us at the airport the previous evening when we arrived and when we had told her of our first night’s experience, she said smilingly that she knew what we would face but said nothing because of the confidence with which I had told her we would like to move into our house. She then took us with her to the Residence where stayed for a week. During that week, we had the house cleaned and made habitable. Afterwards, I spent more than a month looking for a new house but failed because Delhi was then not an easy place to hunt for a house and those who went about as “agents” were very slippery customers and always had a trick up their sleeves. I found also that an “agent” is New Delhi was a self appointed broker and not the agent to which I was accustomed while posted in Canberra. Those “agents” and others who provided services to diplomats in New Delhi like the clearing and forwarding agents seldom spoke the truth. Learning to deal with them was often a greater hassle than doing the job for which we were posted to New Delhi.
I was lucky admitting my daughter in a school but that was thanks to a colleague who had established close contacts with the Principal of one of Delhi’s best schools, the Delhi Public School at RK Puram. She of course had to give a test and was taken in after she passed that test. However, a colleague who arrived a year later had a miserable time getting a son and a daughter admitted in the same school. The principal was as forthcoming with them as he had been with my daughter. After they passed their tests, their admission for some mysterious reason was stuck. When we inquired, we found out that the Head Clerk who was a Brahmin was unhappy we were using our contacts with the Principal who was from a lower caste to get our children admitted. He put his foot down and the Principal regretted his inability to do the needful. It was only when that Head Clerk was approached and handled diplomatically, he withdrew his objection and the children were admitted. That was for us a firsthand experience on the realities of the caste system.
I had a hard time buying a car too and my experience in Canberra made it harder to accept realities in Delhi. Unlike Canberra, a diplomat could not then buy a car out of the show room. An order had to be placed through the dealer in Delhi who then had to get the car from the place of origin, in my case Japan as I had ordered a Mazda. When placing order, the dealer gave me a time frame of two to three months. The car was delivered to me after six months and meanwhile, there were innumerous promises that the car was on way and would be delivered at some future date not too far away! My experiences with such service sector companies and individuals led me to advise my successor and anyone else posted to New Delhi later not to expect that promises would be delivered on time in Delhi. After I received my car, the six months wait was soon forgotten because people would look at my car with admiration as those days; a foreign car was not a common sight on Delhi roads.
Delhi’s richness as a capital is world class. Diplomatic missions send their best talents to India and knowing some of them and interacting with them was a matter of satisfaction. As a Bangladeshi diplomat, some of us were also sought after by our colleagues from other missions, particularly from the western nations because we could provide them with a perspective on India that they were not able to get themselves. Our access to the Ministry of External Affairs and other Ministries and Departments in New Delhi was easy although negotiations with the hosts were always quite difficult. Delhi was then and still is one of our biggest Missions. It had Defense, Press, Commerce, Water Wings in addition to the Diplomatic Wing where we worked. My colleagues in these Wings were extremely nice individuals and the leadership of the High Commissioner brought us all together in a spirit that did not then nor does it now exist in most of our bigger Embassies. One of those who left not long after I had joined the Mission was Jamil Majid an officer of the 1970 ex-PFS batch whose memory was phenomenal. At the Headquarters some years later while he was being given farewell before his posting to London , AKH Morshed had said of him that with his departure , the Foreign Ministry would need an encyclopedia to make up for his loss!
My experiences in New Delhi were rich and varied. I intend to reflect more upon these experiences in next issues. One of the events on which I hope to write is on the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated that was just when I had settled down in New Delhi and was starting to enjoy the posting.
THE WRITER WAS A FORMER AMBASSADOR TO JAPAN AND EGYPT AND CAN BE REACHED ON HIS EMAIL SERAJUL7@GMAIL.COM