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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On September 10, 2023

    By Karan Thapar

    If you’ve ever wondered what the life of an Indian diplomat is like, dip into Aftab Seth’s memoirs. He spent his career caught up in the Lebanese civil war, carrying secret messages between Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, dinning with Japanese royalty, visiting ailing Greek prime ministers in hospital and conspiring with Aung San Suu  Kyi’s late husband, Michael Aris.


    This is the stuff of action and excitement and it must have kept Seth’s adrenalin in permanent acceleration. But with the discretion of a well-trained ambassador, his memoirs, ‘A Diplomat’s Garden’, relates these tales with the sedate speed of a car on a country road. The substance may be explosive but his style is calm and measured. You can picture him, pipe in hand, beside the fireplace, recounting stories with a bemused smile, unaffected by the momentousness of their content.


    Many start with phrases like “it would be recalled”, “it bears telling”, “as mentioned earlier” and “I will briefly return to…”.  You’re frequently told “the details of this need not detain us”. Sometimes mid-chapter Seth says “I will (now) return to my main story”. Clearly, decades of dictating reports to the Foreign Ministry in Delhi has left its mark!


    But when he wants Seth’s language can take flight and his adjectives can soar. Here’s an example: “He had a disconcerting habit of expectorating with alarming frequency but, mercifully, with dexterous accuracy into a spittoon placed thoughtfully near his chair.”


    How much Seth’s carefully measured style has short-sold him becomes clear when you discover he’s done things and met people that would be a raconteur’s delight!


    For instance, he served in Beirut during the worst days of the civil war. Amidst the bombs and collapsing buildings, the Seth’s slept “in the entrance area of the flat” incase of a direct hit to their building. Their driver, Ali, “propelled the car at a furious pace” to avoid snipers “shooting randomly at anything that moved”.


    At the time Pola, his wife, was expecting their second child. When her labour pains began at 3 am there was no ambulance available. Seth was prepared to deliver the baby himself. Fortunately, that wasn’t necessary.


    This was clearly a gripping story but Seth is too diplomatic to exploit it. His deliberate caution is even more apparent when he turns to Benazir Bhutto. She was a fascinating person and he got to know her well. There were visits to the Bhutto homes in Karachi and Larkana, meetings in restaurants in Malaysia, dinners in Delhi, secret messages for Rajiv Gandhi and a lot of delectable gup-shup.


    What a chapter this could have been. But rather than polish his diamonds Seth turns them to stone with sentences like “the Bhutto ladies gave Roshan (his brother) rare personal insights in to the character  of the late Prime Minister”, without revealing what they were.


    When he writes of a meeting with Benazir, which her Military Secretary attempted to thwart by informing “ the wrong Aftab”, where she “turned up a radio…to confuse spying microphones”, his diplomatic instinct is to flatten the drama. “We also discussed over a relaxed lunch the domestic political  situation in Pakistan.”


    Fortunately, there are a few occasions when Seth has preferred valour to discretion. This is when the details escape the straight-jacket of his controlled prose. The story of his lunch with Benazir at a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, when they were a deux, whilst her foreign minister was at a table 15 feet away and beyond eavesdropping range, is a hoot!


    She spoke indiscreetly and at length, revealing the extent of her problems as prime minister with the country’s president and a “list of (his) underhand activities”. But when she felt she’d ignored Yakub Khan, the foreign minister,  for long enough and gestured he should join them she changed the subject to Jinnah House, a pet Pakistani peeve, “in order to put Yakub’s speculative mind at rest”.


    It’s blossoms like this that enliven Seth’s garden.

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