25 January, 2021

Cut A Dash Like Bond

A brilliant memoir of an eventful career in the foreign service, set off by the thrilling pursuit, across continents, of the con man Dharma Teja

The great and the good
The author with former US president Jimmy Carter at the ball organised by the Society of Foreign Consuls in New York in 1988
Cut A Dash Like Bond
A Ringside Seat To History
By P.A. Nazareth
Konark | Pages: 256 | Rs. 800

Although Alan Nazareth was only four years my senior in the service, our paths, to the best of my recollection, never crossed. He lived out his life in the Far East, West Africa, Latin America and New York/London, whereas I found myself on different continents and involved with almost nothing that preoccupied Alan’s career. I was, therefore, intrigued when I received his autobiography from his publishers as a Deepavali gift. I fell to reading it because his life had been altogether different to mine, despite being of virtually the same IFS generation. How did the ‘other half” live?

With great panache, it would seem. Alan enjoyed his days in the service to the hilt and although many changes have taken place in the world and the service since our time, his Foreign Service was altogether different to mine. Mine was concentrated on the neighbourhood and dealt mostly with economic diplomacy. It was also prematurely terminated when I resigned with a third of my service years still to go. Alan spent his years in exotic locales, witnessed many events of which I had but a vague general knowledge and had not had to bother himself with dull economic matters. His forte was cultural diplomacy, and his career was not climaxed with an ambassadorial assignment to Tokyo, as had been promised to him, but by being appointed the cultural czar of the ministry as the DG of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations.

He is a man of many civilisations, as much at home with western classical music as with Bharatanatyam. To his credit goes the rejuvenation of the moribund ICCR whose significance Indira Gandhi understood as few others did. She tasked foreign secretary Rasgotra to find the right person; Rasgotra decided Alan was the man, although Alan himself wanted to make some use of the foreign language he had opted for—Japanese—at a time when most of the service thought a European language was the key to professional success. His disappointment was, however, to the advantage of an aspect of our diplomacy that, although not as valued as it should be, has been the vehicle of ‘soft power’ on the world stage which will long outlast the RECP and the Quad. What we need is an Indian equivalent of the Confucius Institutes the Chinese are so effectively using. ICCR was Indira Gandhi’s answer to that. And Alan was the instrument she wielded.

Alan’s career climaxed as cultural czar: DG of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations. He rejuvenated the moribund ICCR, whose significance Indira Gandhi understood as few others did.

The heart of the book lies in how he chased Dharma Teja in distant Costa Rica, eventually securing his repatriation to India through the intervention of the Costa Rican president at an unscheduled pre-breakfast meeting where the latter was swathed in his dressing gown! In all, Alan made 14 visits to Costa Rica. It reads like a James Bond novel in which luck opens many doors, but ability delivers results.

Dharma Teja was an extremely intelligent con man who had a distinguished career in physics, a very beautiful, sophisticated and accomplished wife in Ranjit and had actually introduced India to the modern corporate world by negotiating with the Japanese a massive deal to make India self-reliant in shipping. He meets Alan first at the latter’s first probationary posting in Tokyo where Teja had a larger-than-life reputation and was known as a favourite of Jawaharlal Nehru and dropped names of other personalities, especially the Indian Ambassador to Washington, B.K. Nehru.

The chickens came to roost when his extended dealings came to naught, his busines went bankrupt and he was on the run. Just as Alan arrived in New York as our consul, the Tejas were run to the ground in New York, arrested and hauled before the courts. Teja’s lawyer, however, succeeded in getting his clients bail, especially after Mrs. Teja made a most moving appeal in court, which was rather foolishly entertained by the judge. They were set free till about six months later but on the morning of the hearing, the lawyer appeared in court brandishing a telegram which said the Tejas no longer had confidence in the US justice system and were leaving the country--but they did not say where to.

At this point, we come to one of those strokes of luck that often enters a Foreign Service officer’s life and career. Alan’s counterpart at the Costa Rican consulate, Alfredo, belonged to a prominent political family which had a running feud with a former president, Figueres, who with Teja’s $30,000 ‘contribution’, intended to run again in the 1970 presidential election. Alfredo discovered that it was at ex-president Figueres’s instance that the Tejas had been given visas for Costa Rica.

Alfredo was the nephew of the wife of the current president Trejos. So, he offered to accompany Alan to San Jose, where they sneaked into the presidential palace through its kitchen, to the astonishment of Senora Trejos. He persuaded her to take them to the president. The president listened gravely to Alan’s tale and ordered his chief of police to forthwith arrest the Tejas, get their visas cancelled and deport them from the country.

There’s a fascinating chapter on Alan’s accreditation from Accra to a number of French-speaking West African countries about whom we know next to nothing.

But just as the police entered the villa the Tejas were staying in, there was a Goldfinger twist. The Tejas had been tipped off. Just as the police appeared, they exited from a rear door and escaped. Three weeks later, former president Figueres and Teja held a well-attended press conference and made a dramatic appeal to the Costa Rican people that Teja should not be deported without a full and fair extradition trial. By the time this was completed, Figueras had won the April 1970 election, ensured Teja won his case and provided him with a Costa Rican diplomatic passport for travel to France and the UK. But fate intervened, and a Gandhian friend whom Alan had left behind, Costa Rica’s former foreign secretary no less , telephoned to him at EI Lima in early July 1970 to give him this news and Teja’s travel details. These were promptly conveyed to GOL & CBI and Teja was arrested on landing in London and extradited to India nine months later.

There follows a fascinating chapter on Alan’s concurrent accreditation from Accra to a number of French-speaking West African countries about whom we know next to nothing and a useful summary of the main personalities he met and what became of them, invoking Shakespeare’s lament over “the hollow crown that rounds the mortal temples of king” where Death “keeps its court”.

It is now over three decades since Alan retired. He hasn’t mourned over the loss of official pelf and power but written two books on Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy and lectured on the subject at universities in India and abroad, as well as on cruises on the high seas. The only blight on this idyllic retirement has been the sudden collapse of his daughter, Seema, at the age of just 24. To lose a child is the worst tragedy that could inflict a loving parent. Alan and Isobel have borne their terrible loss stoically.

I think any young person contemplating a life in diplomacy would be well advised to read the book. It is a fascinating record of how attractive a career in the Foreign Service remains at a time when fewer and fewer of the “brightest and the best” want even to sit for the civil services exam, and the UPSC is obliged to scour the bottom of the barrel to fill the required IFS quota.

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