How does one decode the diplomatic life? Caricatured as one of champagne cocktails, CD number plates, exotic locales and duty-free allowances, what is the reality behind the glossy facade, and what drives the spouses (mainly women), or ‘diplomatic baggage’ as Brigid Keenan calls the trailing spouse in her eponymous novel?
They clearly have a vantage point into current affairs, realpolitik, and at times a unique view into a first draft of history. That’s certainly the case for ninety-two year old Chandralekha Mehta, whose identities include being a diplomat’s daughter, a diplomat’s wife and an honorary diplomat.
In her early 20’s she joined her mother, Ambassador Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s team as part of India’s first mission to Moscow, in August 1947. “I accompanied this unusual party as honorary press attache until an official could be appointed to the job,” she wrote in 2007 for the External Affairs Spouses Association (EASA).
India’s jugaadu style was clearly in full swing right after independence! The honorary role lasted for a year, before Mehta was replaced. Mehta’s first posting as a diplomatic spouse, was to Goa in 1949, where her husband had been appointed Consul General. “Goa was under Portuguese rule. It felt strange being in one’s own country which was a colony of another country, surrounded by another language,” she tells me, via her daughter Manjari Mehta. Relations with Portugal were apparently strained at the time, with the Portuguese also very strict about observing protocol. This included wearing shoes at all time, even at the beach, apparently, which the Mehtas preferred not to do, causing some sort of diplomatic tizzy.
Talk about a bygone era! And a world and a half away from the Mehtas’ final posting in Mexico in the ’70s, which forms the backdrop of her delightful (but wicked) novel Murder in San Felice, that takes a pot-shot at ignorance and inane remarks about India even from well-meaning foreigners, not to mention the hierarchy and class system within the Embassy.
What’s not changed is that at least within the Embassy, spouses get their hierarchical rank due to their husbands — so you’ll see junior officers’ wives quite deferential to, say, the Ambassador’s wife. (She might smile and wave graciously, but apparently at no point are you to use her first name unless you are officially a friend, or at the same social level. Always, Mrs XYZ. Take it from me; I’ve seen this firsthand.)
Now apart from being obligated to be good hosts, spouses are expected to be interested in culture, in “softer issues”, and to know enough about India to represent it in a positive way. It’s not for nothing that at one point the IFS officer’s ‘Confidential Report’ used to include a column assessing the spouse.
Image source: http://www.easa.nic.in/
You’d think there would be some preparation, but… no.
Hemal Shringla, whose husband, Harsh Shringla is India’s Ambassador to Bangladesh at the moment, is candid about there being monumental challenges, especially during the first posting.
“I was not prepared in the least bit. I didn’t think I needed to be. I just thought it would be very exciting. But it was very, very hard. I felt I just shrank into nothingness. That I was nothing, nobody. It was a really odd feeling. I couldn’t speak the language. I knew no one. I wanted so badly to get to know Israel…To participate. There was too much around me that I could not decipher,” she writes.
She says she eventually acclimatised. “Then it improved. I put my son in Hebrew day care (rather than an American one) and made very good friends. I joined Hebrew class myself…It was filled with immigrants. I was witnessing Israeli nation-building firsthand when I was least expecting it.”
Her central memories of that experience are of bringing up a child, in a historical setting. “So intimately related to my son’s first three years, there are lots of memories of Jerusalem and the Holy Land sights. I remember going to Bethlehem and kneeling with my baby son at the site of the manger in the Church of the Nativity.”
It is some of these personal moments lived in the backdrop of some intense footnotes of history that diplomatic families hold on to. They’re not always positive, of course. It’s hard to remember sitting in India, with our profound lack of interest in foreign affairs, but at any given time, something dramatic is happening in some corner of the world where IFS officers are posted. The conflict in Sri Lanka (including the assassinations of friends), civil war in Madagascar, and a massive terror attack in Kenya, are some that my family has lived through.
Aparna Swarup, the vivacious wife of the MEA Spokesperson and best-selling author Vikas Swarup, narrates an incident that’s still fresh in her memory, from their first posting to Turkey. “The only incident that stands out where the true diplomatic life comes into play is the rescue of Indian citizens coming into Turkey from Iraq after the outbreak of the first Gulf War. My husband was sent to the Turkey-Syria border to coordinate the relief effort. We were leaving for India but had to delay our departure for duty. It’s easy to buy a ticket and watch fiction for three hours but reality is quite different.”
(The Akshay Kumar movie ‘Airlift’ has not gone down well with MEA officials and families!)
More cinematic, perhaps, is Swarup’s portrayal of an otherwise romantic time. “Ankara, Turkey was my husband's first posting. He came on home leave, we got married and within a few weeks' time I was on my first foreign posting. So, as a new bride, with my new husband, my new wardrobe, I arrived in a new place with new people to start my new life. I was totally clueless and love- struck, hence preparations didn't matter much.”
After the novelty wears off, though, how do spouses (mainly women) deal with being forced to play a secondary role? Ambitions are often put on the back-burner, given strict rules governing the employment of spouses. These are sometimes flouted, of course, but can also prove to be a jarring reality.
Frankly, the jury is out on this one — I’ve seen spouses up in arms and others who feel it’s fine given the high-profile jobs their husbands hold as diplomats, especially at the ambassadorial level. ‘What people think’ and the optics of any arrangement are nowhere more important than in this sort of job. It can definitely be frustrating…though on record? It’s all diplomatic correctness.
Shringla, for one, says that she would have liked to follow a career in academics, if it weren’t for her husband’s job, and did teach on a voluntary basis in a Bangkok university at their last posting (having been denied official permission to work). She says, “It’s a huge risk because you are totally dependent on your husband financially. Sometimes I do get scared and I wonder about the independence and especially the financial independence I would have had.”
And while she does say that the spousal role is “like most women's experience”, with their work taken for granted, she’s at pains to emphasise that this life is an extraordinary privilege, and that she’s grown with each posting, and looks forward to the future.
Swarup, meanwhile, replies partly in verse, on what I suppose is best termed the soft power of the Indian republic.
“Generals may take credit for winning the wars but they are actually won by soldiers. We work very hard to maintain our image and our country’s image.
From looking like Katrina to entertaining like Taj Marina.
From ruling the ladies’ wing of diplomatic corps to giving lectures and making India understood to the core.
You might think of us as ladies in Sabyasachi clinking champagne
But believe me it's only when we are, that India gains.”
Poetic notions aside, a ‘home posting’ — which usually kicks in every 6 years — comes as a relief to some, though the Capital brings its own politicking and power play behind the scenes, not to mention the dowdier housing than the massive official residences abroad. Nonetheless, in ‘civilian life’, the restrictions ease up. Swarup, for one, is working on her Delhi-based project ‘Shot Stories’, in which she features “unheard voices”, documenting stories and uploading photos onto Facebook… I can’t imagine the same level of realistic portrayal of street kids, for example, going down well in a host country.
It’s hard to say whether witnessing history in the making, meeting Presidents and all the king’s men, not to mention travelling widely, make up for the frequent moves, culture shock, lack of social safety nets, and what can be a surprisingly isolated and lonely way of life, despite all that official schmoozing.
Much of this is eased of course by hardship posting allowances, free rent, and education for children in fairly fancy schools…So it’s far from a pity party! And some of these ladies will give you a run for your money on anything from international affairs to politics to business. But there’s definitely a lot of work that’s taken for granted, going on behind the scenes, so maybe your next cocktail round you’ll have a little chat with the hostess too, after oohing and aahing at the mini samosas and the fancy wine that’s flowing.
(Amrita Tripathi is a journalist and the author of The Sibius Knot and Broken News)
Below is a a rejoinder in verse by Jayshree Misra Tripathi, spouse of a retired diplomat- Amrita Tripathi's father.
The Trailing Wife
My entrance- beside him,
Ivory brocade Banarasi saree,
Golden bangles, jingle jangle
Rings on my fingers and toes-
Power by default begets
In the realm of
Repeat after me
Or him, or her,
“Really, but really, not really?”
Discourses - I listen
Often in covert disdain.
Two steps back
Guilty as charged-
Futile moments, reflect
Hemingway, Neruda, missing you.
Converse - non-political
The milieu insensitive
I falter, gasp
Puffs of air
No exit too near,
Fall in line.
The Trailing Wife’s Life
Jayshree M.Tripathi December 2015
(Jayshree Misra Tripathi is an 'arranger of words' and a nomadic teacher since 1983. As the spouse of a now retired officer in India's civil services, she has lived and sometimes taught, overseas - across three continents, in diverse cultures - where vacancies existed and were permissible. Her published works include: "The Sorrow of Unanswered Questions" (2001 International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo, Sri Lanka), Dilemmas and Scattered Weaves: Musings in Narrative Verse, Flash Vignettes of Travels through the Diaspora" (Quills Publishing), "Tales in Verse from India for Children Everywhere" Vols. 1 & 2.)