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Fiction shows nationalism does not consist in rituals

The novel ‘Ambassador Marco’s Indian Instincts’ comprises many storylines which converge around Marco but the one that concerns us is a political tale about India-Pakistan relations and the Indian PM

columns Updated: Dec 18, 2016 01:07 IST
The content makes the reader wonder if there’s more to this novel than meets the eye
The content makes the reader wonder if there’s more to this novel than meets the eye

Just when the Supreme Court is determined to impose outdated and unnecessary concepts of patriotism, in the mistaken belief our love of our country needs to be more visibly displayed and re-inforced, a novel by a former foreign secretary offers a refreshingly different perspective on true service to India. Its ‘hero’ Michael Marco is a shabbily-dressed, soft-spoken Somalian former diplomat. Everything about him suggests he’s unimportant, uninformed and irrelevant. Except he’s not.

Read: National anthem at movie halls: Who’s standing up, who’s raising questions

The novel ‘Ambassador Marco’s Indian Instincts’ comprises many storylines which converge around Marco but the one that concerns me today is a political tale about India-Pakistan relations and the Indian PM.

The story is set in a time when India-Pakistan relations have deteriorated so precipitously that war seems imminent and the only hope for peace is an initiative by the UN secretary general. The prime minister recommends this Somali diplomat as India’s representative and entrusts the fate and security of the country to the skills and persuasive talents of a foreigner. That would be unthinkable in the world we live in. But Krishnan Srinivasan’s PM has unshakeable faith in Mr Marco.

Ultimately the UN initiative is scuppered and the PM appoints Marco special advisor. Thereafter Marco’s insights and understanding open the PM’s eyes to an unseen threat that could have toppled his government as well as that of his Pakistani counterpart. A bit like Poirot, Marco has thought deeply about what’s happening and spotted the imminent danger. For this he’s awarded the Padma Vibhushan. The citation simply reads “for his inestimable services to the Republic of India”. Only the prime minister knows what they were and how much India owes him.

Read: Diplomatic doodles

The author, Krishnan Srinivasan, describes the PM as “a grey-haired close-bearded man of medium height and stocky build, around sixty, with broad strong hands”. He wears “long-sleeved loose-fitting shirts over white churidar pyjamas” with contrasting coloured waistcoats. He’s never had “the benefit of a conventional education” and his English is “strongly accented”. And he dominates his cabinet.

Srinivasan’s story is, of course, fiction and Marco a figment of his imagination but together they raise issues about patriotism, nationalism, duty and service that are very pertinent today. You don’t have to be an Indian citizen to serve this country. Patriotism does not need to be ritualistically displayed. Nationalism does not preclude seeking the services of a foreigner. Srinivasan’s prime minister understands this.

The author may have intended us to reflect on the present India-Pak situation and Narendra Modi’s handling of it but I believe the lesson I‘ve drawn for our Supreme Court judges is more interesting. And, now, let me go one step further.

Read: How India’s intervention in Bangladesh shaped south Asia

I know no people more patriotic than the British and they’re devoted to their sovereign but the Union Jack is sold in London on socks and undies and the Queen is the butt of many popular jokes. If you play God Save The Queen in cinema halls they’d barge out, offended they’ve been asked to prove their loyalty in such childish knee-jerk ways. Indeed, in the 1930s the Oxford Union overwhelmingly defeated the motion ‘This house would fight for King and Country’ but less than a decade later the same young undergraduates laid down their lives in the second world war. Only Hitler couldn’t anticipate or understand that.

There’s something very British about Marco’s phlegmatic style and manner and I admire Srinivasan’s PM for appreciating this quality. It makes me wonder if there’s more to this novel than meets the eye.

The views expressed are personal