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Poet diplomat

india Updated: Jul 04, 2009 01:28 IST
Amit Baruah

The light here is special. Drenched by blood and frost

So much has happened here. Bronze horseman, burning homes,

Nine hundred days written into symphonies of emptied tear ducts.


I think of how it must have been

To beg for black bread on the banks of the slow, straining river.

That’s St Petersburg. A poem by Nirupama Rao, who will take charge as India’s new foreign secretary on August 1. If you want to read more, try her first poetry collection, Rain Rising, published in 2004.

Rao (58) will be India’s second woman foreign secretary, the country’s principal foreign policy official, who will preside over a work force estimated to be in the range of 5,000-8,000 spread across 170 missions and posts across the world and, of course, South Block.

Basically, a foreign secretary is supposed to know everything about the whole wide world and work 24/7 to take India to new diplomatic heights. A pretty demanding job, if there was one.

Our foreign secretary designate’s many accomplishments don’t end with poetry. Trained in Carnatic music, she prefers Western classical.

Mother of two sons, Nikhilesh (31) and Kartikeya (21), and wife of Sudhakar Rao, currently chief secretary in Karnataka, Rao appears to have found work, family, poetry and music an easy juggle.

“I’ve been home alone in Beijing,” Rao told me over a crackly telephone line from Beijing, where she’s India’s ambassador. “I’ve been living away from my family for five years,” she said, adding her years as high commissioner to Sri Lanka.

So how has she managed all this, I asked her. “I have a high degree of enthusiasm and retain a sense of wonder about life. I’ve always tried to keep away from cynicism,” Rao replied.

The former External Affairs Ministry spokeswoman pointed out that her family had adjusted to all the demands made by her career.

So is Mr. Rao, a senior Indian Administrative Service officer, behind Mrs. Rao’s success? “I have seen her through her career. She has given everything she had.”

“None of us hindered her from doing her work,” Mr. Rao told the Hindustan Times, referring to himself and their two sons. That was their contribution to her success, he suggested.

Did she have to work twice as hard as her male colleagues to prove herself? “It’s a level playing field. I have never encountered any discrimination (in the foreign service),” Rao responded to my questions.

Are the days of discrimination described by India’s pioneering woman foreign service officer, C.B. Muthamma, truly in the past? “I have never encountered any glass ceiling,” she insisted during our phone conversation.

“Each has given to the other,” she said about her work as a diplomat and other interests in poetry and music. There are no artificial walls here, Rao felt.

Rao also took the view that her interests in Indian culture, poetry and music had helped promote India in her postings abroad, which include India’s embassies in Washington and Moscow.

The foreign secretary-designate is by no means the only Indian diplomat to be immersed in writing fiction or poetry. (More serious work on Indian diplomacy is still rare —even from those officers who have retired from the service).

Arguably, Vikas Swarup, India’s deputy high commissioner in South Africa, had has the widest impact for his book Q&A, on which Danny Boyle’s celebrated film, Slumdog Millionaire, is based.

“I think one has to be true to one’s profession, but you should have a life outside your work,” Swarup said from his current perch in Pretoria.

Other talents, interests can only add to a diplomat’s repertoire. In the case of Rao, it would appear only too true.