For any ambassador, presenting the letters of credence to a head of state is a very intense moment. When I stood before President Nelson Mandela, in Pretoria, parchment in my hand, draft speech in my pocket and a lump in my throat - the moment was more than intense. It was electric. I had been cautioned by the chief of protocol to keep my speech brief, very brief, like of no more than five minutes' duration.
"Sir," my experienced colleague and deputy high commissioner Talmiz Ahmad told me, "please do not be constrained by the chief of protocol. Aap jo jo kahnaa chaahte hain, khule dil se kah diijiye…aise mauqe kam milte hain…" I followed the advice and read a carefully prepared piece in which names of the greats of India and South Africa were intoned, old links evoked, new vistas opened. The chief of protocol fidgeted as I went on, deputy high commissioner Ahmad looking a picture of relaxed confidence and President Mandela heard me unsmilingly and unblinkingly.
When it was his turn to respond, he called for no paper. He spoke directly from his powerful intelligence. After some words of customary courtesy he said, "Mr High Commissioner, you have left something out…" If the atmosphere had been electric so far, it now took one step back. It turned thermal. "In mentioning the names of distinguished Indians who contributed to the cause of our liberation," said the President, "Your Excellency did not mention the jurist Mohammed Currim Chagla in the United Nations. His was a stellar role."
I stood educated, if also chastised. Here was a man who knew his India better than I did. If I had overshot my time, he had vaulted over formalisms to turn the credentials ceremony into a bridge over broken retrievals of history.
At the tête-à-tête that followed, President Mandela asked me about our then prime minister. "How exactly is his name pronounced?" I repeated "Gowda" a couple of times and he followed after me. "Not heard it before," he said. But when I said he might find it easier to intone it if he remembered a common enough Indian-South African name, "Gownder", he broke into a sunlit smile and said "Oh Gownder! Of course! That name I know veraa veraa well". That he wanted to know how my prime minister's name is accurately pronounced said something of the man's meticulousness and care.
As he came up to the door to see me out, he held my hand and asked, "Tell me, how is Sonia?" I said Mrs Gandhi was very well indeed and very active. I knew this question was "outside protocol". A non-Congress government was in office and Mandela was receiving the envoy sent by a political incumbency that was very non-Congress. Politics and protocol may be about remembering, history is about not forgetting. Waving goodbye, he said: "Give her my love".
The author was the Indian high commissioner to South Africa
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