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ACROSS THE HIMALAYAN GAP

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Diplomats' Reminiscences

 

INTERWOVEN MEMORIES ABOUT CHINA 

K. P. S. Menon 

42

My father (K.P.S. Menon Senior) went to China in somewhat peculiar circumstances: he first went as Agent General for India. The Chinese and others were aware of the diplomatic ranks, Ambassadors, Ministers, Charge d’ Affairs, but Agent General? This was something else again. Some thought it was a military title but, wrote mother, one look at him would have disabused them of any such illusion.

The term derived from the fact that when father was appointed as India’s representative, in 1943. India was not yet independent: but father continued in China as Ambassador when the Indian National Congress agreed to form the government in 1946. Father was, in fact, one of the two first ambassadors of independent India, the other being Asaf Ali in Washington. That Jawaharlal Nehru thought it fit to appoint one of these two to China shows the importance he attached to India-China relations.

Whether as Agent-general or Ambassador, father was received with the warmth of genuine friendship. Those were difficult days: wartime Chongqing and then post-war Naming. But he was able to travel widely and meet people in all walks of life and he established friendships which lasted throughout his lifetime. Indeed, I was to profit from some of them when I was posted to China forty years later.

The then Chongqing was described as an extraordinarily difficult post. My fathers predecessor, Sir Zafrullah Khan, had advised him to have his olfactory nerves removed so that he would be saved from the stench that, he said, prevailed. Fortunately, father did no such thing and was none the worse for it.

What a wealth of life there was even in wartime Chongqing! I visited that Chongqing during my vacations from school and I remember being impressed even at the young age by the sheer joie de vivre of the Chinese. The eating-places always seemed full and crowded and noisy, there was much talking and laughter and drinking - and gambling. My impressions, however, were certainly superficial, those of a callow youth, for China was undergoing the most terrible wartime privations. The climate did not help: Chongqing was covered in fog seven months of the year, a fog so thick and opaque that it was said when the sun came out the dogs barked. One of the Ambassadors there, who kept a meticulous record of the sunshine, calculated that in four and a half months it had shone for just three and half hours. I visited Chongqing again years later when I was Ambassador to China. I recollect a kindly official warning me that it would be so hot that it was said the birds dropped dead from the head. I have no memory of that head, but I did notice that the talk and laughter and drinking was as lively as I remembered them - but there was no gambling. I found that Chongqing still retained for me the attraction first seen through the eyes of youth, the dwellings on terraced hillsides, the all seeing, eternal Yangtse on its way to the boundless sea. But I do not recollect hearing again the dolorous fog horns of passing ships nor the plaintive cries of bargemen who, tied to ropes, pulled loads up the Yangtse.

In Chongqing I saw at first hand the efficiency of Chinese record-keeping. I told my guide that if possible I would like to visit the house in which I had lived more than forty years ago. I did not have the address and thought no more of it, thinking it would be well-nigh impossible to trace; but to my amazement he informed me within half-an-hour of the two addresses at which the Indian Representative had lived. So, it was with much nostalgia that I saw the house I had stayed in during a vacation, but from afar because it was now occupied by six families and I did not wish to intrude upon them. I was not so lucky in Nanjng. There, I knew the address of the house, the then 42, Beijing Road, but it had given way to a new construction.

Father has also recorded, amongst much else, of how he marvelled at the painstaking cultivation around Chengdu, where not an inch of land or drop of water was wasted, and at the ancient irrigation system in Guanxian which I too marvelled at years later.

My parents visited in Chengdu my sister Parvathi, who was studying in Jinling College, presided over by the famous Dr. Wu Yi-fang. Parvathi’s room-mates turned out to see them, for they were the first Indians they were seeing. One of them remarked to Parvathi, “Your mother must have a little foreign blood in her” -for my mother has large eyes and a prominent nose -“but your father is all right, he is one of us.” Mother remarked that was why father had been chosen to represent India in China.

Parvathi wrote that her room-mates were very considerate towards her. In a dormitory of six double-decker beds they insisted on her having the lower berth and wanted even to make her bed. On one occasion, they told her, still in the most friendly manner, that a hundred years ago India was subject to China. When Parvathi protested, she writes, “They looked so sad that I felt tempted to agree with them, until a more enlightened scholar of history came to the rescue”.

Several years later when, as a newly-arrived Ambassador in Beijing, I called on the French Ambassador, he said, “You have two sisters”, “Four”, said I. “Two of them studied in Chengdu”, he said. Three”, I said. It turned out that the Ambassador and his wife had been studying in Chengdu with my twin sisters, the other twin had followed Parvathi there. She studied at Yanjing University in Chengdu. Today Parvathi’s daughter teaches Chinese language and history at the Department of Chinese and Japanese Studies in Delhi University and the son of one of the twins, Shivshankar Menon, now heads the Division dealing with China in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi.* He has already been posted twice to China, the second occasion being when I was there. When he was due to arrive on this second Occasion one of the Chinese on our staff in Beijing asked my Counsellor whether he was the same Menon who had been there before; and she expressed much happiness at his coming again. It was good to feel this friendship. Shivshankar’s wife, too, was, as it were, an “old China hand”, for her father, Ram Sathe, was in Chongqing and Nanjing with my father; and was later Consul-General in Kashgar and Ambassador in Beqing in his own right.

Another place my wife, Lalitha, and I visited, which had been visited by father first in 1944 and then, thirteen years later from the Soviet Union in 1957. Was Xinjiang and, more particularly, Urumqi, Kashgar and Lanzhou. He had stayed in these places and so did we. In Kashgar he had been accommodated in Chini Bagh, the house so beloved of Lady Macartney, whose husband had spent twenty-eight years there. Ram Sathe had stayed in the same house, as India’s Consul-general; but by the time we got to Kashgar the winds of change had converted the house to a transit-shelter for truck drivers.

Father has described the amazing changes that had taken place in the interval of thirteen years since his first visit. It was these changes that we saw. We also saw the remarkable efficiency of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in arranging visits of three plane-loads of diplomats to the awesome Takhlamakan desert and to the surrounding areas of absorbing interest, fabled in history and art, such as the Dunhuang caves. The planning was faultless: and more perfectly organized visits cannot be imagined. But Lalitha and I also experienced an example of pride going before a fall or, rather, as it happened, of pride following a fall. For part of the visit the participants had to ride on camels. We tried to get on to the same camel, to its obvious resentment, and when goaded, it took the simple way out: it gently rolled over on the one side. We were deposited into the gleaming, white sands; and treasure as a memento the photograph of our sprawling discomfiture which the Canadian Ambassador had recorded on his camera. But our pride was salvaged when we were the only diplomat couple to succeed in climbing the sand hill by the side of the beautiful Half Moon Lake, described by travellers centuries ago. Others had done it singly; some had failed altogether.

Father’s direct association with China was split into two periods, very different in content. During the first period, from 1943 to 1948, when he was Agent-general and then Ambassador to China, China was in the throes-of war and civil war. She was suffering the most terrible deprivations, but there was nothing to cloud the sun of India-China friendship. He found nothing but friendship. He would have appreciated what the writer Robert Payne wrote about him in his China Diaries, 1941-46. “Of all the foreign representative  in China”, Payne wrote, ”He is the most beloved…Men loved and admired Eggleston (the Australian Minister).  In the same way they love and admire Menon”. (Brackets mine).

From 1948 to 1953, father was Foreign Secretary in Delhi and so also had to deal with China. Soon after the first clouds began to appear. This is not the place to go into them. Suffice it to say that it was a constant thread in India’s foreign policy, when the new China came into being, in 1949, to hold that it was wrong of the Western community, and some who followed its lead, to try to isolate that China. For instance, India incurred the wrath of the United States of America by taking the lead in an attempt to defeat a Resolution in the United Nations seeking to condemn China for intervention in Korea at the time of the Korean conflict.

Despite the vicissitudes through which India-China relations passed in his lifetime, father always held dear the warm Chinese friendships he had. One of his most cherished memories was of the great Madame Sun Yat-sen, the Soong sister who loved China, coming to the airport to see him off when he was leaving China, and taking the trouble to return to the airport all over again six hours later when the flight was delayed. Several years later, in 1973, he sent her, at the suggestion of a common friend, a copy of his book, “Twilight in China”. He hardly expected a reply and was deeply touched when she sent him a most gracious letter.

My own direct association with China was marked by no such cleavage. As Ambassador between 1985 and 1987, I went to a resurgent China, ever growing in confidence. As Foreign Secretary between 1987 and 1989, my relationship was with the same China. Fortunately, the Prime Minister, late Shri Rajiv Gandhi, as also the then Foreign Minister, Shri Narasimha Rao, now Prime Minister, had come to the conclusion that even while border-differences between the two countries were being tackled, with a view to resolving them, progress should be made in other fields. This desire for improving India-China relations was fully reciprocated by the Chinese leadership and, shortly before I left Delhi, it culminated in Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China.

From Madras, Lalitha and I take a continuing interest in happenings concerning China. We were happy to spend a New Year’s eve here in the pleasant company of the former Chinese Ambassador, Tu Guowei and his wife. The evening brought back to us the happy hours we had passed in Beijing in the company of Professor Wu Xiaoling and his family, who introduced us to Chinese opera. Equally, we recollected the hospitality extended to us by those good friends of my parents, Ambassador Shen Jian, also a former Ambassador to India, and his wife, and the Yangs - Gladys and Xianyi Yang - opened to us a whole treasure-house of Chinese literature in their translations.

In Madras, too, we were happy to see on the stage of the prestigious Kalakshetra, two flower-like little Chinese girls performing Bharatanatyam and Chinese dancesThey came to India in response to an invitation extended by Shri RVenkatraman, former President of India, during a visit to China, and they were trained in Bharatanatyam by the redoubtable Chinese danseuse, Madame Zhang Jun, a particularly close friend of Lalitha’s.

Our memories remain ever green. They will be added to, for, as I have said, there is already a third generation in the family busying itself with matters Chinese.


* This article was written in 1974. Mr. Shivasankar Menon is now India's ambassador to Sri Lanka-Editor.

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© 1998 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the publisher. 

Published in 1998 by 

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