Friday, July 11, 2008

Billoo - My friend Venkat

Like so many of my good friendships, Venkat and I started off with a fight. He had just arrived in Kathmandu from Sri Lanka. We had gathered at the Bhat-bhateni residence of Nagma ( Mallik ) – the Commerce Attaché at the Indian Embassy - to discuss the issues being faced by the Indian JVs in Nepal with mounting Maoist insurgency. Venkat touched a raw nerve in me by asking – “what are the Indian companies doing to improve the image of India in Nepal ?” That got me started on my pet peeve (something – I realize with the hindsight of age – that didn’t quite endear me to the charming lady Diplomat either !!).

That evening, as Malathi never tired of recounting, -`Venkat came home fuming’ – at the temerity of the Bengali bloke challenging the authority of the all-powerful Indian establishment in Lainchaur. The ripples of that altercation also reached the “Nona-Nina-Mona” Lane of Baluwater through other channels as well - causing some domestic consternation. But, you could trust Malathi to break the ice. “So you are the one who fought with my husband” she charged me point - blank at the very first party we met and then threw a supplementary - “but tell me – are you, by any chance, also a Virgoan ?” On confirming her intuition she broke into her signature waterfall laughter. And there began the “Billoo” factor. ( it was a coinage of our dear Seth – who henceforth insisted on referring to Malathi as my ‘sister’, as she had brokered the ‘truce’ between me and Venkat and, therefore, by definition her husband became my ‘b-i-l’. And, 'Billoo' was just a feline or facile - albeit affectionate - extension of that).

The Rao’s sailed in like a draught of cool breeze – through the re-cycled air of the Kats social circuit - populated primarily with the embassy gentry, a handful of Nepali aristocrats ( both Royalty and Commoners ) and a motley group of Indian businessmen and company executives. Soon, they were the flavour of all the parties in town. Malathi’s infectious vivacity and Venkat’s unaffected joviality made them an instant hit and a popular pair all thru’ their 3 years of stay in Kathmandu.

At first look they might have appeared to be 2 very different people – but it didn’t take long to realize their relationship was built on the bond of a very strong and deep understanding - which made them, as Nina aptly put it, “not just a couple but a team” who beautifully complemented each other. Venkat obviously enjoyed the attention his ‘bubbly and spirited’ wife received in all social gatherings - while she, in turn, thrived on the admiration and respect he commanded with his reputation of being a very competent officer. And, together they made wonderful parents to their 2 lovely kids – Aniket and Amulya – strongly moored, as they were, in solid family values.

I am not sure if the Pew Survey covers what the Nepalese feel and think about India and Indians. But, I guess it can’t be very different from what the USA scores not just from its immediate neighbours but the world at large. In such a context, the First Secretary Political at the Indian Mission at Kathmandu is not usually the most liked diplomat. But, Venkat proved to be different. He never put on the patronizing big brotherly air that comes so naturally to the ‘southern neighbours’ of the Himalyan Kingdom ( nay, Republic ). With his self-effacing style, he quickly won the trust and confidence of the politicians cutting across party lines and affiliations – friendships he carried long after he moved out of Nepal.

He was his own man wherever he went. It was this trait that stood him in good stead even when he was in Uncle Sam’s country. Something that comes through clearly from the tributes he received from those who knew him there – most notably K. P. Nayar of The Telegraph and Chidanand Rajghatta of the ToI. On being interviewed by Arnab Goswami on TIMES NOW, the latter began by paying a personal tribute to Venkat and condolences to Malathi – to use his own words “ they had won many friends in Washington during their stay there”. I got a glimpse of his wide network and circle of influence - when I went to WAS DC last year on some semi-personal work.

Venkat moved to Kabul around the same time I shifted to Delhi in 2006. We’d joke that we were both in “non-family stations” – with me appropriating the self-appointed status of being the local guardians of the “sister” and her kids much to the discomfiture of some of our afore-mentioned common friends who, undoubtedly, had the best interest of his family at heart. In Afghanistan, Venkat shed some weight and with a clean-shaven look was every bit the dapper diplomat. We frivolously attributed this to the therapeutic value of the juicy, lycopene-rich Kandahar pomegranates and the Chinese R & R center next to his house. Kabul being a ‘hardship’ posting his tenure would have normally lasted for 2years. But, Venkat did consider extending it by a year more – finally deciding against it as he wanted to be around for Aniket’s final years in school.

My last email exchanges with him were less than 2 weeks ago. I was in the US and read the statement of the Afghan Intelligence Chief on the assassination attempt at Karzai a few weeks back. I thought it significant that for the first time the Afghan government openly accused a Pakistani ISI hand in the incident – with Karzai – probably in a fit of bravado - even threatening to send his troops into Peshawar to flush out Taliban elements. I wondered if the Political Counselor had something to do with eliciting such a strong reaction from the host government – who were known for carefully calibrating their responses in playing a difficult balancing act.

In his reply, Venkat wrote that he was getting ready to pack his bags after a very fulfilling stint and would be back in August. He mildly chastised me for not coming to visit him in Kabul ( which he always insisted was “safer than Delhi” ) and even had a jab at me saying that, I was probably waiting for his successor to come from Tanzania – who we also knew from our Kathmandu days. He mentioned that, he might come to Delhi on a short official visit in early July when we should try to catch up. As luck would have it – I was in Delhi the last weekend – but somehow didn’t manage to connect. The rest, of course, as they say was splashed all over the newspapers and regurgitated endlessly on our TV channels.

Seeing Malathi’s brother Girish, an Air-force officer, saluting Venkat for one last time as they blew the bugles at the War Crematorium in Brar Square and clutching on to Aniket close to his chest trying hard to hold back his own tears as a proud serviceman – I thought, I can never feel even an iota of what he was going thru’ at the loss of his sister ’s husband.