Saturday, October 7, 2017

Interpreters of Ministry of External Affairs (MEA)

 The immediate provocation to write this is a brief story in the Outlook magazine of September 4, 2017 “The Missing Plate” about the Interpreter who was not served food at the banquet hosted by EAM Sushma Swaraj to her Turkman counterpart. It is a sad story which indicates the mindset to treat junior officials. It is gratifying to note that people, including media, have started taking due notice of these small but important etiquette and niceties. The position is
getting better to treat the Interpreters with all care and sensitivities. There were occasions in the 1970s which I witnessed personally in the MEA and PMO where Interpreters were not arranged to sit on the main table of the talks or meetings, leave alone dinners and lunches. It was indicative of the feudal mind of the senior bureaucrats and also of the political bosses i.e. ministers. India’s increased interaction with Russia, China and Arab countries brought into focus the interpreting needs for official interaction. Interpreters have started getting due recognition and place in the hierarchy, of late.

During my diplomatic service, I have had opportunities to work with Interpreters of the MEA and those of several Indian Embassies abroad. I joined the MEA in March, 1970 and was deployed with the then Interpreter’s Cell where all the Interpreters of the MEA were located. It was the beginning of my education, not with the secretarial staff, as expected, but with the intellectuals and linguists of their own standing. I still cherish the memories of those formative years of my career. I was not even 20 yet. All the Interpreters treated me like a baby of the Cell and gave me all love and affection and also support and guidance in my office work. Dr. William Sadoc, a jovial Punjabi with a heavy frame and a fatherly figure, was the German Interpreter. Other senior Interpreter colleagues used to call him ‘Fatty’. He used to narrate many stories of his work and interaction with big-wigs. One such anecdote was his experience to interpret a German speaking VVIP at a public meeting at the Red Fort in the presence of PM Jawahar Lal Nehru. A funny thing in my memory, about Dr. Sadoc, is his vintage motor-bike which he was used to park on the slope of North and South Blocks just to get an easy start on return. A gracious and up-right Anglo-Indian lady, Teresa d’ Souza, was the French Interpreter. She was very kind to me – my English language tutor and type-writing instructor at work. I recall vividly that she used to bring cakes, pastries to office to share the goodies with us. Many a times, I relished fresh lettuce with tomato ketchup, which was an unusual savory those days for a young man from Punjab, which she brought from the kitchen garden of Rashtrapati Bhawan. Teresa was fond of home parties and get-togethers. The taste of mutton dishes which I ate at one such party at her flat at the MEA Hostel, is still lingering in my mouth. An anecdote may be of interest. Teresa did not know much Hindi. She narrated an interesting experience. One day she visited the mutton shop and wanted to convey her order of liver by saying ‘Hum Apka Dil Mangta’. The butcher was amused and started staring at her.  A fellow customer came to her rescue by explaining her intension to the butcher. R.P. Budhiraja, with a scholarly demeanor, was the Persian Interpreter. Apart from these seniors, there was a younger lot, Santosh Ganguly – Russian and Abdul Wadood Azami – Arabic during my initial years with the Interpreters Cell. Both Ganguly Dada and Azami Sahib were very friendly and considerate to me. I even attended his marriage in old Delhi along with other Interpreters. Azami Sahib was very friendly. We used to travel in the same bus from our residences in Nanakpura/ Moti Bagh. I recall a sumptuous dinner with him at Kake Da Dhaba at Connaught Place after his pre-posting shopping from the nearby employee’s cooperative store. I have some educative anecdotes of my company with Azami Sahib. As I wrote earlier that we both were living in Nanakpura. One day, I was standing in the queue for the bus to the Central Secretariat. Azami Sahib’s wife, with a saree and a bindi, came and informed me that her husband will not come today as he was not well. One of our regular fellow travelers, a high caste Hindu, remarked that Azami Sahib’s wife appeared to be a Hindu from her dress and expressed unexpected surprise. I narrated this episode to Azami Sahib. He was furious and said that it was a pity that we had divided ourselves on these flimsy considerations.  Yet another tit-bit, I will like to add. One day, we were to catch a bus from the Central Secretariat for home. As usual, there was a great rush. We were trying to enter the bus. One Sardarji fellow was blocking the way for some reason. Azami Sahib requested him politely in his Urdu laced Hindustani to give us the way. There was some shouting on each other. After we got in and settled down, Azami Sahib innocently told me that I must have noticed that when he addressed that Sardar as ‘Tum instead of Aap’ he understood my displeasure. I laughed and remarked that Azami Sahib, it was unlikely that his friend knew the difference between Tum and Aap. Azami Sahib was a cultured and sophisticated person. Later, he called me in Prague from Lucknow where got settled after retirement and revived our association. He was very happy that I could make it to the higher echelons of the service hierarchy. Later, I worked with some more scholarly, friendly and lively Interpreters namely; Dr. R.A.K Sherwani – Persian, Abdul Khalique – Arabic, Afzal Naqvi – Arabic, Abdul Majid – Arabic, M.L.R. Jafri – Persian, Jaya Mukherji – Russian, Anne Kurian – German, Syed Sajid Mian, Kanakendu Ghosh – French, T. Steven – French, S. Nene – German, among others. Dr. Sherwani and Abdul Majid were fatherly figures. Abdul Khalique and Syed Sajid Mian were living in old Delhi near Jama Masid. They were kind enough to bring delicious Pans for us. I also attended Syed Sajid Mian’s marriage (Niqha) at his traditional Haveli at Balli Maran, near the house of Mirza Ghalib, at Chandni Chowk, my first experience to see a Muslim wedding. Jaya Mukherji was a vivacious young lady and was the heartthrob of many foreign returned young fellows hanging around the famous Hira Lal’s canteen. She belonged to a well to do business family and her uncle was the Head of Department of Modern European Languages at Delhi University. She used to take me along to Chandni Chowk for purchase of books. There was a funny incident on one such visit. One afternoon from the office, we went to Nai Sarak for purchase of books. As usual a beggar followed us and pleaded for some alms by using their usual and characteristic phraseology to young couples – “Aap Ki Jodi Salamat Rahe – Alla Aapko Khush Rakhe – Doodhon Nahon-Putton Fallon”. We both felt embarrassed and with great effort guarded ourselves by giving a few coins. Later we enjoyed the encounter by teasing ourselves. Jaya was a cultured young lass with an open mind. Her demeanor amply demonstrated her good education and up-bringing.  Anne Kurian treated us many a times on the south Indian specialties at a chosen hangout at the Electric lane near the MEA Hostel. In those days in the 1970s, Interpreters deployed to help other Ministries and Departments on request were getting some honorarium for their services. There used to be frequent parties in the Cell as and when any of the Interpreters got such payment. Kanakendu Ghose was a funny character. He himself told us many stories when he was scolded by PM Indira Gandhi on his not satisfactory Interpreting skills as she herself was good at French language. He used to fake an itchy throat while interpreting just to attract attention. He would tell boastfully that how a Minister offered him a glass of water in front of the VVIPs. My association with the Interpreters was so deep that they invited me to the Interpreters Cell to say farewell on my posting to Peking (Beijing) in October, 1977, though I was no more working with them. Later Dr. Sherwani died in an air-crash in Iran, unfortunately. I met his son in Tehran in February, 1991 working for the Indian Embassy. Anne Kurian joined JNU and Syed Sajid Mian Jamia Millia Islamia for academic pursuits. Afzal Naqvi joined All India Radio. Jaya Mukherji left for Kolkata after marriage. I feel like meeting them again.

I understand, Interpreter Cell was disbanded in the early 1980s and Interpreters were deployed with relevant territorial divisions of the MEA. I again happen to work with at least two Russian Interpreters, Jyoti Savarkar and Suresh Babu, both young and intelligent. Jyoti stayed at my small flat in Delhi along with her boyfriend and later husband for a couple of years. Later, they could not maintain their love marriage and got divorced. Jyoti left for her native place in Maharastra and continued with her interpretation and translation work. I was told that she translated and dubbed the Mahabharta TV serial of B.R. Chopra in Russian language. Suresh Babu did well and is still in service. On my return from Kampala in October, 1997, I took over as Director (Central Asia) in the MEA. There also we had two Russian Interpreters, Sipra Ghosh and
Sipra Ghosh
Ganesh Haloi.  Both are still in service. Sipra is a simple lady but highly motivated and good at work. I witnessed her interpreting with confidence and poise with PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and EAM Jaswant Singh many a times. Similarly, Ganesh Haloi is a shy but dedicated professional. I am sure that both Sipra and Ganesh will go further up in their respective careers.

Interpreter’s cadre was a dormant cadre – Interpreter-Interpreter-Interpreter. They have been struggling to change the position. Except the lone example of Vasant Paranjpe, about whom I would write a few lines separately, nobody was able to change the track. Dr. Sherwani on his own, as I know, undertook additional responsibilities for Afghanistan and Iran Desks and set the ball in motion. Later when the Interpreters were deployed with respective territorial divisions, they got their normal designations as Attaches, USs, DSs, and Directors and so on and started doing additional work apart from their duties as Interpreters. It was a welcome change which opened more avenues for them. Santosh Ganguly was the first to cross the D-line who was appointed Consul General
Ambassador T. Suresh Babu
of India to St. Petersburg in Russia in early the 1990s. It took another twenty years or so for Suresh Babu to cross the barrier. He was appointed as Ambassador of India to Armenia in 2013. Suresh Babu is now a serving Ambassador of India to Mongolia.

There are some more interesting stories pertaining to Interpreters of MEA. Teresa d’ Souza and William Sadoc used to narrate these tales. Vasant Paranjepe, first Interpreter to become a Joint Secretary (EA) and Ambassador of India, was a carefree and unkempt official in his younger and formative years. Teresa even combed his hair when he was called by PM or EAM for Interpretation on a short notice. Paranjpe was a brilliant Interpreter. Chinese Premier Chou-en-Lai, seeing his fluency in the Chinese language, when he worked as an Interpreter for talks between him and PM Jawaharlal Nehru complimented Paranjpe by say that he knew better Chinese than Chou-en-Lai himself. I have had the opportunity to meet him in Peking (Beijing) in 1978 during the visit of then EAM Atal Bihari Vajpaye. Paranjpe was specially called from Pyongyang (North Korea), where he was the Indian Ambassador, to be a member of the EAM’s delegation due to his expertise on not only the Chinese language but also the entire gamut of India-China relations. There was yet another Interpreter, Weer Rajendra Rishi alias Walliati Ram Rishi, who achieved laurels in his chosen field.
W.R. Rishi
Rishi was a scholar of Russian language. He was awarded with Padma Shri on his pioneering work ‘Russian Hindi Dictionary’.  He wrote some more books on the language and culture including:
Roma - The Panjabi Emigrants in Europe, Central and Middle Asia, the USSR, and the Americas. Rishi was also the founding Director of Indian Institute of Roma Studies established in Chandigarh. There may be many more interesting stories about Interpreters which may be listed and told as they are not only first hand privy to ‘inside  and behind the curtain’ facts but also a treasure house of interesting incidents and tales involving dignitaries who shape and mould the destiny of nations and their people.


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