Hers has been an exceptional life. As a child of less than four years, she was displaced by Partition from a Lahore engulfed in flames. Raised in Delhi, Madhu Bhaduri went on to study and then teach philosophy in Delhi University. She then became one of India’s early women diplomats, pursued in what was still an unapologetically male-dominated vocation a vibrant and distinguished career.

This took her to countries during important moments of historical transition and upheaval, like Vietnam after the war with the United States, and countries that broke away from the former Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She nurtured through all of this a love of philosophy, music and literature, and is a noted Hindi novelist. After she retired, she joined the movement for the right to information, and even had a brief but stormy stint as a member of the Aam Aadmi Party.

All of this would, by itself, have made Madhu’s memoir Lived Stories compelling. But she also writes in supple fluid prose, with economy, grace, humour, sensitive human observation and astute political insights. Hers is a book of vignettes, fragmented memories; each “lived story” is related with the skill of the novelist that she is. Each story is engaging in itself, but all of these strung together, as she has done, into a single volume, form a tapestry that testifies to a remarkable life, in a country and world in transition.

Gender discrimination

In the closing pages of the book, we are left with fleeting images of her parents, joining hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing a burning Lahore, clutching with them their three daughters, taking them to safety to Delhi. Of her great-grandfather who refused to travel with them, dying in their home in Lahore on the same night that India won her freedom, and being cremated inside his home. Of her grandparents fleeing to India a month later. Of a childhood in the crossroads of three languages and cultures – Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. Of school, college and childhood friendships. Of learning some essential lessons about philosophy, including from the celebrated Professor Bose of St Stephen’s College.

You are shocked to learn how hostile India’s diplomatic service was to women officers, even as late as in the 1970s. Earlier, women officers were required to resign if they chose to marry. Some of India’s earliest women diplomats, like the legendary CB Muthamma, India’s first woman diplomat who joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1948, remained unmarried all their lives; others resigned from the diplomatic service when they married.

By the time Madhu entered the ranks of India’s diplomatic service, this rule had been waived, but women still had to seek permission before they married. Men officers of course were not required to take the government’s sanction to marry. The seven women officers of that time were warned that they should not ask for comfortable postings, else the government might have to reintroduce the rule barring women in the foreign service from marrying. Even women IAS officers were scared to come out openly in their support, for fear of repercussions to their career.

The women officers of the diplomatic service, bravely for the time, wrote to government demanding that the letter should be withdrawn, as it was discriminatory, contravening the Constitutional guarantee of equality between genders. The media discussed this, and the threat to again bar women diplomats from marrying was quietly buried. The women from the diplomatic services posted in Delhi formed a quiet sisterhood to help women survivors of rape and abuse.

Vienna and Vietnam

Madhu herself married a distinguished economics professor, Amit Bhaduri, she recalls, in Vienna, in the house of the ambassador. Her joy was that their home in Vienna – that centre of music, philosophy, science and mathematics – faced the historic Stephansplatz church, and to hear the music from the church on Sundays they only had to open their windows.

She speaks, though, of the one public agitation that transpired in Vienna when they were there. This was against a rule that dogs would not be permitted into public parks. The protests were so strong that the administration was forced to withdraw the order. Madhu wonders that when they could protest to protect their pets, why did they remain silent four decades earlier, when Jews, 25 percent of the population, were “persecuted, humiliated and looted”. It baffled her that the Austrians, “people who loved music, literature, art, and science” showed no humanism when they welcomed Hitler with open arms.

Some of her most fascinating memories are of Vietnam, where she was posted in 1975, and arrived just after the Americans, following their carpet-bombing of the tiny impoverished nation, had withdrawn from Saigon. India was at that time one of the few countries with a diplomatic mission in Hanoi.

India was favoured because of Indira Gandhi’s courageous call earlier to end the bombing of Vietnam, and was allotted villas for the embassy and their homes while others, including diplomats from Japan and Australia, slept in hotel rooms that they converted into their offices during the day. In the privileged villa that Madhu occupied, diplomats from many countries would gather to play badminton in the evenings. She had to carry essentials even like toothpaste and detergents: nothing was available in the war-ravaged country.

Each Vietnamese was allotted 5 metres of cloth a year; Madhu converted some of her sarees into curtains for her windows. Vietnam was not connected by telephone or telegraph to most parts of the world. Her letters to Amit had to be sent in a diplomatic bag, which was carried by a courier to Hong Kong. This then awaited an Air India flight to Delhi. A letter would take a month to reach.

She describes the ruins, the bombed buildings, the craters, but also the quiet determination and discipline of the people of Vietnam. Madhu and Amit returned on a vacation to Vietnam forty years later. They were captivated by the bustling, glittering cities and green countryside replacing the devastation that they had witnessed when posted to Vietnam.

An American general had boasted that Vietnam would be bombed into the Stone Age. Instead, entire cities had been reconstructed, paddy and fish production flourished, everywhere there were markets, hospitals, schools. “This nation, which had defeated a superpower and its sophisticated war technology,” Madhu writes, “on the strength of its bicycles and its determination, has with the same determination been providing welfare to its people”. She adds, “Salaam Vietnam”.

Stories from the street

The book is full of engaging observations of many countries where she worked, of India and the world in another time, of countries like Mexico, Belarus, Lithuania and Portugal. But it is also peppered with titbits of diplomatic and personal trivia that also entertain the reader.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi visiting Vienna says she wishes to hear Beethoven’s opera Fidelio, and a special performance is organised for her in Vienna’s best opera house. Madhu, then just a third secretary, joins her (today, she says, such a thing would be unheard of). She tells Mrs Gandhi that the subsidy given by the Austrian government to four music halls is more than the entire budget of the country’s Foreign Ministry. “A very civilised country”, Mrs Gandhi responds.

Or the visit of the Imperial Princess of Iran, twin sister to the Shah of Iran, a close ally, to Delhi. Madhu is responsible for her hospitality. But there is an upheaval among the hotel staff, who refuse to serve her in her room. The reason, Madhu discovers when she enters her hotel room, is that the princess insists on sitting stark naked!

Later, the princess expresses one wish. This is to watch the film Pakeezah. A special show is organised with her delegation, with liquor and food flowing. The evening ends splendidly, Madhu reports, “Meena Kumari’s charm worked its way into their hearts.”

Or a mishap when, as Ambassador to Belarus, she is travelling through Naples to Bologna in Italy where Amit is participating in the celebration of the 900th anniversary of Europe’s oldest university. Suddenly a young man attacks her and snatches away her handbag, which contained all her money, her credit cards and her passport. The taxi driver assures her that she is lucky he had not shot her.

She gets a duplicate passport, and is travelling by train to Bologna. But Amit gets left behind at a station, and she has no money or tickets. She wonders what she will say to the police, that this penniless woman is the Ambassador of her country! She is rescued, but the next evening, she goes shopping with their friend historian Romila Thapar, and this time Thapar’s wallet is stolen with all her money!

Political ‘misadventure’

Some of the most engaging parts of the memoir deal with her involvements after she retired both with civic activism and with politics. Aruna Roy was her friend from college, and her batch-mate in the civil services. Aruna (who also writes a preface to the book) was charismatically leading the movement for the right to information, and when Madhu was settling down in her new life of retirement from the diplomatic services in 2004, Aruna introduced her to Arvind Kejriwal, then on leave from the Indian Revenue Service.

Kejriwal was leading a right to information crusade in the slums of Delhi. Madhu joined hands with him, and describes how they together used the Right to Information Law to uncover the unjust and iniquitous terms of a World Bank aided project to privatise water distribution in Delhi. The government was forced to rescind the project, an early democratic victory for right to information crusaders, with Madhu also part of their ranks.

Her brief and stormy association with politics she describes as a “misadventure”. She was drawn to the Aam Aadmi Party, led by her associate from the right to information movement Arvind Kejriwal, for three reasons. The first was its promise of ensuring transparency in election funding, because she felt that this would dam a major source of corruption in public life. Second was its public resolve to give election tickets to grassroots activists. And the third was its pledge to abjure what it called VIP culture, that if elected, its members would continue to live, work and travel modestly.

She describes reasons for her rapid disillusionment, because she found the party quickly abandoning all these principles. As soon as it was elected, it refused to bring its party funding and decision-making under public scrutiny under the right to information law. It preferred giving tickets, she writes, to people who were rejected by the BJP and Congress because they could bring in big money over grassroots activists who had only their dedication to probity in public life to offer. And soon after being elected, ministers moved into large houses and lived and worked with the same extravagance as their predecessors.

Madhu also was dismayed to find that the BJP had clandestinely supported the anti-corruption movement that dislodged the Congress government and catapulted the AAP to power. And that senior leaders said to her that the party had no binding ideology; it would deal with every issue as it presented itself. This meant, she writes, that the party stood for no principles other than convenience and opportunism.

Her decision to resign finally was precipitated by a brazenly racist attack on African women that appeared to have been spearheaded by an AAP minister. In a general body meeting of the party, she tried to propose that the party passes a resolution of apology to the African women who had been targeted and humiliated, but she was not even allowed to speak.

Her journey with the party ended there. It was, she writes, a journey to nowhere.

Unlike most memoirs of retired civil servants, this one has an engaging lightness of touch. Madhu Bhaduri never takes her battles, her insights and her accomplishments – all of which are considerable – too seriously. This slim volume of less than 150 pages opens windows into many realms: of an India after the crumbling of the idealism of the early Nehruvian decades, of a world divided both by inequality and the Cold War, and of a woman with confidence, poise and moral robustness, with important accomplishments in what was, and remains, a man’s world.