The Nehru era was at its peak in 1955 when Hindi gained momentum in the Ministry of External Affairs. It was felt that the language of the masses should be promoted, and the documents regarding diplomacy and foreign affairs should be made available in Hindi. For a few years, English had been the language of India’s diplomatic activities. English dominated the corridors of power in the South Block. Now, Hindi, the language of news media and popular culture, had to be given a chance. But there were a few problems before Hindi could debut in the South Block.

The governance structure of new India was still under the grip of “Raghuviri Hindi”, a kind of Hindi that was being manufactured by Dr Raghuvir, a member of the Rajya Sabha in the Parliament who was among the enthusiastic supporters of Hindi in government affairs. Among his most famous contribution was the description of a train in Hindi – lauhpath gamini – which is recollected even in the 21st century as an example of a phase when the enthusiasm of a certain section of the political class was matched by the bureaucratic manhandling of Hindi’s prospects. It was in this backdrop that a discussion was held in the presence of Prime Minister Nehru; it focused on deciding the Hindi names of the ministries of the Government of India.

There was an overbearing tendency within the MEA to stick to literalness, without using wit and context, and that made translation a tedious job. The meeting took up the task of translating the “External Affairs Ministry”, and a group of linguists under the leadership of Dr Siddheshwar Verma zeroed in on par-rashtra karya mantralaya. The translators obviously felt it was necessary to find an equivalent word for “affairs” and despite brainstorming for many hours had come to a consensus about getting rid of a lengthy translation. The need of the hour, however, was not a translation of the “External Affairs Ministry” label, but an expression that could sum up these three words.

At the meeting, it was Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the famous poet of Hindi, who suggested “Videsh Mantralaya” as the Hindi equivalent of the “External Affairs Ministry”. Jawaharlal Nehru favoured Bachchan’s idea, and since then that has been the term used to refer to the Ministry of External Affairs in India. As a matter of fact, Harivansh Rai also suggested “Desh Mantralaya” as the Hindi name for the Ministry of Home Affairs but that was not favoured as it seemed to encompass all ministries of the Government of India.

That Bachchan, one of the masters of 20th-century Hindi literature, was part of the Indian Foreign Service is long forgotten and only a trivia seeker would get to know that the author of the landmark Madhushala (1935) was appointed an officer on special duty at the Ministry of External Affairs in December 1955. Bachchan was an established name in the Hindi literary scene and was a widely admired academic figure in Allahabad.

As a fellow resident of Allahabad, Harivansh Rai Bachchan was known to Nehru, since the much younger poet belonged to the cultural milieu of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, which nurtured the unique nationalism of northern and eastern India, radiating from the universities and colleges of Allahabad, Patna and Calcutta. Bachchan was deeply convinced about the place of Hindi in the emerging India of the 1940s and the ’50s. In the early 1950s, Harivansh Rai Bachchan applied and got admission offers from both Cambridge and Oxford to study English teaching methodologies. He was a widely celebrated Hindi poet, and his works were read in all literary meets or sahitya sabhas. The 1907-born Bachchan had pursued his literary ambition in difficult circumstances but never gave up and over time, became a votary of the greater use of Hindi in the affairs of the state.

There is no doubt that the admission that Bachchan secured in both Cambridge and Oxford was in recognition of his fame as an author in a modern Indian language, which was yet to be discovered by the West. Having secured the admission, he went to Delhi and met Education Secretary Humayun Kabir, who was prompt in dismissing any possible scholarship for Bachchan. A similar near-dismissal came also from Maulana Azad, the education minister of the Nehru cabinet. Having met a series of rejections, Bachchan sought time from Prime Minister Nehru and met him in the Parliament. Nehru remembered Bachchan, the poet, and gave a patient hearing.

On learning that he had failed in securing a scholarship, Nehru called his personal secretary in Parliament, BN Kaul, and asked him to arrange a scholarship of Rs 8,000 for Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Armed with the scholarship, Bachchan, a young father of two young boys named Amitabh and Ajitabh, left his family behind to spend fifteen months dedicated to research and writing. The connect thus forged between the poet and the first Prime Minister of India was strong.

At the Ministry of External Affairs, Bachchan was shocked at the state of the “Hindi Section”. Everything about this section in the ministry was contradictory. The letter that reached him with the job offer was written in English and the Hindi “Section” had just a room to itself, with a table and three chairs. The main issue, though, as Bachchan found out soon, was not the lack of physical facilities but the use of Hindi.

He argued strongly in favour of using Hindi. While the exposure to the MEA and diplomacy were new elements to Bachchan, the corridors of the government and the whims of new ministers in post-1947 India and the bureaucracy were not novelties for him. He had earlier worked at All India Radio, where the minister BV Keskar had introduced many radical changes that drew strong responses from poets and the literary crowd of Allahabad, Patna and Delhi. In 1955, Keskar, the minister of information and broadcasting, visited Allahabad. One of his major initiatives led to the appointing of “established writers” as producers of All India Radio with the aim of exploiting their fine modern literary and language skills available for spreading radio across the country.

In September of that year, Bachchan was appointed as a producer of Hindi at Allahabad Radio Station on a one-year contract and a monthly salary of Rs 750. From a teacher, Bachchan thus became a producer of All India Radio. In the winter of that year, Harivansh Rai Bachchan took leave to participate in kavi sammelans (poet gatherings) at Benares Hindu University and at Holkar College Indore. Soon after he reached Indore, a trunk call from his wife Teji Bachchan informed him that the Ministry of External Affairs had informed her that Harivansh Rai, so far known as a teacher, a poet and a name on All India Radio, was now appointed at the Ministry of External Affairs as an “Officer on Special Duty (Hindi)’ with a salary of Rs 1,000. This was a slight improvement for the poet from the Rs 750 that he was drawing at All India Radio.

Teji Bachchan advised her husband to leave for Delhi immediately, as the next day happened to be a Tuesday, an auspicious day for fresh beginnings. On 27 December, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, whose poetry would gain worldwide fame, joined the MEA as the person in charge of promoting Hindi in India’s diplomatic affairs. Promoting Hindi was not easy for Bachchan as the culture of having an official language was still new. The appointment letter described Bachchan’s job as ‘to help and assist in the progressive use of Hindi in the Ministry of External Affairs’, and he would soon have a taste of what that job would look like.

One day, the sub-committee on non-scientific vocabulary met under the chairship of Ramdhari Singh Dinkar, whose poem would later become the rousing call against Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule. The discussion progressed somewhat like this. First came the dilemma over what should be the Hindi term for “customs”, which they decided to call sima shulka. Next came “Customs House”, which was named Sima Shulka Sadan; and finally came the quest for the Hindi equivalent of customs house officer, which was translated as sima shulka sadan adhikari. At this point adding a dash of humour, Dinkar said that the three Hindi phrases could be passed as a chaupai from Hindi poet Tulsidas.

Bachchan later recollected about the work that he was expected to do for the budget session.

It was decided, soon after his arrival at the MEA, that the annual report of the ministry, which is generally published in English, should for a change be accompanied by a Hindi translation. Nehru wanted Bachchan to lead the effort and write the translation in a “clear and accessible style that could form a model for other ministries.” Bachchan and his teammates from the tiny Hindi division completed the translation on time. This drew a great deal of appreciation from the Prime Minister.

Excerpted with permission from Nehru’s First Recruits: The Diplomats Who Built Independent India’s Foreign Policy, Kallol Bhattacherjee, HarperCollins India.