India has had extraordinary foreign secretaries. It has had some not so extraordinary ones. But then which office has a continuous run of calibre?

Stature differences notwithstanding, all of them have enjoyed – or suffered – a condition in common. Much more than the “generalist” home secretary or the “all seasons” Cabinet secretary, foreign secretaries have been “boss”. And this comes from the nature of the Indian Foreign Service, its ethos, its “thingness”.

Unlike the Indian Administrative Service or the Indian Police Service, our Foreign Service is relatively small and, despite several sharp differences of temperament among its members, it is somewhat akin to a priesthood with the ministry resembling an abbey. “A monastery?” readers may exclaim. “Are you telling me that diplomats are monks?”

Well, Benedictine, the unsurpassable herbal liqueur, was originally made by monks of a French order in an abbey going by that name. In all this, among the echelons of the bureaucracy, our Foreign Service is unique, with its own rites of passage, its own rituals of baptism and absolution, its clear dos and don’ts, its own very esoteric corpus of srutis and smritis that coalesce into a Samhita, a code of conduct.

“Whatever else you do or do not do,” Akbar Khaleeli, one of India’s most distinguished diplomats, once told a group of IFS trainees that included a future Foreign Secretary, Ranjan Mathai, adding, “remember never to do anything in poor taste”. Difficult to define, “taste” is unmistakable. It is not about how one looks and seems but what one does in large matters involving policy and national interest and in seemingly “small” matters as well. This adherence to taste may be called the “Khaleeli law”.

When serving as India’s ambassador in Rome, Khaleeli roundly ticked off one of his juniors for not being exactly helpful to an Indian woman who had been suddenly widowed in the Italian capital. “Now, listen. Do not quote rules to me. The point is simple. This woman has lost her husband. She is Indian. We are the Indian embassy. Is it our duty to help her or not?”

The afterlife of the foreign secretary

If the Indian Foreign Service is like a priesthood, the foreign secretary is something of a head priest or priestess and, hence, hugely, uniquely important. A foreign minister sees the foreign secretary not just as a principal adviser but as an expert, a specialist; in fact, a pundit. The FS’s mind is a globe, his memory a map, his eyes a pair of telescopes that catch continents in a trice and oceans in a blink. His or her fingertips drum on the diaphragms of treaties, protocols, conventions to percuss the music called “national interest”.

Foreign secretaries are therefore heard by their ministers with more than respect. They are heard with the respect that innocence gives to experience. And yet – such is “life” – no sooner does that awesome foreign secretary step out of office, whether on retirement or, unhappily, otherwise, she or he becomes in one moment, history. Ancient history. The office continues to hold sway, the incumbent goes into the mist.

“Welcome the coming, speed the parting FS” can indeed be a motto inscribed above the door of that indispensable yet evanescent titan. It is therefore no surprise that some former holders of that office have sought and discovered for themselves a great after-life in writing. Our first Foreign Secretary KPS Menon wrote extensively; indeed, one might say, compulsively. And he wrote absorbingly. His life was worth narrating, his narrations were worthy of the experience. His ability to weave anecdotes into analysis and cameos into comment made his books delightful, his Delhi-Chungking and Many Worlds being classics of a kind.

Subimal Dutt and Y D Gundevia , likewise, wrote memorable books in the same genre, Dutt’s With Nehru in the Foreign Office reflecting the author’s unruffled and restrained temperament, and Yezdi Gundevia’s book on his experiences as a diplomat – Outside the Archives – his flair, flamboyance. Foreign secretaries TN Kaul (1967-1972), Kewal Singh (1972-1976), MK Rasgotra (1982-1985), Muchkund Dubey (1990-1991) and JN Dixit (1991-1994) have also given us invaluable works in which the personal and the professional play hide and seek with each other.

A substantial book by one of our most insightful foreign secretaries, Shyam Saran (2004-2006) is on a subject he has unique domain knowledge of, namely nuclear policy. It is a landmark work. Our three women foreign secretaries, Chokila Iyer (2001-2002), Nirupama Rao (2009-2011) and Sujatha Singh (2013-2015), have great narratives to share, with Rao’s experience of working on Sino-Indian relations meant to become a book that historiography expects and deserves.

Indian diplomats who have not been foreign secretary have also written extensively and engagingly, Ambassador BK Nehru being the best and most deservedly best read among them. Among the literary works of Indian diplomats that have only a tangential connection to diplomacy are two oeuvres that can only be described as monumental. Ambassador AND Haksar’s translations into English of Sanskrit all-timers like Bhasa’s plays, Dandin’s Ten Princes, the Kama Sutra and, above all, the Hitopadesa , constitute a body of work that scholarship celebrates, not just diplomatic scholarship or scholarly diplomacy.

Likewise, Ambassador LN Rangarajan’s translation of Kautilya’s Arthasastra, with a brilliant introduction, is a landmark book the kind of which has no forerunner, no peer and is unlikely to have a successor. These two diplomats did not become foreign secretary, and it is just as well they did not for then we may have had from their pens memoirs, good ones, but not these classics.

This year has brought us two exceptional works by former foreign secretaries – Krishnan Srinivasan (1994-1995) and Shivshankar Menon (2006-2009). These are Menon’s Choices: Inside the Making of India’s Foreign Policy, and Krishnan Srinivasan’s fifth novel, Ambassador Marco’s Indian Instincts.

No two foreign secretaries could be more dissimilar nor two books more different, in genre, scope and effect. It may in fact surprise the reader to see these two books being spoken of together, the first being a collection of five “dead serious” essays and the second, a novel. And yet there is a connect, apart from the obvious one of both being the works of two former foreign secretaries. And the connect lies in Menon’s use of the word “Inside”, and Srinivasan’s “Instincts”.

Calibrated declassification

The first was only to be expected from one who was National Security Adviser. And the reader’s expectation is more than saturated. But the great merit of Choices lies in its refraining from saying what it is not done for a former NSA to say – that is, in its observing the “Khaleeli law” about good taste, about what is done, what is not done and what is simply not done.

When and how does maintaining official secrecy, keeping confidences and holding back “classified” information permit a calibrated sluicing of the essences of security without divulging its ingredients? One has to read Choices to find that out. Menon is a master of the conserving of intelligence that is different from the hoarding of it, the sharing of principles as opposed to the spilling of processes and, above all, discussing the trajectory of transactions without divulging their ingredients.

In the weighing scale of a goldsmith, in the fine dust-plate of a lapidarist lies the best equivalent of a diplomat-narrator’s calling and his delicate craft. The diplomat who tells all he knows, imagines and appropriates as his own little treasure chest, is at best laughable, at worst repellant.

Of the essays in Menon’s book the one that, to my mind, is the most deft and the most insightful is the one on Sri Lanka, the island which deplorable Indian stuffiness describes as India’s “pendant”, even its footstool. How independent the Emerald Isle is of its big neighbour, the tiny islet of Kachchativu can tell.

Stunning swipes

If Ambassador Menon’s opus is about the elusive Pleiades of security in the diplomatic cosmos, Ambassador Srinivasan’s novel is about the Milky Way of human imponderables on the diplomatic firmament. The book is an absolute delight to read. It is about instinct, of course, as any novel would be, but it also carries other fuels of high and non-clichéd fiction. These could be described as indistinct emotion, ambiguous love, dichotomous betrayal.

It employs subtly and lightly that now rare instrument of fictional narratives, namely, the stream of consciousness. The story flows. It takes the reader with its currents.

But what makes this novel more than a “mere” novel, a diplomat’s novel, are some of its unique vitalities: the stunning swipe of terror that punctures a hole in the reader’s mind, the astonishingly vivid detail of captivity in a Maoist forest hideout, the greasy pole of two-tracking in diplomatic parleys, the unwitting and sometimes voluntary co-opting of two-trackers by “the other side”, the dangers of working behind the scenes even “with the knowledge of the government of India” (a rare example of officialise in the novel).

Only a diplomat could have written Ambassador Marcos, but not any diplomat. Krishnan Srinivasan’s knowledge of the dangers and delights of the diplomatic life in Africa, Asia and Europe apart, his understanding of the systoles and diastoles of international relations, especially, diplomatic negotiation, make this as “inside” a book as Ambassador Menon’s Choices.

The only difference between their books is that one tends sub-consciously to read Menon to see how he Pasteurises the original thing into a packaged sachet, and Srinivasan, to see how he turns the same product into a soufflé of rare confection. My only regret about the novel is of a less-than-required standard of proof-reading which, in a book of such high quality English is to be lamented.

And so, foreign secretaries, and would-be foreign secretaries, please continue to delight, instruct us. You are, by your DNA, negotiators, masters of the parley that defuses tensions and infuses assurances of civilised conduct. Your thinking is germinal, your writing is defining. We must have more and more of it.

Diplomacy must explore the scope for peace in the noisiest rumblings of war, excavate solutions from the deepest seams of voltaic furnaces. The ‘priesthood’ of diplomats has for its home not a War Office but an abbey of calm reflection and un-tense decisiveness. In a psychosis of war, a Foreign Secretary must help her or his government with thoughts and words that prevent that psychosis from becoming an active morbidity. That is its calling, skill. In a diplomat the inflaming, without justification, of suspicions and the sharpening of bellicose predispositions in political bosses would be poor form, worse taste. It would go against the Khaleeli law. It is only when negotiation fails, at the farthest horizon, at the last margin of the possibility for an understanding, that the Foreign Secretary may leave the field to the calling and skills of war which, again, must belong to other hands and a different psychology.