Features

Personality of the week
Nirupama Menon Rao
by Ilica Malkanthi Karunaratnetne

The new doyenne of India House, India’s High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Nirupama Rao, is one who has had many gifts, bestowed upon her, by the fairies at her birth. Brains, charm, accomplishment as a poetess, a singer, appreciation of all aspects of art and culture, and above them all, as an extension of her charm, an ability , to create a feeling of self worth in people she is with. She is in addition, a skilled linguist who speaks many languages. I spent an interesting hour with her, to learn more about her, her life and her work.

"I was born in Malabar in Kerala, and together with my two sisters, grew up in army cantonments around India, as my father was in the army. Banglore, Lucknow and Pune, were among the cities we lived in. I went to school in Ooti and did my degree at Mount Carmel in Bangalore in English Literature and History and my Masters in English Literature, at An Aurangabad: this is where the famous caves of Ajantha and Ellora are situated."

Was it your ambition - during your schooldays to be a diplomat? "I was a voracious reader all my life, and was always devouring books on many subjects. My favourites were biographics, and books written by authors who had travelled widely around the World. I seemed to develop an innate curiosity about the world, different cultures, languages and customs. The history of the world, of Europe and of India, rich in diversity and in dynasties fascinated me, and I wanted to encapsulate more and more knowledge on these subjects. Yes, I would say that my ambition to join the Diplomatic service started when I was in school and stemmed from my interests. One had to be 21 and the minimum qualification was the BA to sit the exam, which was for both the administrative service and the foreign service. Having finished my BA before I was 21, I had to wait awhile before I sat for the exam."

In spite of her hesitant reticence on the subject, I managed to get Nirupama, to admit that she had topped the All India list for both services, which included both men and women, in the exam I was keen to find out more about the Indian foreign service, as I had always felt that the Indian and British foreign service, were the best in the world- Even their political appointees are of an extremely high standard; people with high academic qualifications and those who have held high posts in the administrative service.

"We have a two year training; initially, we are in Delhi for these two years and we are sent to various parts of India, to learn, know and understand the administration at grassroots level; are required to attend Universities for special courses and The Indian Institute of Foreign studies. We are sent to a District Collectors office to spend some time studying the working of the system so that we have a better understanding of how our country works at district level. We have to know every little detail of how the wheels of officialdom work in our country so that we can cope with the most difficult of questions on the system. We have a training in International Relations and a minimum requirement is that we are proficient in at least one foreign language which we can choose, as one can imbibe so much more of a country if one knows the language. I chose German, and passed the exam in 6 months; my first posting was. to Austria., where I was 3rd secretary. During this period, we are required to spend half the day at University and half the day in the embassy."

Nirupama met her husband during her training for the foreign service; he is in the administrative service and they were training at the same time. She has served in many interesting places and was here in Colombo from 1981 to 1983 She was in Delhi for 8 years at the Foreign Ministry, where she specialized in Chinese Affairs and a highlight of this time was accompanying Prime Minister Raj iv Gandhi, on a historic visit to China, which was the first visit made by an Indian Prime Minister to China in 34 years.

"I went to Harvard as a fellow and was there for I year, at The Institute for International Affairs. From here, I was sent to Washington as Minister, where I was spokeswoman for the Embassy. Washington opened up many new vistas for me; it is a dynamic place to be in and I had an interesting time, coping with the media at every level I was immersed in every thing to do with China and this led me to visit China over and over again, and I have been there about 17 times. One of the highest points in my life was leading a group of pilgrims to Mount Kailash and Manasarovar, two very holy places in Tibet. I became a keen student of Himalayan issues, going into every aspect of the subject. I was then sent to Peru as Ambassador., although it was so far away from home, it seemed very close in lifestyle, culture, artifacts and geography and I made many friends. I learned the language as I have found that behind the language are the heartbeats and the culture of a country and its people. From Peru, I was sent to Moscow as Deputy Chief of Mission; this was a wonderful place to be in because of the music, opera, museums and the work was interesting too, as this is one of our largest embassies. Then it was time again for a return to Delhi as additional secretary, and I was the first woman spokeswoman for the foreign Ministry. I always felt I would be back in Colombo at some stage,; this is an ideal posting for me, as my husband is in Bangalore, I am closer to him here than I was in Delhi; he comes here and I go to Bangalore too. He has given me the space to follow my own star, and the understanding. He has been a pillar of support and I always tell him that he has made my poetry happen."

Nirupama’s book on poetry, entitled ‘Rain Rising’ helps us to understand her deepest feelings, her reaction to all the places she has been to, her family and her roots; her dialogue with the past is gripping. It is very sensitive poetry written with intense feeling. But her professionalism as a diplomat linguist and academic has certainly not robbed her of her femininity. She and I discovered that we share a mutual passion for antiques and antique jewellery. She is a keen classical singer in western music and collects old maps of India and has created her own style within the resplendent glory of ‘India House’. With icons from Russia, shelves full of books, an antique ebony table from Sri Lanka and a an inlaid chest from China, both bought strangely enough in Washington are part of her fabulous collection. All treasures from the past precious things, welded into an atmosphere of elegance. Nirupama has two sons, one doing his Masters in the US, the other is with her and is at The Overseas School. In spite of her multi faceted talents, she is the least Prima Danish. Everything she does, wife and mother, her work, or her various hobbies are the purpose of her life It gives it its colour, its aspirations; increase joy and creates energy. I sense that leisure to her, is a tedious commodity; welcome only for brief interludes. She is clam soft spoken and controlled, in short, ‘a perfect woman, nobly planned, to guide, to comfort and command.’

 

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