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Category: Diaspora 18 Oct 09

It is one week before Divali, the Hindu festival of lights that falls between the rainy and the hot, when twilights still linger. A garden in Federation Park glows with deyas, the walls are freshly decorated with tribal art from India painted by the lady of the house. A waft of jasmine, the rustle of a woman’s silk sari, flashes of white in the men’s crisp kurtas, children pulling up their lehengas run across the lawn. On a softly-lit verandah a man sings a ghazal, a classical Urdu song, without any musical accompaniment, while his wife, a vision in blue chiffon, looks on from the other end of the garden. The ghazal singer is His Excellency Malay Mishra, the Indian High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago. He gets up reluctantly after exhortations by his wife Gargi to sing before a small audience which includes, besides a sprinkling of expats, Sir Ellis Clarke, Dr Lenny Saith and his wife Radica.

“What you don’t know about my husband,” says Gargi Mishra, her eyes shining, “is that he has a wonderful voice.” There was a lot we didn’t know about His Excellency. Mishra was born in Berhampur, India, to “mixed” parentage of a Brahmin father and Christian mother. The family, including his sister, moved to the temple town of Puri when he was still a child. He attended the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, after which he joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1979. He met and married Gargi and the couple have four children—Vasundhara, 19, and sons Mayank, 22, Mrighank, 20, who are studying and working in India, and Shashank, 12, who resides with them in Port-of-Spain. In addition to being a career diplomat, serving in Indian missions in Paris, Dakar, Port Louis, Washington, Tehran, and Berlin, Ottawa, and more recently in Seychelles as India’s High Commissioner, Mishra is a published writer, having contributed to major Indian newspapers.

His collection of 20 short stories titled Until We Meet Again, with universal themes of loss and hope: a mother’s passing, a friend’s sudden death, a bazaar in a temple town, a young woman begging at a street light, the inevitable pang that goes with numerous arrivals and departures—reads like a series of miniature impressionist paintings. His stories reveal an atavistic, acutely observed understanding of a contradictory India, a multilayered India of 14 provinces, each with its own language, and thousands of dialects; an India that is secular, yet deeply religious, rooted in ancient rituals, yet steadfastly moving with the times. In one he writes: “History lives thereby. The old dilapidated houses are still there mocking at the trespasses of time, the stone walls and the cobbled pathways echo the immortal verses of the Shayars and Dervishes who roamed the by-lanes carefree and destitute.

“The temples and gurdwaras, the mosques and minarets, the Bhajans and the Shabads, the resonance of Allahu Akbar add to the vibrations and produce a fascinating kaleidoscope of cultural patterns...” In another: “The fort has stood a mute witness to the ravages of time, down the later day Moghuls to the British garrisons, to the glorious hour of our tryst with destiny…. “And the nation is right in front, the endless stream of humanity, the noise and din, the colours and contours, the coexistence of man, animal and machine, the bustle of a ritual of living.” Mishra has been here for seven months as High Commissioner of India to T&T, but the landscape and culture of this country is such that he feels as if he has not left India.

“Our countries share many commonalities; we are both developing democracies, share a vision of 20/20, economically important in our respective regions. We both have a voice in international communities.” Trinidad, he said, like India, “has a unique culture, like no other. “Few societies can replicate the combination of exporting the technology of modern India with the culture of traditional India. The people of Indian origin in T&T are an active and vibrant link to India. People go back and forth, back and forth bringing back a new experience of India. Our effort is to assess this experience and see what links can be of mutual benefit, not just to people of Indian origin, but all the people of this country.”

A lasting legacy

Interviewing him in his office on Victoria Avenue, here is another version of him—whip sharp, no nonsense even, in his drive to leave a lasting legacy of his time here. Having served as Joint Secretary, Diaspora Services and the head of Multilateral Economic Relations and Policy, Planning and Research Divisions in the Ministries of Overseas Indian Affairs, and External Affairs, doing political, economic, trade culture and information, with the Diaspora in missions worldwide, Mishra is well poised to deepen the ties between Trinidad and Tobago and India. In the seven months since his arrival, Mishra and his team have worked indefatigably to further Indo/T&T relations.

Apart from cultural and trade exchanges, and the expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi Cultural Centre, he successfully launched the Trinidad and Tobago Chamber of Commerce both in Trinidad and in India on October 6. “This is a joint initiative which will go a long way in strengthening trade ties between our two countries. Trinidadian businessmen signaled their interest in having closer business ties with India. We picked up on that initiative and jointly set up Chambers both here and in India.” In summary, in our wide-ranging interview, Mishra agreed that despite being the fastest-growing economy worldwide, after China, despite India’s massive export of knowledge-based labour (bringing in over $20 billion to the economy annually), and massive export of culture worldwide, despite its economic boom, India has its problems, with 23 per cent of people living under the poverty line which he attributes partially to the apathy to both politicians and its cumbersome bureaucracy.

Despite India’s willingness to talk climate change, he believes that developed countries now “training their guns” on developing countries, should take on a larger responsibility proportionate to the damage they have done over  200 years of industrial revolution.

“Carbon credit is the way to go so that a country that takes steps to reduce emissions can encash it for new green, solar and wind technology. This is a global problem; it is neither me or you, it is ‘we’.’”

On India’s antipathy to the Non Proliferation Treaty, he is adamant that India’s nuclear power is predicated on peace and that “mighty” countries did not have a right to dictate weaker countries. He felt, too, in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Indo/Pakistan relations would be restored “after Pakistan takes action against the culprits of the massacre of innocent Indians.” Of the upcoming Commonwealth conference, Mishra is optimistic that it is an opportunity for all 53 countries, especially in the wake of the economic crisis, to do some soul-searching. He believes it will all hinge on the critical two-year period of “follow up.” In the past few weeks Mishra has been lecturing on the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, another passion of his, so it is not surprising then that his Divali message is based on Satyagraha, which literally translates to “an endeavour for truth.”

“The tenets of truth or Satya and non-violence were pivotal to the Satyagraha movement, and Gandhiji ensured that the millions of Indians seeking an end to British rule adhered to these basic principles steadfastly. Bapus’ philosophy of non-violence and passive resistance is more relevant than ever today in an increasingly embattled world. “This truth, and all truth, represents the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil and immortality over mortality.” And on this note, his Excellency extended to the people a shubh and light-filled Divali on behalf of himself, his family and the people of India. 


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur