Those awkward moments

A diplomat lives in constant fear of getting caught in a socially or politically embarrassing situation.

In a profession founded on correct protocol, one has to be ever on guard to avoid bringing unintended trouble to both the host government and our own.

Nearly four decades, I too had endured several awkward moments at home and abroad. Such moments of utter embarrassment can still shame us in retrospect if we confess that the fault was partly ours; when, for example, we call on a dignitary and find that the date for the reception was over yesterday.  

My wife and I compiled a list of some awkward moments we have lived through.  Once we called on a senior colleague of mine at his residence.

 When the door was opened, a lady in a faded cloak appeared. My wife assumed her to be the maid. We were mortified to find that the woman was actually the elder sister of the hostess.   Apologetic explanations could only compound our embarrassment.  

Another time, when I was visiting a doctor in New Delhi, a young lady was just entering the clinic. She was a junior colleague in my office. We politely introduced her to the medico, only to be stunned into shame on learning that he was her own brother.  

Once, when we had moved into a small rented flat in New Delhi on being posted t
o headquarters, my wife had a horrible experience. She was heating up some dal and veggies in the brand-new pressure cooker we had brought from Hongkong.

We were talking animatedly to some guests when we heard a shrill whistling sound from the kitchen, followed by the crash of metal.  The imported pressure cooker had taken off like a helicopter, hit the low ceiling and crashed on to the floor, spattering its edible contents all over the kitchen, some of it on our ears also.

A novel incident happened in London, a city we knew by reputation, rumour and stray reading. We were put up temporarily in a service flat. It was equipped with a kitchenette and a cellar with five washing machines and many typed instructions to newcomers. We joined a local library and enjoyed this access to new books and magazines.

  Its rules enjoined borrowers to return books by the due date, on pain of fines that were unbendingly enforced.  Once we had the misfortune to lose an Agatha Christie novel. The fine mounted by the day; we would be asked to refund the cost of the book.

 But a few days later, a fellow-lodger asked us if a plastic cover inside one of the machines was ours. It was: it had once been the library’s cover for the loaned book. By the time I began drafting ‘The Case of the Lost Christie’, we came to the surprise ending of the mystery. Its absorbing pages had been circulated inside the machine countless times, until it became pulp and fluff adhering to the shirts of a hapless passenger to Frankfurt, our kind fellow-lodger.   

Even regulars have awkward moments in Delhi. One of our relatives, a senior professor at a prestigious college, was an independent lady who drove her own Ambassador car to the functions she had to attend. Once, after a dinner party, she returned home and the next morning, found a yellow Ambassador car instead of her blue one. It transpired that she had driven back that night using her car key on another Ambassador car. After much contact work with various police officials, the cars were restored to their rightful owners.  All of us know the embarrassment of guests turning up without notice, when we fervently wish we had the mythical ‘Akshaya Patra’, which Surya gave to the exiled Pandavas to save them and to feed their irascible visitors in the forest.

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