Friday, October 23, 2009

Ambassador Muthamma

Ambassador Muthamma will be remembered as much for her intellectual
abilities as for her grit, determination and absolute fearlessness. As
a pioneer, she faced many adversities in life and in the IFS itself,
but remained steadfast in her faith in gender equality and rule of
law. Consequently, she appeared aggressive in her ways and very few
knew that she was also a very sensitive and friendly human being.

I did not work with Ambassador Muthamma, but I had a few glimpses of
her in my early years in the service. These were mostly during my
stint as the Special Assistant to Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta, with
whom she had a complex relationship. What struck me most about her was
that, unlike some others in the service, she did not allow her
problems with the Foreign Secretary to colour her attitude towards me
as a young officer. She would rant and rave about Mr. Mehta as she
stopped at my perch in the corridor leading to the Foreign Secretary's
office, but never left without a kind word or gesture towards me. She
inspired awe as well as respect whenever I met her.

I shall never forget a meeting between Ambassador Muthamma and Mr.
Jagat Mehta at the Shiphol Airport in Amsterdam. We were not expecting
the ambassador to come to the airport when we transited because of the
strained relationship between them, but Ambassador Muthamma was not
one to fail in courtesies. But the atmosphere was far from relaxed and
I found myself caught in a clash of the titans. Both of them talked to
me rather than to each other and there was nothing I could contribute
to the conversation. Ambassador Muthamma was visibly rattled at the
end of the conversation, but she did not forget to take me to the duty
free shop and get some chocolates for me before we boarded the
aircraft. She did not tell me not to share it with the Foreign

My first ever meeting with Ambassador Muthamma was in strange
circumstances. I had just moved into a room in the External Affairs
Hostel as an IFS probationer and was generally feeling out of place in
a strange environment. I was woken up from sleep in the middle of the
night by a knock at the door and I was bewildered to see a lady in a
night gown outside my room. Before I could suspect anything else, she
introduced herself as the Joint Secretary (Americas). That was a time
when we used to believe that Joint Secretaries were giants in the
bureaucracy and I was astonished that one of them had come to visit me
at such an hour. She then said she had come up because my movements in
the room were disturbing her in her room just below mine.This was even
more surprising as I thought I was fast asleep at the time. I
hurriedly promised her to stay quiet as an argument was inappropriate
and she left. She came to me the next day at the restaurant and
explained to me that even the slightest noises would disturb her sleep
and that she was moving to the top floor of the building to avoid
hearing noises from above her room. But I learned later that she had
no peace even there because she happened to be above the room of a
colleague who partied his nights away with gay abandon. She eventually
moved out of the hostel for peace and quiet.

I shall not go into the Foreign Secretary's letter on women officers
and the court case filed by Ambassador Muthamma against the delay in
her promotion to Grade I as these have been documented elsewhere.
Suffice it to say that in both these cases, Mr. Mehta was more sinned
against than sinning. Ambassador Muthamma was aware of this fact and,
therefore, did not have any personal animosity towards Mr.Mehta.

I do not know whether a story in circulation of unrequited love about
Ambassador Muthamma was apocryphal or not. But I knew for certain that
within her tough exterior, there was a kind and sensitive heart.

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