Imagine a magic carpet that takes the reader round the world, not in 80 days but in 37 years, from Thiruvananthapuram to Thiruvananthapuram, stopping over in Japan, Bhutan, India, U.S.A, Myanmar, Fiji and more. The author, an exceptionally graceful dancer of Bharatnatyam, has excelled in painting, charity, and teaching, to mention only a few realms of her excellence, is an exceedingly charming writer. This book cannot be put down once started.

This is a posthumous book. Lekha passed away in January 2023 and her closest relatives and friends have put together her writings recounting her life, an extraordinarily rich and blessed one. She started, after falling ill, with WhatsApp messages and friends helped her with their reminiscences.

However, she was a perfectionist and insisted on checking and re-checking “and agonised over every word and photograph, leaving for us to reflect on, to comprehend its depth and to continue her work for the poorest, the lowliest and the lost.” (Italics added.) The Karuna, a charity she started, continues to do good work without seeking publicity.

The title could not have been better. T. P. Sreenivasan, known as Sreeni to his friends and admirers, of the 1967 batch of the Indian Foreign Service, has had an outstanding career serving India in bilateral and multilateral fora. Diplomacy is part of the soft power of the state, which as we know tends to use a lot of hard power too at times.

Lekha took the message of India’s many-splendored culture to all the postings from Bhutan (1967) to Austria (2004). Obviously, hers was the softest version of soft power.

The opening words are a study in humility: “The life of a diplomat’s wife is exciting, rewarding and enriching and, at the same time, challenging in many ways. Narrating it faithfully and objectively is a difficult task, which I had thought was beyond me.”

In chapter 1 titled ‘wedding: A Turning Point’ we learn that Sreeni, teaching English language and literature at Mar Ivanios College in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, fell in love with his student Lekha. He kept it a secret or believed he had succeeded in keeping it a secret, as he feared that he might be expelled from a rather conservative Catholic College.

However, Sreeni’s brother and others in the class could not help noticing the special interest the young lecturer was taking in a particular student whose dance he admired, not entirely succeeding in concealing his boundless admiration.

For Lekha it was a bolt from the blue when Sreeni, once selected for the Indian Foreign Service, formally came to her home, and proposed. It was indeed a traditional arranged marriage for those who did not know the truth.

The winter in Delhi was a new experience for Lekha. She felt the chill. Sreeni asked her, “If you are feeling so cold in this weather, then what will you do if we get a posting in Moscow? Later, we had our postings in Tokyo, Bhutan, and Moscow, from cold, colder, to the coldest!”

Before setting out to Tokyo, the first posting, both Lekha and Sreeni took lessons in Japanese from the Japanese Information Centre. Sreeni was asked by the Foreign Secretary to rush to Tokyo as Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was about to visit Japan. Though officers below the First Secretary rank had to go by sea, Lekha and Sreeni were permitted to fly.

Ambassador S.K. Banerjee made it clear that Sreeni was not going to be assigned any duty during the big visit. He was to familiarise himself with the city and its culture.

Lekha went to a shop looking for a needle. The salesgirl could not understand English. An English-speaking girl was produced, and she too couldn’t understand. Later, Lekha went to another shop, explained in Malayalam “with a lot of gestures”, and got her needle. There are many such stories.

Lekha performed the Bharatanatyam barely two months after arrival at an inter-embassy function organised by the Japanese Foreign Office.

Japanese men do not rush home from the office. They tend to entertain themselves at bars and restaurants and reach home late. An Indian Embassy staff member with a Japanese wife used to go home directly from the office.

The neighbours started commenting: Was he short of money to go to a bar? He started spending time with colleagues, to arrive late at home. Lekha, a keen observer of the human condition, has many such stories to tell us.

In Moscow, where they landed in 1974, Lekha mastered the art of standing in queue. The first line was to find out what was available; the second to get the items weighed; and the third to pay. She learnt to ‘reserve’ a place in the queue and get back after buying something from the next-door shop!

Lekha’s first official speech as the better half of diplomacy was in Moscow with Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman astronaut as the chief guest. The Soviet leadership was so stunned by Indira Gandhi’s defeat in 1977 that the media carried the news only two days later!

Chapter 7 is titled ‘New York: The Magical City’, “ We left London and landed at JFK airport for the first time, and after that, I must have landed more than 100 times and Sreeni more than 700 times in JFK in the last 45 years!”

Chapter 9, the last, is ‘suva: A Coup In Paradise’ from where Sreeni was expelled by Col. Rabuka who had staged a coup. As soon as the Ministry of External Affairs learnt of it, it was announced that Sreeni was transferred to the headquarters as Joint Secretary. I remember conveying this to Sreeni in Malayalam as we were not sure that nobody was listening in. I was Joint Secretary (Gulf).

The photographs are evocative. This book will be read by the public as well as by those who are interested in meeting one of the best specimens of the better half of diplomacy. The young diplomats and their spouses in India and elsewhere will benefit from this book with its spicy style.

Better Half Of Diplomacy

Lekha Srinivasan

Pages 183, Rs.390

Literastureslight Publishing House, Chattisgarh ,2023

Ambassador K. P. Fabian served in IFS from 1964 to 2000. His latest book is ‘The Arab Spring That Was And Wasn’t’ commissioned by Indian Council Of World Affairs.