Just Like That | Colourful vignettes from a diplomat’s life - Hindustan Times

Just Like That | Colourful vignettes from a diplomat’s life

Aug 26, 2023 10:22 PM IST

Remembering Jyotindra Nath ‘Mani’ Dixit, former national security adviser, who was known for his humour and competence

I have seen an array of foreign secretaries (FS) during my career as a diplomat, some talented, some mediocre, and some undeserving. But as a personality, there was perhaps none as colourful and competent as Jyotindra Nath ‘Mani’ Dixit. What set him apart was his inimitable sense of humour and expansive personality. Short, rotund, but agile, he was FS from 1991 to 1994, and later national security adviser in Manmohan Singh’s government (2004-05). He died in 2005 of a heart attack when only 68.

Jyotindra Nath ‘Mani’ Dixit wrote several significant books on international relations.(HT Archive) PREMIUM
Jyotindra Nath ‘Mani’ Dixit wrote several significant books on international relations.(HT Archive)

I was posted in Delhi for most of his tenure as FS. Once when I entered his room, I found him in the act of removing his trousers. I was aghast. With a deadpan expression, he said that a certain officer, with whom he was annoyed, was to come shortly, and he was getting ready to bugger him! All this was for theatrical effect, for, although a hard taskmaster, he respected his colleagues.

Mani loved dramatic gestures. When a letter came to him from Rashtrapati Bhavan, requesting my services as press secretary to former president R Venkataraman, he summoned me to his office. “Read this letter,” he said, adding, “But I can’t relieve you. I need you here.”

I told him to inform the President’s office accordingly. “Look at my forehead,” he said, asking if a common Hindi expletive was written on it. I did not know how to react. Then he continued, “Mahamahim Rashtrapati ji has asked for you, and I should say no? We serve under his pleasure. Now get your bandhgala suits out, and prepare to go.”

I continued as press secretary to the President under former president Shankar Dayal Sharma. Whenever a foreign dignitary called on him, one of the three secretaries of the ministry of external affairs (MEA) was required to be present. Apart from Mani as FS, the other two were Krishnan Srinivasan and Salman Haider.

If Mani was to come, he would always call me in advance to ask, “Aaj bade miyan ka mood kaisa hai?” (How is the mood of the big boss today?) After the meeting, Shankar Dayal Sharma had the habit of asking the secretary concerned from MEA, “Kaisa raha, kuch galat toh nahin kahan?” (How did it go? I hope I didn’t say something wrong?).

The other two secretaries would mumble a reply: “Not at all, sir. It went very well,” and beat a hasty retreat. Not Mani Dixit. He would settle back in his chair ready for a bravura performance. “Sir, you were brilliant. The clarity with which you made your points was amazing.” The President would beam with pleasure, and Mani would continue to wax eloquently about the acumen Rashtrapati ji had shown. After the meeting, I would accompany him to his car. The moment we would step out, he would, with his wicked smile, ask me: “Kaisa raha? Kuch galat toh nahin kahan?”

Once at the Republic Day reception by the president, he arrived not with his wife, but his late brother’s widow (whom he later married). Seeing the look of surprise on my face, he said: “What is the matter? The card said Mrs Dixit. She is also Mrs Dixit.”

His way of handling colleagues in MEA was unique. Ambassador Arundhati ‘Chuku’ Ghose, a senior additional secretary working under him, and to whom I reported, was a wonderful but volatile and feisty officer, who took offence easily. Once, with me in tow, she stormed into the FS’s office to complain about how another officer was encroaching on her professional turf. Mani was contemplatively filling tobacco in his pipe and listened in total silence. When she finally ran out of steam, he lit his pipe, took a long puff, and only said, “Chuku, slowly, slowly catchy monkey,” leaving her and me quite speechless.

Mani wrote several significant books on international relations. I was deeply touched when at a dinner at his Gurugram home post-retirement in 1994, he first took me to his study. “Since you too are an author, I wanted you to see where I write.” It is a gesture that has remained with me.

Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha). Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers. The views expressed are personal

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