[Just finished dinner and I have this feeling that I should update my blog. I sit down, thinking I should put in something about the White Christmas that never was. But the words just don’t come. Maybe its the post-Christmas blues. Then I suddenly recall the African Christmas song presented by our African brothers at the Christmas eve service at our church the day before yesterday. Memories of Mozambique flood my mind. I remember a piece I wrote for DT about Swaziland and me meeting with King Mswati III, Africa and the world’s last and only ruling monarch – and the time this very hands shook hands with real royalty. The Indian Embassy in Maputo, where I was posted at that time, was concurrently accredited to the Kingdom of Swaziland and we had accompanied our High Commissioner when he presented his credentials to the king. I know I’ve put that piece somewhere in this computer of mine. Sure enough, its still there. I highlight the piece, copy it, open my blog, and paste it. So easy. Why wrack the brain while there’s something to cut and paste :)]
He exuded an aura of confidence, his handshake firm and strong, as one would expect a king’s handshake to be. Maybe a touch challenging, as if daring you to squeeze back. I also had a sneaky feeling that it was a deliberately strong grip, perhaps practiced over the years, to show who was the boss. I imagined pictures of the king as a young lad practicing his handshake with his minions – of course no one dared squeeze back, at least not too hard. I had a sudden impulse to squeeze back, even as wild pictures of the king and me hand-locked and testing our strengths briefly came to my mind. And then it was all over, a quick bow, much like the Japanese do when they greet each other, and the protocol officer quickly herded me into line next to my colleagues.
The rest of the ceremony passed in a blur, as our High Commissioner presented his credentials to the king, made the obligatory speech recalling the good relations so happily existing between India and the Kingdom of Swaziland and conveyed best wishes for the personal well-being of the king and the people of Swaziland from the President of India. After the formal ceremony of handing over and acceptance of the High Commissioner’s credentials, came the photo-op with flashbulbs going off in all directions as we posed with the king. Even as the TV crews juggled for space along with the cameramen, the king signaled an end to the formalities with a nod to one of his courtiers and then proceeded to the next hall, accompanied by our High Commissioner. As the protocol officer herded us out of the hall, and we followed in the wake of the royal entourage, I breathed a sigh of relief that everything had gone off smoothly.
The hall into which we followed the royal entourage was a bit smaller than the main hall where the presentation of credentials had just taken place. It was lined with spacious and comfortable sofas lined up on either side from the entrance, with two ornate chairs on the far wall directly facing the entrance. One could immediately discern that the furniture and furnishings from the sofas and chairs to the carpets and long-flowing curtains were meant to impress, to convey a feeling of royalty. The ornately carved tables and other furniture in the hall were all painted in gold. Garish, in a way, and I remember briefly thinking how it all looked very much like my idea of what the living room of a typically neo-rich Punjabi house in one of the posh new colonies in Delhi would look like. Retaining the natural colours of the ornately carved wooden furniture would, to me, have made the whole room and décor more royal and impressive. But then, to each his own taste, I thought. As the king took his rightful place in one of the ornate chairs, with our High Commissioner to his right, the protocol officer dutifully seated us on the sofas, next to our High Commissioner while the king’s courtiers and his Foreign Minister sat to his left, facing our small delegation. As we sat in rapt attention listening to the king speaking of some of his dreams for his kingdom and his people, I could see from the corner of my eyes some of his courtiers stifling what looked suspiciously like yawns, obviously having heard their king making the same speech innumerable times.
His advisers had obviously briefed him well as the king went on to praise India’s emergence as an IT giant in recent times and made all the right polite comments. Our High Commissioner too made all the right polite comments, showing his years of experience wading through the quagmire that international diplomacy can sometimes be, promising all within his power to better bilateral relations. No embarrassing questions asked about the king’s 12 wives, or his recent selection of his 13th bride-to-be – a 16-year old former Miss Swaziland and legally still a minor, or the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Swaziland, which recently replaced Botswana as the country with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate in the world in terms of percentage, at over 38.6%. No embarrassing comments or questions regarding recent highly racist reports in the Swazi press about Indians in Swaziland mistreating their local employees and becoming a ‘security threat’, threatening to swamp the Swazis with their small shops and hijacking the local economy and livelihood with their tight-fisted lifestyle – milking the locals dry while sending all their savings and profits to banks outside the country, never investing it back, but just exploiting the gullible natives. All hunky-dory as the king indicated an end to our audience with him, and we left his august presence after another royal handshake and a bow.
A more informal gathering awaited us as we were taken to the officers’ club next to the audience hall. The kingdom’s chiefs of the armed forces and other officials rose as we entered, with the Foreign Minister preceding the High Commissioner. We went through the usual diplomatic formality of the Foreign Minister raising a toast to the President of India, while our High Commissioner raised a toast to the Queen Mother and the King. Formalities completed, we could at last relax as we chatted with our nearest neighbours, exchanging cards and making the usual empty promises to call or look them up when we next came to town, all the time knowing perfectly well that we would probably never meet again and even if we did, who cared? Out of sight, out of mind.
Driving through the beautiful Swazi countryside on our way back, I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood and my origin, and how a small tribal from a largely unknown tribe in a godforsaken corner of India had gotten to shake hands with real royalty, however obscure and unknown to the larger world. Pictures of the idyllic world of my childhood flashed before my eyes – a world now long gone, replaced by guns and terror and peopled by the ‘living dead’. I recalled the times spent ‘hunting’ birds with our home-made saihlis/catapults, fishing in the small stream that ran besides our village which still had enough fish to catch then to somewhat justify the many times spent escaping various household chores. I recalled my first ‘kill’, a small harmless bird that had had the misfortune of sitting on that particular branch on that particular time and place, somehow managing to stop my ‘saihlum’. I must have been about 6 or 7, still too small to make my own catapult, but old enough to kill a small harmless bird and feel the thrill of a hunter making a ‘kill’ with no remorse. Perhaps the blood of my ‘headhunting’ forefathers still running in my blood? Because, I’m ashamed to admit, whenever I see a bird just sitting there, I still get the urge to take my old trusty catapult and have a try at it. In my mind I’m back to the good old days, lining up for my shot, the bird lined up in my sight, my ‘saihlum’ nicely ensconced within the small leather strip attached to the two rubber strips tied to the catapult frame, the rubber stretched to its limits, expecting to hear the satisfying thud of a direct hit when I let go. Even now! More than 20-25 years since I last wielded my ‘weapon’ and ‘terrorized’ the neighbourhood birds and small creatures, though I suspect some of the birds probably died more of fright than any direct hit from my catapult, because I always was the worse ‘hunter’ among my friends, usually coming home empty handed each and every time. But mother would always be there, always welcoming the hunter home from his hunt. It was enough that we had ‘hunted’ to our heart’s content, and we were back home safe and sound for the night. There never was any of the pressure to study, study, think of your future, think of being the top boy in class, etc. etc. that I now subject my kids to. The ‘real’ world and the rat race that even I would eventually join was still far away. I mentally thanked my parents for giving me a real childhood, which I’m afraid I may not have been able to give my kids who have grown up in an entirely different world and circumstances that were beyond even my wildest imagination or dreams while growing up in that idyllic world where we felt so safe, secure and loved.
As I unwillingly awoke from my reverie and looked out my window, I pictured Swaziland as the world that could have been ours. Often called the ‘Switzerland of Africa’ for its natural beauty, we swept through its rolling hills and verdant farmlands, passing roadsigns indicating directions for major towns with names like Piggs Peak, Big Bend, occasionally slowing down as we passed markets on the roadside and small villages with quaint names like ‘Hlenehlene’ and even a town which sported the sign ‘Happy Valley Motel’, reminding me of Shillong. Moving on highways comparable to any in the West, where you could be fined for obstructing traffic if you drive at speeds of less than 100-120 kmph, we passed through the Royal Hlane National Park, crossing the 25 km stretch of highway running through the Park in about 10 minutes. In the distance I saw blue mountains stretching into the horizon, reminding me once again of my beloved home. As we crossed acres and acres of sugarcane fields, with the last hilly road before we crossed the border into Mozambique approaching fast, I could not but compare our own hill roads with theirs. Despite the many curves, the highway snaking through the hills maintained its dignity, its well-maintained surface allowing us to maintain speeds unimaginable even on the best roads back home. Memories of tortuous climbs through badly maintained hill roads, going home for the holidays flooded my mind – only the final destination and the thought of loved ones waiting at the end making the trips bearable.
(Maputo Aug 2004)