No One Missed Alcoholic Drinks Those Days

Updated: Jun 30 2002, 05:30am hrs
Shiela Gujral modestly describes herself as a person born and brought up in an average middle class family. She is more than that, though. Not only is she the wife of a former prime minister and political leader, but also a lecturer in economics, a social worker, poetess and a literary personality in her own right.

When Inder Kumar Gujral and she visited Moscow in 1999, my wife and I hosted a dinner for them, attended by over a hundred guests. Even so, some of their Russian friends later complained that they had not been invited, which just about demonstrates the popularity of the Gujrals and the friendships they made during their stay in the Soviet Union way back in 1976 to 1980.

My Years In The USSRRecollections And Revelations shows that Ms Gujral had maintained a meticulous diary during her four-year stay in the USSR. She demonstrates a remarkable memory for people, places and things. She has an anecdotal style of writing and gives a graphic account of Soviet society in observations like, No one missed alcoholic drinks, or when she speaks of Georgian vigour and longevity. She also gives glimpses of Siberia and other parts of the USSR, where she travelled extensively.

Having lived in Moscow 10 years before the Gujrals and again 20 years after, I cannot help but notice the marked changes in Russian society now and then, even though some aspects of Russian life remain unchanged. A major change from the past is that Russia today has both a Constitution and political parties. In the Soviet era, the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) was the only party and Ms Gujral gives several illustrations of its supremacy.

Today, political parties are vibrant in Russia and the Communist Party is just one of them. Slogans on the roads praising the party, common in the Soviet era, have now been overtaken by modern advertisements promoting foreign liquor and Sony electronic itemsunheard of in those days. State control is being replaced by a thriving private sector. The media has also changed with the times.

Today, there are independent television channels and newspapers. In the days covered by the book, information was conveyed to the public only through newspapers like Pravda and Izvestia and a single television channel. In Ms Gujrals time, she had to import vegetables and other items from outside. Today, Moscow supermarkets and shops are flooded with all kinds of goods, including imported foodstuff and the latest designer items.

Some things have not changed, like the friendship and affection of the Russian people for India, particularly in the regions. For 30 years since Indias Independence from 1947 to 1977, both the countries were ruled by a single party, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and the Congress Party in India. The first change took place during the tenure of the Gujrals in Moscow, when Indira Gandhi was replaced by Morarji Desai as prime minister. That relations continued to be warm and cordial despite the change of government in India revealed both the basic strength of the friendship between the two countries and an astute handling of the situation by the Gujrals.

Later, in the 1990s, constant changes took place in both the countries, but like in 1977, these changes did not affect the basic thrust of relations between Delhi and Moscow. In 2001, we had arranged an exhibition on relations between India and St Petersburg, in that city. A display that attracted the attention of every visitor was a rare photograph of three prime ministers of India together in that city.

In the frame were Morarji Desai, then prime minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, then foreign minister, and Mr Gujral, then Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union. Ms Gujral has extensively described this visit of Morarji Desai to Leningrad, now once again called St Petersburg.

Personal relations cultivated with a wide array of political leaders, diplomats, economists, social workers, artists, poets and journalists helped project India and promote relations between India and the Soviet Union. Ms Gujral played the perfect part of a distinguished diplomats wife. She was a gracious hostess, attending to minute details of entertainment. As the first lady of the embassy, she looked after and coordinated the activities of the Indian Ladies Club, and as an author and poetess, she consolidated contacts with Soviet literary personalities, artists and others.

She gives an interesting account of how she was instrumental in converting an unusual part of the embassy building, where Napoleon had apparently spent two nights, into a recreation place for the officers and staff. She will be pleased on her next visit to Moscow to find that after the recent renovations of the Indian embassy buildings, her project has been nourished and kept alive.

There are, however, different versions of the story on whether or not Napoleon actually stayed at the building, depending on whether one was talking to a journalist or a historian. We still call it the Napoleon Dacha and tell the same story to all our visitors, adding that it may not quite turn out to be historically correct.

Ms Gujral has been an important sounding board for her husband. She writes: Most of our conversation on non-family matters like politics, social work, fine arts and literature, was confined to 90 per cent listening and hardly 5-10 per cent talking by me. Ms Gujral, no doubt, differs from the flock, for normally the situation in any home is the reverse. As a good wife, she rendered sound advice to her husband on occasions. When her husband wanted to resign in a fit of anger, she advised him to work with grace and win the race.

The author provides some interesting insights into Soviet thinking of the time. For instance, she mentions that Russian leaders were reconciled to the idea of Sanjay occupying the office of the PM in a few years time. The Russians are pragmatic and, like us, have dealt with all leaders equally well, because the foundation of the friendship between Moscow and Delhi is sound.

Ms Gujrals book will equally interest diplomats and their spouses, artists, poets and the lay reader, eager to know of Indo-Soviet relations of that era.

My Years In The USSRRecollections And Revelations
by Shiela Gujral;
Macmillan India;
Rs 395; Pp 179

(S K Lambah is a former Indian ambassador to Russia, Germany and Hungary and a former high commissioner to Pakistan. He is at present the Indian governments special envoy for Afghanistan.)