Monthly Archives: November 2014

Two shades of autumn

Two shades of autumn
Maj Gen G G Dwivedi (retd)

THE diplomatic community in Beijing waited for July 1, 1997, with some degree of excitement. This was the day when Hong Kong was to officially revert to the mainland, marking an end of 156 years of British rule.

Hong Kong island had been acquired by Great Britain from China in 1842 as a sequel to the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing at the end of the First Opium War (1839-42). According to the 1898 convention, Hong Kong along with Kowloon Peninsula was leased to Britain for 99 years on July 1, 1898.

As we were winding up from the office on June 30, 1997, news was making the rounds that a large public gathering was anticipated at the Tiananmen Square late in the evening. After dinner many of us headed for Tiananmen. The crowd gradually began to swell and there was jubilation in the air. At mid-night, as the countdown clock indicating time left for Hong Kong to join the motherland came to a standstill at zero, there were fireworks and loud cheers ; ‘Xianggang lai la’ (Hong Kong has joined).

The next day, amidst pomp and pageantry, Prince Charles formally handed over Hong Kong to President Jiang Zemin. The former British colony became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region with Tung Chee Hua, a 59-year-old shipping magnate, as the first Chief Executive. Under the agreement “One Country Two Systems” Hong Kong was to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, wherein its socio- economic system and lifestyle would remain unchanged for the coming 50 years.

Many observers at that time were highly sceptical about China’s commitment to honour the agreement. They feared that over a period of time, authorities would go on to drastically curtail the rights and freedom of Hong Kong residents.

Two years ago I was on AI flight 102 from New York to Delhi. My co-passenger happened to be a Chinese, who had graduated from one of the Ivy Leagues in the US and was working with an MNC in Hong Kong. Earlier, it was only the children of influential Communist Party office-bearers who were privileged to study abroad. Today, as Chinese students outnumber the rest, especially in the USA, a majority are from a non-elitist background.

The young professional candidly admitted to be doubly lucky; most Chinese parents aspire to send their children abroad for higher education and a decent job in Hong Kong tops the wish list of an educated youth in the mainland. The individual was on a maiden visit to India and was headed for Bodh Gaya. Buddhism is fast becoming popular in China, as people are seeking greater choices in their personal lives.

Hong Kong of late has been in the news due to the student protests, dubbed the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. The main reason for the student unrest is Beijing backtracking on electing the next Chief Executive through universal suffrage; instead it is allowing only candidates screened by the ‘Loyalist Committee’ to contest.

President Xi has laid out a dream of a “prosperous and strong China”. With the 66th autumn of the Communist Party rule around, while the mainland Chinese seem to be content with the promise of prosperity, fellow countrymen in Xianggang are seeking prosperity along with democracy — a version of ‘Hong Kong Spring’.

Going by the Chinese ancient history, a period of ‘spring and autumn’ between the 5th and 3rd centuries BCE was marked by internal state wars. Therefore, while PRC leadership seems to stand firm on the issue of ‘Hong Kong Spring’, it may relent, by offering — a different shade of autumn. 

Joy of small things

If the expanding midriff is a sign of prosperity, then the year 2012 had ended on a high note. One had definitely gained in size, if not in stature. The flip side; I was no longer fitting into the winter suits as most of these were ‘slim fit’ in design.

It was not that I had accepted the situation as fait accompli. A diagnostic process was kickstarted through detailed discussions with the fitness trainer at the gym. He modified my workout schedule and the diet chart but to no avail. Next, I had tele-consultations with the family physician, our daughter at Boston Medical Centre. After due deliberations, she attributed the problem to the inevitable changes in the body metabolism. Finally, I decided to throw in the towel, abiding by the adage, “It is foolhardy to fight a losing battle”.

With no other option but to go in for the refits, I began search for someone who could undertake this operation. It was an uphill task as no decent tailor was willing to handle alteration work. Finally, through reference, I found one who had a makeshift facility, in the corner of a small park. With a look of a vanquished veteran, I approached him rather apologetically. Empathising, he attributed the few inches gain to the ‘feel good factor’. I felt rather obliged as his charges were pretty modest.

The alteration process continued for a while. At the end, while settling the amount, out of sheer ego, I promised to come back for reversing the alteration. With a hearty laugh, the tailor dismissed my wish as a fantasy because he had never tightened a piece that had once been loosened.

I had never made a New Year resolution. However, 2013 started with one; ‘operation trimming’. The first quarter went by without any result. During the second quarter, I decided to end my sabbatical by taking up a full time academic assignment. Barely two months into the new job, there was marginal shrinkage in the waist line.

It was the active daily routine that had done the trick. Thereafter, there was no looking back. By the year-end, I was going ‘hammer and tongs’ with reverse alterations, at a concessional offer. The ambit of ‘Operation Trimming’ was enlarged; encompassing a massive drive to clear the junk in the house, thus easing the space crunch.

2014 had dawned and I was passionate to make a resolution. On January 1, while on the way to office, at one of the traffic lights, below a flyover, there were a number of homeless, braving the early morning chill.  I suddenly decided to stop by, to share a few moments with them. They had no hope of any change in their destiny with the onset of the New Year.

Digging into the dash board, I reached out for some coins and handed them over along with cookies that I had packed for my staff. It was enough to instantly light up their faces. I pulled up to drive on; armed with this New Year’s resolution – to share the joy of small things!


Deciphering the untold half-truths

Though an avid reader since childhood, I never got the opportunity to attend a book release event till I was in the early forties. It was in the mid-nineties that I was learning Chinese at the School of Foreign Languages (SFL) in Delhi as a prerequisite to taking up a diplomatic assignment in Beijing.

The SFI director had authored a book. So one fine day, we were off classes and seated in the main auditorium of India International Centre for the book release function. Former President Giani Zail Singh had consented to preside.

Gianiji arrived on time, attired in traditional spotless whites with a rose pinned on the tunic.

Before taking the seat, he scanned the half-empty hall. After the welcome address, the book was released by the chief guest.

This was followed by an exhaustive narration by the author, highlighting the genesis of the book and ‘blow-by-blow’ account of two decades of toil to deliver it. Some salient excerpts were read out which largely went overhead.

Delivering the keynote address, Gianiji began with the candid admission that as former head of the state, he was generally preoccupied with inaugural tape-cutting and book releases.

In the process, his long-cherished desire to have a well-stocked home library was getting realised as well. The audience by now were wide awake and seem to be thoroughly enjoying listening to the chief guest.

Gianiji recalled that in the earlier times, writing was not a lucrative vocation. It was largely a pursuit of passion. The writers mostly lived in poverty and got recognition posthumously. Today, people make decent living as writers, earning both name and fame.

The former President was all praise for the lesser-known writers as they were bold and forthright.

He took a dig at the practice of eminent personalities churning out their memoirs. With a wry smile, Gianiji said, “Due to the writers’ hidden agendas and efforts to project them as what they always wanted to be but couldn’t be, such works at best turn out to be half-truths.

Most of these books find a resting place in libraries or circulate as complimentary copies.”

While the audience wanted to hear more from the chief guest, Gianiji had to leave early as he had another engagement. Despite a brief appearance, he left a very personal and positive impact. 

Post-retirement, while on sabbatical and now as a professor, I frequently get invites for the book release functions, courtesy my reputation of being a compulsive buyer of new titles.

Whenever, I pick up a biography, I am reminded of Gianiji’s words of wisdom, wishfully hoping to decipher the untold ‘half-truths’.   

Maj Gen GG Dwivedi (retd), Published in Hindustan Times  Chandigarh, May 23, 2014