| When the cahoot flourished
Raj Bhavan on Independence Day was balm to Calcutta’s bruised pride. Foreign diplomats were thin on the ground but Gabon and Guatemala clung to the governor, Djibouti hogged the pastries and I spied Cape Verde cosying up to a rare Caucasian. Macedonia was discussing the price of scrap iron in Burrabazar with Trinidad and Tobago. The world has turned its back on Calcutta but the hybrid (not horror for we owe them a lot) of honorary consuls now recreates the world in Calcutta.
Times have changed since Austria’s honorary consul, Wilhelm Fuhrhop, an insurance salesman (a trade that calls for living by the wits), was suspected of gunrunning and diamond smuggling. However, it was because of his nationality that Fuhrhop was interned at Belgaum during World War I. His notorious son, Roland Walter Fuhrhop, the future Roland (Tiny) Rowland, international mining magnate and newspaper tycoon, was born there and was, therefore, British. Edward Heath called him “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”.
Times have also changed since the American dean of the cahoot of consuls (regular ones) urged me to keep my speech to their monthly luncheon meeting at the Oberoi Grand simple “so that our honorary friends can understand”. The hybrid had only a few members then, and they sat together, shrinking, silent, separate. They were not introduced and left as soon as I had finished.
When the cahoot was flourishing, Italy’s man in Calcutta was an erudite retired ambassador with a cultural interest in eastern India. He told me that he had to have new cards made without his former rank. “‘Aha!’ they exclaim in Writers’ Buildings,” he said, “‘A former ambassador now only a consul' He must have blotted his copybook somewhere!’” A British diplomat told the BBC that life here was “full of frustration” and for his wife “full of boredom”. His boss shunned the cahoot, claiming to be a full-fledged diplomat accredited to New Delhi who just happened to be physically in Calcutta. He didn’t like it when the French consul-general, a baron, teasingly asked whether an honorary British consul would be styled honorary deputy high commissioner. The Frenchman might similarly have ragged the Australian and Bangladeshi deputy high commissioners in Calcutta.
Dining with his Japanese colleague in Queens Park, the baron described in graphic detail how gourmets in his last posting relished a just-killed chimpanzee’s still warm brains. When others protested at this macabre diet, he looked round in surprise to say, “But they were not French-speaking chimpanzees. They spoke only English!”
Going further back, East Germany pulled off a neat little coup. New Delhi did not have diplomatic relations then with Berlin. But East Germany gave the personal rank of ambassador to its man in Calcutta. The West German consul-general — who had been ambassador to Burma but could not flaunt the rank — gnashed his teeth each time he received his communist rival’s invitation card inscribed in flowing copperplate from Ambassador So-and-so of the German Democratic Republic.
The cahoot is vanishing but the hybrid is flourishing. Heaven knows what Upper Volta or the Comoros gain from a presence here. But there are no squabbling rival consulates like Ishmaelia’s in Evelyn Waugh’s immortal Scoop. No outlaw regime flies a rebel standard as Ian Smith’s Rhodesia did in London. Kurdistan or Aceh have not pre-empted history as an honorary Serb consul did in Canberra long before Serbia was wrenched out of Yugoslavia’s womb. Nor have diehard Bengali Marxists hoisted the hammer and sickle zombie in the Soviet Union’s name. But some of the countries represented seem too exotic to be real. Like Prince Philip who asked Raja Benoy Roy Chowdhury of Santosh “Where is Santosh'” I inquired if Tuvalu’s honorary consul went there often. “Not going, I am living there, near Tolly Club” was the reply. His geography was as confused as mine.
They fight tooth and nail over consulates but can’t be accused of saving the sum of things for pay, like Housman’s mercenaries. There might be a case of champagne to be flogged discreetly or visa fees to be pocketed. But, usually, it’s a labour of love. As honorary consul for Spain, Maharajkumar Pilu Roy Chowdhury, Raja Benoy’s brother, even employed an impecunious relative as his deputy. Only when Pilu died did it emerge that he had camouflaged payment from his own pocket to save his relative’s face.
You couldn’t compare such men to Graham Greene’s honorary consul, Charley Fortnum, for whom it was never too early for a drink because his veins ran with alcohol, and who owed his job to acting as tourist guide to visiting British royals. He lived on the proceeds of selling the Cadillac that the Argentinians allowed him to import every two years. “If he got his wife made a consul too they could import a car a year between them. A fortune,” muttered a jealous compatriot.
Since Fortnum was a British subject, little illegal vanities like flying the Union Jack on his car and putting CC on his number plate could be described as patriotic. However, no European or American would ever dream of plastering Zaire, Iraq or the name of any foreign country on his vehicle. There’s no “craze for phoren” (to use V.S. Naipaul’s phrase) in phoren. Nor does honorary consular status carry any social prestige in the West.
Here, it’s the new status symbol. Unlike Fortnum, our businessmen can’t expect an OBE. Anyone can now join Calcutta’s most select club. What would they do there, anyway' So, let their billions speak for Belize or Suriname. A whispered word by a governor or chief minister clinches intense lobbying. “How much did he pay to get appointed, do you suppose'” the jealous Brit asked about Fortnum in Greene’s novel. He was told firmly that that was not how Her Majesty’s Government worked.
Fortnum was kidnapped and nearly killed. The job content is less dire here (though not for the British and Americans) but onerous enough. A Botswana girl caught trafficking in drugs has to be rescued from incarceration in Murshidabad jail. The Portuguese documents accompanying a parcel of small arms that dropped from the skies must be translated. Ships flying flags of convenience and crammed with illegal Chinese need attention. The honorary consul for Nigeria hovered anxiously in the background as I lunched with the airport manager one day because five Nigerians suspected of smuggling diamonds were being purged next door.
There is, too, the sacred ritual of national day which the hybrids celebrate far more lavishly than the cahoot. I did not realize the ritual’s significance for the latter until Whitehall pennypinchers slashed the Queen’s birthday party. “That is a pity,” commiserated the wife of another Western diplomat. “These large parties are so useful. You can finish at one go all the locals you’ve got to invite but don’t want inside the house!”
That problem doesn’t arise when host and hostess are also locals. Moreover, they entertain in five-star hotels, not bungalows in Alipore and Tollygunge. But the main reason for gratitude is that they exist at all. Marianne has packed her bags and Uncle Sam is poised on the threshold with an eye cocked at Britannia. A British report predicts that Britain’s vanishing Calcutta mission is “the shape of the embassy of the future”.
The cahoot may go but the hybrid will remain. Burkina Faso and Dominica (never to be confused with the Dominican Republic) will never forsake us. Let them, therefore, flaunt flags like St Kitts-Nevis’s green and red triangles with the diagonal black band and two white stars on their cars, dizzily rotating lights and yellow number plates. I hope Raj Bhavan allowed them to squeeze into the parking lot reserved for the pukka chaps. Not only do honorary consuls keep alive the myth of Calcutta’s international personality. They prove that phoren is actually swadeshi.