Shama Gurbachan Singh almost cracked the 'Da Vinci Code'. That is when her husband, then our ambassador to Switzerland and the Vatican, hung up his boots and finally retired. While analysing a career that spanned 36 years, in 11 different countries, I was amazed at the number of monumental coincidences that dogged his career.
From the students' riots in Paris in 1968 to the crisis surrounding the first Islamic Summit Conference in Rabat in 1969; from the annexation of Sikkim in 1975 to the violence in Sri Lanka in 1977; the one person who stood behind the scenes and innocently spread fire in the bellies of all the people she encountered in these pages of world history, was Shama. Rumour has it that it was the Papal Nuncio in Switzerland who first had gut feelings about the 'Da Vinci Code' after his friend Pierre Aubert, the Swiss foreign minister, took him to a stag luncheon hosted by the Indian ambassador, Shama's husband.
About a year ago, I chanced upon Shama's diary that had been placed carelessly beside the liberally illustrated and educative coffee-table book her husband had written called The Sikhs; Faith, Philosophy and Folk. Let me quote a relevant extract from the diary entry written in Switzerland, without her permission and knowledge.
'One of our early dinner parties was in honour of the Swiss foreign minister, Pierre Aubert, and his wife, Anne-Lise (who later became good personal friends). Before leaving, he complimented me ' on the ambience of the evening, the d'cor and especially the Indian food, which he had enjoyed. However, he remarked that the food had not been hot enough for him! I was naturally surprised, and somewhat taken aback ' but made a mental note of the fact.
Some time later, my husband had a stag lunch for a visiting dignitary from home. It merited inviting the foreign minister and other Swiss officials. Because of the latter, I had to ensure that the food was not overly spiced, but I remembered Pierre's expressed partiality for hot food. So I had a bowl of this chutney put by the place at which he would be seated. Since he would naturally be next to my husband, I asked him to be sure to offer the chutney to Pierre but, at the same time to warn him of its potency. Imagine my consternation when, after the event, I came to know from my husband that the minister had polished off nearly the entire bowlful!!
The following evening, at a reception at another embassy, I spotted him at the other end of the room and gingerly walked over and asked if his stomach was not upset. He replied that it was fine but a miracle had happened: a persistent backache that he had had, had been totally cured!' The Papal Nuncio had disappeared.
And there you have the ultimate weapon of mass churning and awakening that our diplomatic service had served upon the history of our times from Casablanca to Nairobi, from Paris to Gangtok, and not one of those places has been the same since. And for those of you who wish to change the course of the future of your families, I submit the tips she gave me to conquer the world.
Fresh Red Hot Chilli Chutney
Ingredients: 1 kg red chillies (fresh) finely cut or coarsely ground, 100 gms amchoor (dried ripe mango powder), 1' cups vinegar (malt), 1 tbsp mustard seed coarsely ground, 50 gms garlic and 30 gms fresh ginger coarsely ground together, salt to taste, ' kg gur (or sugar, preferably gur) grated or chopped into very small pieces, ' kg mustard oil
Method: De-seed the whole chillies as much as possible. Cut (or dry grind) into small pieces. Soak them in some vinegar over night.
In a kadahi (or wok), heat the oil, add garlic and ginger and brown lightly. Add chillies and cook on medium fire until water dries and oil separates. Add vinegar and gur. Bring to a slow boil, then add amchoor, mustard seeds and salt. Cook for a few minutes till oil floats on top. Taste and adjust vinegar, salt and sweet. Cool and put into jars. Keep indefinitely.
N.B. In the jars, a little oil should be floating on top of the chutney.
Shama confesses she got the recipe from her mother who felt her son-in-law should have the fire in his belly that diplomacy often subdues.
Over the years, to her absolute surprise, it became a 'hot' favourite, not just with her husband and children, but even her grandchildren walloped dollops of it on everything including bread. It got to the point where the family dubbed it 'mirchi da murraba' and I have made it my task to send a copy of this recipe to all our national leaders who have the potential but lack the guts and all our foreign service diplomats who need to stomach the turbulence of political diets that change as often as the flavours of chillies, from Tezpur to Bolivia.