From reality to fiction, a tale of two opposites

New Delhi: Perhaps one becomes a different person after retirement? Released from the pressures and restrictions of a professional career you can give free rein to talents that remained dormant or even, possibly, suppressed. This is my explanation for the metamorphosis of a former distinguished foreign secretary into a rather compelling writer of detective fiction. And if you know the author, as many will, what is equally intriguing is that the central character he’s created is not a doppelganger but the virtual opposite of himself! There’s no recognizable similarity between the two.

The former foreign secretary I’m writing about is Krishnan Srinivasan. He held that distinguished office in the mid-90s. He also served as High Commissioner to Zambia, Nigeria and Bangladesh and Ambassador to The Netherlands. We met during his time in Lagos, over forty years ago. We’ve been good friends since but, as you’ll soon discover, there’s a lot more to Kris than I knew or could discern.

In the last decade Kris has written six books centred around an intriguing character he’s called Michael Marco. Born in Italian Somaliland, Marco served in his country’s foreign service and later in the UN but now finds himself unable to return home. His government has barred him. The books are about Marco’s time in Calcutta as he waits to return to Somalia.

Marco is no Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. Instead, his kindliness reminds you of Jane Marple, his manner and appearance of Inspector Ghote. More than anything else, it’s hard to imagine anyone more different from Kris.

Kris is often awkward. Marco is warm and welcoming. Kris doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Marco finds depths others would never have recognised. Kris used to have a head for alcohol that was impossible to challenge. The most Marco will imbibe is tomato juice fortified with tobasco. Kris used to like the attention his ascerbic wit drew to him. Marco shrinks into the shadows, preferring invisibility. They are so truly different I wonder if Kris looked deep into a mirror and decided to create the opposite of what he saw?

The second delightful discovery is Kris’s evocative use of language. The former diplomat was a terse man. The author is full of haunting phrases. For instance, of the forests of Purulia at the end of the monsoon, he writes “the leaves and twigs were full of trembling drops”. Of a shabby building seen from a car window, he says it “turned into dull silver by a fat January moon”. Of the memory of a woman, he recalls “her dimpled smiles like fleecy clouds with the sun behind them”.

Kris’s descriptions of people are equally striking. A handsome college chum is “a cross between Hrithik Roshan and a walnut Brad Pitt”. A character he clearly dislikes is said to look like “a church warden suffering from acute dyspepsia”. Whilst a female he doesn’t find attractive is called a “coltish girl-woman” who has an “oversize full-lipped mouth with just a hint of buck teeth”.

The third surprising feature is the collection of pearls of pithy wisdom Kris has scattered in Marco’s conversation. The diplomat I knew was clever; his critics would say too clever by half. But wise, in the worldly sense of the term, Kris was not. Marco very definitely is. “People’s secrets are the most interesting things about them, but no secret remains a secret forever”, Marco declares. You can be sure he will ferret out yours. But where is he most likely to start? Kris has the answer. “Whenever you are looking at any crime, you can normally start by considering sex, ambition and money as the motivations”.

So, as I turned the last page on Kris’s latest book ‘The Ambassador and the Private Eye’, I felt an impish urge to ask Marco to inquire into his own origin. I wonder how our Somalian savant would explain Kris’s transition from diplomat to novelist? Only he could unravel the truth. I can’t see Kris telling me!


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