Arundhati Ghose: Plucky, feisty and an unusual diplomat

Arundhati Ghose, who passed away on July 25, was the most unusual of diplomats. Plucky, feisty, forthright and hard-talking one moment, she could transform with one winsome smile into a charming, elegant confidante the very next. All the quicksilver aspects of her personality were never more in display than in the mid-nineties at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, where she put up a steely fight every inch of the way during the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations.


As one of her Counsellors during those dramatic years, I had the privilege of watching her at very close quarters. She came to Geneva with a distinguished career already behind her, known for her prowess in economic diplomacy. By her own admission she was a newcomer to the often arcane and abstruse world of disarmament and non-proliferation. But in those years, disarmament was the inescapable flavour of the time in Geneva, with negotiations on nuclear testing, biological weapons and landmines all underway simultaneously.

Twisting the pallu of her sari around her in a characteristic gesture, she buckled down to it.

In a few weeks, she had entered the club of pipe-smoking, bow-tied and suspendered disarmament ambassadors like a torrent of fresh air and shaken it out of its smugness. Parking her ash-tray next to the mike, and daring anybody to stop her, she would take a deep puff from her omnipresent cigarette and make one cutting intervention after another.


Her rich smoker’s voice, her faultless newscaster diction, her penetrating analysis and logic ensured instant respect and attention. Relentlessly she unveiled moral hypocrisy and exposed every self-serving diplomatic feint. It was soon clear that India had a stake in those negotiations, backed by a strong philosophical underpinning and dictated by strategic realities, and the world would have to listen.


When the CTBT negotiations reached the end game and we withdrew to the smoke-filled rooms — to which atmosphere Ambassador Ghose contributed flamboyantly — she had the gloves off and she gave as strong as she got, and often more. But such was her charm that when they came out of those rooms, not the most bitter of opponents could carry the antagonism further. Respect and admiration, grudging at first, soon became open and universal.


During those years one rarely saw her take a moment off from work. Long days in the conference room would lead straight back to the Mission where she would allow us to wash our faces and gather in her office. Each aspect of the day’s negotiations would be analysed, each phrase scrutinised, each move looked at from all possible angles until inevitably the evening stretched into night.


Unlike us, she had the capacity to go on, hour after hour, on cigarettes and black coffee from a thermos flask; we survived by passing a plate of biscuits to each other. The minute it struck her that we were hungry, the no-nonsense Ambassador would transform into afussing aunt-like figure, insisting that we instantly order food.


Hers was a tremendously inspiring and simple personality. Once when I accompanied her to Vienna for a three-week conference on landmines, some administrative goof-up resulted in her having to spend a night in an opulent and expensive hotel suite. She was most uncomfortable and early morning I had instructions to find another more modest room somewhere where she could breathe easy.


The only wealth she respected was that of the intellect. Professional integrity was her calling card. She had no personal agenda whatsoever, no desire to please, no eye to ingratiate. All she thought of and worked for was the good of the country. And if anybody dared to slight India, she would turn to us, the admiring boys sitting behind her and say – “I am going to give him what for.” And boy, she did. Sleep well, Ma’am, on a job well done.