If the epitaph “An Officer and a Gentleman” could be applied to some members of the Indian Foreign Service, the late Satyabrata Pal would no doubt be the foremost among them.
With his passing on 24 September 2019, we have lost a rare human being. Endowed with all the attributes expected of members of the Foreign Service, he served the nation at home and abroad with great distinction. An outstandingly brilliant officer of course he was, but equally he would be remembered for his exceptional qualities of the heart.
There were times when, as an administrator, he was required to take a somewhat harsh decision in the matter of a delinquent staffer, he would rather err on the side of humanity and give yet another chance to the offender! And incase awarding some punishment was unavoidable, he would be visibly sad that he had to do it.
So, when after retirement he was appointed as a Member of the National Human Rights Commission, many of us thought that that was a job after his heart. As usual, Satyabrata Pal left his mark of brilliance there too.
An officer with the rare and unique gift of wit and humour, Satyabrata Pal once wrote that as Director in the Foreign Secretary’s Office he was Foreign Secretary’s aspirin, and that only the Foreign Secretary knew if he had too many headaches! The Foreign Secretary, of course, had no headaches at all.
Yet on another occasion, Mr. Pal lamented in his inimitable style that the Foreign Secretary’s voice on foreign policy matters was a voice in the wilderness and his was a distant echo of the same.
As a diplomat he never pulled his punches when it came to defending the prestige and interest of India and her representatives abroad. But even when he would strongly respond to a particularly virulent attack on India in the local press, every sentence he wrote would be laced with wit and, at times, dark humour. The receiver would feel the punch, but would be quite at a loss how to respond.
He would quote Stanley Kubrick’s famous “great nations….. ” passage, or “pray for the early recovery of a columnist ‘reportedly’ suffering from rabies”, even if the entire press would ask for his head for using what they called “undiplomatic language”.
And when his boss in India mildly told him to be “prosaic” when he wrote to the press, he did not take more than a moment in responding, “If what I wrote was not prose, I know not what prose is”!
Again, I remember when an Indian journalist visiting the country where Mr Pal was our representative complained to the then Foreign Secretary for being cold-shouldered by Mr. Pal, the Foreign Secretary rejected the complaint outright, saying that there could be no truth in it as the officer in question was Mr.Pal.
When Mr. Pal saw the communication, he thanked the Foreign Secretary for reposing such confidence in him, and told him that the journalist’s corporeal shadow never darkened the doorstep of the Mission, and that’s why the question of helping or not helping him did not arise.
I am utterly unqualified to comment on Mr. Pal’s wide range of interests and the depth of his knowledge in an unbelievable variety of subjects. However, I heard even his seniors in the Foreign Service noting that at times he would scale such rarefied heights in his intellectual flights that he would almost exude an “other worldly ” aura!
I had the privilege and good fortune of working with Mr. Pal for some years when he was India’s Deputy High Commissioner in Dhaka. He was not only my boss, but in many ways was almost a guru for me. Although I saw very little of him thereafter except for brief exchange of greetings in the corridors of South Block quite by chance, I remained one of his ardent appreciators.
His death is an irreplaceable loss for his family, friends and admirers. Among these last my seat could at best be in the farthest corner of the last row; from there I send my salutations to one of the most adorable personalities I came across in my life.