(This is the Part II of a series on 'Diplomatic Homes'. Click here to read Part I)
In Manhattan in New York, the value of an apartment is determined more by its address than by the comforts provided in it. There is a world of difference in value between an apartment on the "Upper East Side" and the "Lower West Side". Even there, it matters whether the apartment is on Park Avenue or on Lexington Avenue just a few blocks away. The Madison Avenue, situated between the Park and the Fifth Avenues is one of the most prestigious addresses in Manhattan. We were only vaguely aware of the value of our address when we moved into our apartment on Madison Avenue and 89th Street.
My predecessor had taken this apartment basically because it was close to one of the best public schools in Manhattan and this was an attraction for me too. The fact that we were in the millionaire’s row in New York dawned us only slowly. We also realized that our apartment on the ninth floor was not as precious as those on the higher floors, which commanded a grand view of the Central Park.
The apartment itself was well appointed and I could walk across to Lexington Avenue and take the subway to my office in midtown, not far from the UN Headquarters. My sons could walk to their schools and many attractions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art were close by. But living in the millionaire’s row had its own hazards. The prices of essential goods in our area were prohibitive, while a few blocks downtown or across the river in Queens, the prices were reasonable.
In fact, the hypocrisy is such that people will shop in cheap areas and carry the stuff in bags with big names on it. The height of it all in New York is that you may live in a cheap area, but register an address in a posh area and receive the mail at your real home!
The tipping customs were the most embarrassing in luxury apartments. The doormen had to be tipped every time they opened the doors or handed over a packet or hailed a cab. Taking the car out of the garage was a hassle because all the big cars got precedence over my tiny Volkswagen. Initially, these were psychological pressures, which gave us a complex, but gradually we learned to live with the situation. It was a joy to be mistaken for millionaires because of our address.
The next home we had was in Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar). Apart from the ambassador, all the diplomats lived in a housing complex called Budd Road Complex and as the deputy, I had a bungalow in the center of it, with a huge garden with fruit trees. The house was comfortable and there was an advantage in community living with all the services available in the area. The embassy was in the city and the traffic was unruly, but having a chauffeur-driven official car for which I was qualified, was a blessing. I was the acting ambassador for more than 17 months and we could have moved into the ambassadorial residence, which had a dozen bedrooms. It was once the residence of the chief of the State Bank of India. But we used it only for entertainment and public functions. It not only had a tennis court but also enough space to have a couple of golf holes.
The first ambassadorial house I moved into was in Fiji’s capital, Suva. Situated on a hill overlooking the Suva port was a real delight and the garden was big enough to hold 1,000 guests. We had a tennis court and putting greens, which attracted friends, including Fiji celebrities over weekends. One special feature of the garden was the trees planted by visiting dignitaries, not only from Fiji but also from the other South Pacific Island States, to which I was accredited.
Following the military coup of 1987 and the subsequent turbulence in this island paradise, our home became a safe haven for Fiji Indian leaders and even for ordinary Fiji Indians, who felt unsafe in their own homes. We openly invited anyone who felt insecure to move in with their rations, but they moved back when the coup turned out to be not only bloodless but also humane. Indian protests died out soon and the Fijians, who came to the India House for protesting the Indian position, were singing hymns! When the Fijian government asked me to leave within 72 hours in retaliation of India getting Fiji out of the Commonwealth, my wife felt safe enough to continue in the India House for about 10 days to complete the packing. With such experiences, our Fiji home is unforgettable. It was nostalgic for me to visit the house again after 25 years.
I opted for the post of ambassador and deputy permanent representative of India to the United Nations, primarily because of the earmarked apartment, which went with it. It was on the 17th floor of a building right on the bank of the East River. Every room had a spectacular view of the whole of New York. Many visitors told us that it was eternal Deepavali in our apartment because of the illumination all around. We could sit on the balcony and watch the world go by, but since we had to move with the speed of New York, we could not afford that luxury. We had millionaires around us again, but we did not feel as uncomfortable with them as we did during our first experience. The Consul General of Pakistan had an apartment in the same building and the same floor, but the irony was that our flat was numbered 17 P and the Pakistani apartment was 17 I!
Our apartment overlooked the city mayor’s home and its vast expanse of gardens and we could walk in some parts of the garden at any time. Walking along the East River in summer is an unmixed joy. The New York apartment of the deputy permanent representative is an attraction even today. Though the permanent representative had an even better address and apartment on Park Avenue, the view from the East End Avenue apartment was an envy of even the senior Ambassador to the UN.
I remember standing on the balcony of my apartment with the minister of state for external affairs, Salman Khurshid, after a dinner party, enjoying the superb view. He asked me how I would feel when I would be transferred to another country, probably in Africa. I said that there would be some other compensation then and I would enjoy that too. And sure enough, I got my marching orders for Nairobi and I went with the determination to enjoy the attractions of the new city.