Mr. Gaddam Dharmendra Consul General of the Consulate General of India, Hong Kong Interview.
Photo Credits: Chris Lusher
It is said that our home is a true reflection of ourselves. Accordingly, Diplomat decided to interview the Indian Consul General, Mr. Gaddam Dharmendra, at home with his wife, Mrs. Sayantani Gaddam.
The three-story building at Black’s Link, quietly overlooking Hong Kong’s lush valleys seems spacious for the family of three. Certainly there was no shortage of space as Diplomat took a good long while to settle in, wondering which one of the 7 sofas we should sit on. Modern art and Indian statues are scattered around the house. The distinguishing feature was a stereo system that sits in the centre of the living room, flanked with shelves and shelves full of music on either side; an audiophile exposed.
The forerunner dodging gunrunners
As a training officer, his first oversea assignment was to learn the local language of his first posting – Farsi in Tehran – from scratch. Rookie diplomats in the Indian service work in each department of the embassy over two years in a system that is a miniature of management trainee programme.
“[You end up with] a deeper sense of the language… and completely rounded in how a mission works. You can replicate this work anywhere, adjusting, adapting to the unique circumstance of each station.”
Shortly after, the 29-year-old was sent to Dushanbe, Tajikistan to open a mission in 1994, during the post-USSR civil war chaos.
“A very big step up… hiring, strategy, locating… everything!”
His tone got obviously excited when the old days flashed back to him. It was evidently exciting for him to be there as one of the forerunners, paving the untrod road and making friends – at a time of civil war. “There used to be fighting on the outskirts of the city… We were not a target.” The Ambassador came about a year after Gaddam and 2 colleagues who were the advance team.
“I was part of the second wave. The Americans and the Russians were the first. Then the Chinese, the Indians and the Pakistanis – we were the next wave. Intermingled with all of us were the ICRC, IRC, the Soros Foundation [other government and NGO organizations].”
“All the expats would come back from the field where they were distributing food aid or medical aid. We would get together at one watering hole which was the safest place – which was the hotel we were all holed up in.”
“We would all meet and buy-up whatever beer was available and hope we could get some food afterwards. Hope.”
They even gave themselves a name – Friday Evening Expats. The hotel was bare – a dark grey monstrous Soviet style building, occupied by soldiers and diplomats and NGO workers. Instead of depressing, it seemed rather a happy ‘man’ time, comradeship growing in the heart of each, shedding off the toils of wartime burdens.
However, from the perspective of Mrs. Gaddam – who was left behind in India of course – it was three long, anxious years without almost any communication with her husband. “I would call, I remember the first 9 months we almost didn’t hear anything. I used to talk to the headquarters there, and they would get some kind of a message and they would say ‘all is well’.”
“I used to talk to headquarters there, and they would get some kind of a message and they would say “all is well” Mrs. Sayantani Gaddam
Fortunately, everything did go well – for the young diplomat. The civil war was still on and nearly 100,000 people were estimated killed. He returned to New Delhi unscathed. By the time he left his assignment, the embassy had expanded, moved out of the hotel and into its own property – another incredible mission in a country that didn’t even have a system of property ownership at the time.
“We didn’t know who to buy the property from. We had no idea. So we were talking to all kinds of groups who claimed that the property was managed by them…” Eventually hey located a building with a theatre, which played a key role in those desperate years.
“To say on a Friday evening, there’s a show in the Indian embassy, it was a great fun. All the expats would line up and the Tajik people would line up [for the Indian movies].” This legacy was evident in a recent meeting where Indian Vice President Hamid Ansari and Tajikistan Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi agreed to bring Bollywood industry to Tajikistan. The Hindustan Times recently reported on the Tajikistan love affair with Indian cinema: “Bollywood movies are sought after by a select group of youths and elderly people. They (Tajiks) listen to Hindi movie songs. Bollywood actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit, among others, are loved by people here,” said an Indian Mission official.
The nuclear option
After Tajikistan, he was based in New Delhi as a desk officer for a while to begin family life as he and Mrs. Gaddam celebrated the birth of their daughter, Tulsi. He was developing a specialisation in global treaty negotiation around the bilateral strategic security issues and multilateral disarmament issues – “fissile materials, outer space, nuclear weapons…dual use technologies, export controls” .
In response to Diplomat’s direct questioning, he confirmed he is NOT a spy. But then, he would say that.
When his time came, he was sent on his next mission, the toughest one in Mrs. Gaddam’s eyes: Washington D.C.
Mr. Dharmendra was sent to the US as part of the team to execute on the negotiations on nuclear weapons and materials agreements. This marked the beginning of a broad improvement of Indo – US relations, including cooperation in patrolling the Indian Ocean, US support in search and rescue after the Indian tsunami, an Open Skies agreement and the government airline’s purchase of Boeing aircraft. “The relationship was on an upward vector.” One of the major spurs to this improving relations was not a happy one – in fact it was the darkest day of the young century for America.
“It was a scary morning… We were shocked… It was horrific… and simply shocking. It was too shocking..nobody had ever seen anything like that.”
When the tragedy happened, Mrs. Gaddam was at home alone with her baby girl – only 16km (~10 miles in American) away from The Pentagon. Mrs. Gaddam’s sister called in disbelief from India to check whether what she was seeing was real or just a movie – nobody could understand what exactly was happening or how could this be happening [Ed. Note – Exactly my reaction at the time – but it was on both channels].
Mr. Dharmendra, was already in the office that morning, eyes fixed on the TV screen after the World Trade Center attacks, waiting for reports to come in. Yet all that they saw was the explosion of the second building of the World Trade Centre. Washington D.C. went on alert right away. The fourth aircraft was missing and rumors flew around the entire city.
“One of my colleagues saw it [American Airlines 77] hit the Pentagon”
“It was a sad moment, horrible moment…the entire city was closed down… the D.C. metro system was shut down… people were walking back in utter shock.”
Terrorism wasn’t complete novel to the young diplomat. In India, they had been talking about terrorism for 25 years and no one had been listening. But this was different. “The next day we all woke up to a new country, a new world.”
30 Indian nationals perished in the attacks in New York City. Indian schoolchildren across the country showed sympathy, affixing signs reading “This is an attack on all of us” to walls of primary schools.
Lost in Americanization
It was a difficult time for everyone in America. This is, however, not the reason why Mrs. Gaddam labeled America as the most challenging post. It was more about taking care of a baby in a foreign country that has a completely different culture.
“When I said [Washington was the most difficult one], everybody got shocked… but it was a lonely post!… Human interactions were very little… and I felt very insular and you have to manage everything on your own… ” The fact that she didn’t even know how to drive back then also added to the hardship in US – the country-on-wheels. After 8 months she finally managed to fly in her nanny from India (a standard Indian diplomatic perk). But the nanny, with no English ability, was rather a dependant on Mrs. Gaddam. She provided emotional companionship more than anything else.
Luckily this won’t be the case for Hong Kong! Fond of the packed streets and markets, Mrs. Gaddam said with truly contented face, “I really have nothing to complain [about].”
Hong Kong – truly all is well!
Given the robust Hong Kong – India relationship and the heavy focus on trade and investment here in Hong Kong, Mr. Dharmendra happily put away his expertise on nuclear negotiations and strategic security and immersed himself in the relaxed and prosperous working environment and quiet family life.
He is learning new aspects of the work he hasn’t had to deal with before – being a more public figure, managing consular affairs and working with the diaspora.
“I don’t socialize much. I would rather spend the evening going for a run or a hike and come in to have a beer, listen to some music and read a book. That’s my idea of a great evening.” As Mrs. Gaddam jokingly put, “He became so domesticated that the battery of his motorcycle died.” Diplomat did not get to do any Easy Rider moves with the CG.
The Consul General’s three years are almost up and he does have a sense of his destiny. He was very coy about his next posting. Diplomat will be watching with interest to see if, with his next posting, All is Well.
“Building relations between two countries takes a long time… I stand on the shoulders of my predecessors. I am but one point in the development of that arc, and invariably others will come after me” Gaddam Dharmendra
Mr. Gaddam Dharmendra
- Joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1990.
- Since 1992, has served in various Indian Missions in Tehran, Dushanbe, Washington D.C. and Dhaka. In between these overseas assignments, worked as a desk officer (from 1997-2000) and later (from 2007-2010) as Head of the Disarmament and International Security Affairs Division of the Ministry of External Affairs, South Block, New Delhi.
- Assumed charge as Consul General of India to Hong Kong SAR and Macau SAR of the People’s Republic of China in
- 1985-89 : Politics and International Relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India