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House Of The Spirits

As India bloomed, it was a pleasure to have had a ring-side view

House Of The Spirits
R. Prasad
House Of The Spirits
The residence of the Chilean embassy had been located for close to 30 years on 6/32 Santiniketan, a most appropriate neighbourhood given the admiration professed by Pablo Neruda for Rabindranath Tagore. But, as was bound to happen, the lease ran out, and we were forced to start househunting in Delhi, not an easy task these days. Surprisingly, due to the ingenuity and wits of my wife Norma, we managed to find a place not too far away, on the Ring Road in Vasant Vihar—a somewhat grander house, albeit one located in a much noisier environment.

As we gather our things to leave Delhi, and therefore undertake our second house move in six months, I must admit "the change of venue" gave me a different perspective on India and its capital. There is something unique about 1 Palam Marg, much in the way, Isabel Allende's childhood home, invoked in her The House of the Spirits.

To start with, there is the spirit of former Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, after whom that section of the Ring Road is named, a remarkable man whom my wife and I had the privilege to meet at Stanford, a few years before his tragic death—a man who embraced and made his own causes as close to my heart as the restoration of democracy in Chile and the abolition of apartheid in South Africa (where I served in the '90s), and, needless to say, a great friend of India. There is also the spirit of K.M. Heinz, the Austrian architect who built many a house in Delhi in the '60s and '70s, including our previous residence in Santiniketan, and of whom I immediately recognised the distinctive stairwell, the grey marble floors, the splendid, chiselled hardwood doors and the first-rate room distribution. He also built the Holy See residence (complete with its striking chapel) as well as the current Portuguese one (previously Argentina's), in addition to the pleasant campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Some critics consider his work "too European", not really suited to India. Admittedly, few houses like his are built in Delhi today, but for our needs I must say they are admirably well conceived and executed. Perhaps surprisingly, my only criticism is of the fireplaces—far too small and very difficult to fire up, not something one would expect from an Austrian. In any event, the house seems to be very much to the taste of Chileans, since we belatedly discovered that another of the spirits in the house is that of my predecessor, ambassador Augusto Marambio (1971-76), one of the very first tenants and whose son Francisco (Chile's ambassador to Turkey now) came to Delhi as protocol chief during the visit to India of President Ricardo Lagos in 2005. Francisco lived in this house as an adolescent and has many fond memories.

Yet the noblest spirit doing the rounds of 1 Palam Marg is surely that of its original owner, the man who had the house built to his exacting specifications and who, I am told, monitored every detail. General Harbaksh Singh, one of India's great strategists, died in 1999, and his widow and daughters now own the property. As somebody with a long-standing interest in defence matters, while sitting in the imposing, all-wood panelled, black-marble floor study (in which I have tended to spend so much time, surrounded by my books, photographs and model planes), I could not but think of him, his key role in the 1965 war with Pakistan, and his remarkable vision and strategic sense—into which both his autobiography and his book of despatches from the war provide such a fascinating glimpse.

New Delhi has become once again the capital of the Global South, and the three-and-a-half years we have spent here have given us a front row seat on history in the making. It's customary on these occasions to ask what one takes away, which memories are strongest. There are many but I'll single out two, which to my mind mean the notion of the 21st century as the 'Asian century'—the century of China and India—may not be such a far-fetched idea after all. The first is the unbounded optimism and "can do" attitude that marks so much of contemporary India, in business and in government, in science and civil society.

The second is the willingness to think in big terms, on a grand scale. Greatness is not something bestowed on nations by geography or demography. It is earned by and is the result of the vision of its leaders and of its people—of themselves and by relation with the rest of the world. As India emerges out of the cocoon of sorts in which it found itself ("Womb of the land, closed territory in which the grapes of history ferment" was how Neruda described her in his poem, India 1951) and opens up to the rest of the world, engaging it on so many fronts, the sky is the limit in terms of what she can achieve. Having been here at a time when seemingly distant possibilities started to become, at least partially, concrete realities has been very special.

(Jorge Heine is the outgoing Chilean ambassador)

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