VK Krishna Menon (1896-1974) – An undiplomatic diplomat

It is not often that you come across people who create an impact on you, especially so if they are long gone and belonged to an era before your teens. I discovered one such person a week back. While his name is familiar to all, most today won’t know of his tremendous influence in geopolitics.

I studied in a Sainik school and one of the first things I picked up was that the whole concept of Sainik schools came from Mr VK Krishna Menon. I used to wonder about this great guy now & then, but never really bothered to figure out. Yes, conversation sometimes brought up his name, over the years, about associations of his with Jawaharlal Nehru and so on; eventually I thought it could be a good idea to dredge some stuff on this person. There was a lot of information available, but mostly polarized in support or against him. I have not read his biographies, understood his ideology or digested his famous 8-9 hour UN lecture on Kashmir, but my study will go on, for he is such a fascinating persona.

Today there are Krishna Menon Margs, statues, schools, stadiums, buildings & houses, books, memoirs, trophies…he was one of the first Indians to grace the front page of Time, he has books about him & his ideology written by non Indians…Some guy this!! He had been branded a communist, a traitor and what not…But then, in his heydays he hobnobbed with Kennedy, Kruschev, and all the big guns of that era. He was apparently instrumental in spearheading solutions for the Suez crisis, the Korean Crisis and even the French (Algeria) UN standoff. When he spoke, the world listened, when he gave press conferences, reporters asked questions fearing crisp retorts, but they always got a newsworthy interview at the end. Above all, he made more enemies than friends with his direct and probably arrogant outlook on life and lesser mortals.

The US always thought that VKKM was the one responsible for the Indian tilt towards Russia and (in those days) China. The AHR US stated: Krishna Menon, the Indian ambassador to the United Nations, was second to none- not even communist delegates to the organization -in the vituperativeness of his attacks on the United States.What did the international media have to say about him?
Menon was dubbed as "Mephistopheles in a Saville row suit", "the devil's incarnate", "the bad fairy of the UN", the "old snake charmer" and also as a diabolical combination of all "three witches of Macbeth".

So what did he have to say to that? Read this from Narasimhan

V.K. Krishna Menon, India's Defence Minister, was the leader of the Indian delegation to the General Assembly in 1961. He knew he was not very popular in the U.S. He also had a macabre sense of humour.
In September 1961, he had to undergo major surgery at a hospital in the Bronx which involved making an incision in his skull. When I went to visit him at the hospital, he said: "Narasimhan, your American friends think I am a lunatic. You can now tell them on good authority that you had indeed seen me at hospital and I am a man with a hole in the head."

But take this example written comparing
Galloway’s visit to Washington to Menon’s.
Nearly, half a century ago, when Krishna Menon was in USA, he was similarly expected to be pulverized for his views and the Indian embassy specifically advised him against appearing on a live radio program hosted by an extreme conservative host. Menon, typically, rejected the advice. He was given a lecture by the aggressive host and asked if it was true that Menon was a communist. Without batting an eyelid, Menon returned the lecture and concluded it with a question to the host: But tell me, is it true that you are a bastard?? For once, the radio host was silenced, at least momentarily by a visiting host.

Or this
Krishna Menon, the Indian nationalist leader, sums up the attitude perfectly: "There is no use in asking whether you would choose British imperialism or Nazism, it is like asking a fish if he wants to be fried in margarine or butter. He doesn't want to be fried at all!"
He was considered the liberator of Goa from the Portuguese after taking up the issue to the UN. In a UN debate, V. K. Krishna Menon described the Portuguese overseas territories as a "slave empire" and declared that the "liberation of Goa" was "part of the unfinished task of liberating India.". He eventually convinced Nehru to send troops into Goa and liberate it..

VK Krishna Menon belonged to the wealthy
Vengalil family of Calicut, studied at Presidency College Madras and then the University College & the London Business School, thence obtaining a PhD from Glasgow and joining the Labor party. He became a barrister, supporting the cause of poor ‘laskars’ who needed legal assistance and lived a number of years in England. He seemed to have had a very interesting and busy life there, for example did you know he was the founder & editor of Penguin books? And that he was the Councilor of St Pancras in London? It was in UK that he met J Nehru (they went on a dangerous trip to Spain to study the fight against Franco & fascism…and became fast friends after that) and post independence went on to become the UK high commissioner.

I stayed a couple of times at the YMCA - Fitzroy square in London. Little did I know that there was a VKKM statue out there. He did have his share of misfortune while he served and after he died. Twice they erected statues of him and in both instances they were stolen.

It is said that Nehru and Krishna Menon neglected the defense of the Northeast under the belief that China would never attack a fellow Socialist country like India; for which the country ended up paying a heavy price in 1962. Following that and loud opposition from all and sundry, VKKN was deposed (resigned) from the Defense minister post, taking the blame, to shield Nehru perhaps? I am not sure, I have also read reports that VKKM egged Nehru to take on the Chinese based on Gen Kaul’s advise and that this led to the problem, rather than the assumption that the Chinese wont attack.,

Unfortunately VKKM was disliked by many and the
reasons are put so succinctly by V Nevrekar. ‘It is however true that because of his arrogance, if not downright rudeness, Mr menon did not need much of an effort to irritate , anger and even antagonize people, especially those he considered below his intellectual level. This one article by Navrekar gives one much perspective, and shows us a different person from the submissive one that India presents at all kinds of international floors these days - people with hardly any oratorical skills or personality. He showed the white man, his place as Navrekar puts it…I enjoyed reading that…It was here that I saw some parallels between Menon with todays Rumsfeld!!! Just like Rummy, Menon, along with Nehru, apparently caused havoc in the army's working, disregarding professional opinion and advice, violating all channels and levels of communication and encouraging the same within the army hierarchy, which ended with disastrous results in the Sino-Indian conflict. Like his boss, Menon believed in giving verbal orders and disliked records.

His best friend arguably was Jawaharlal Nehru though it is possible that Menon finally became the fall man for Nehru’s Himalayan Blunder. However Nehru states the following while replying his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s complaint that Menon was always snubbing, ridiculing & rude to her (Rummy and Condy rice scenario!!!)

I have known Krishna now for a long time and have a fairly good appreciation of his abilities, virtues and failings. All these are considerable. I do not know if it is possible by straight approach to lessen those failings. I have tried to do so and I shall continue to try. This is a psychological problem of some difficulty and has to be dealt with, if at all successfully, by rather indirect methods. I propose to deal with it both directly and indirectly. "I hope I have the capacity to judge people and events more or less objectively. I am not swept away by Krishna; nor would I like my affection for you to influence my judgment to any large extent, though to some extent, of course, affection does make a difference and indeed should. Krishna has often embarrassed me and put me in considerable difficulties. If I speak to him, he has an emotional breakdown. He is always on the verge of some such nervous collapse. The only thing that keeps him going is hard work.

Besides "hard work" and cups of tea (he admitted to drinking about 38, not 40 cups of tea as frequently rumored, daily), Krishna Menon was "living for years on the drug Luminal ( Arthritis cure perhaps?), frequently fainting, or speaking incoherently in public".

Did you know that Nov 14th is a children’s day thanks to VKKM? I guess he could do so much in the UN, the ‘terror from the east’ as they called him. He wanted to be the secretary general. He knew he would never be that, though. It took many more years for another Malayali to step near the UN stage, i.e. Tharoor this year.

Menon was responsible for the term Menonism in politics. For those who are interested, A new word, "Menonism," has been coined by the American press to characterise the peace efforts of Mr. V.K. Krishna Menon. Explaining what "Menonism" means, the St. Louis Post Dispatch published an article saying that it was an "attempt to return to the great tradition of 19th century diplomacy."

Like I said before, there is so much more to know about this interesting person, his personal side, his post defense ministry years, his relationship with Kerala…my ongoing project!!

A newer article of mine covering menon's defense ministry days, the MI5 files, the jeep scandals etc can be found at this link.

A good article in the Hindu – by Supreme Court justice VR K Iyer
Kushwant Singh worked for
him and states…about his relationship with Menon

Pictures - Hindu, Time....

What's in a name? TURKEY

I am musing over this a couple of days before thanksgiving in USA, a day when thousands of Turkeys will be killed, roasted, stuffed and eaten with gusto…

When I was working in the Middle east, I realized that Arabs called Indians ‘Hindi’, since we are people from Hindustan (India is Hindi to Arabs but then, for Indians, Hindi is a language). ‘Aye Hindi…taaal…’. was the way they would call out to get our attention..

When we moved to work at Istanbul-Turkey, I realized that India was Hindistan (mind you, Hindistan not Hindustan) for them and Indians were ‘Hintli’. But I soon found out while eating food at the canteen or in hotels that there was another word they used, this was ‘Hindi’ meaning the bird we know as Turkey. Chicken was ‘Pilic/tavuk’ and Turkey was ‘Hindi’. Hey! Now the language becomes a bird which is also a country!

So there I was, in Turkey, an Indian wondering why the Turks call what we call Turkey the bird as Hindi – what Arabs mean to be Indians and which is instead a language to Indians!!

There were no Turkeys in India ( wrong now, saw a program yesterday on Asianet showing that this is an upcoming business in Kerala – Turkey farming). So what has India got to do with Turkey fowls?

For those who are wondering if they are going to get a lesson in ornithology. Let me reassure you in the negative, I will make this as painless as possible.

We all agree that the English were a confused lot (Did they have a hand in this?). Yeah! I see you nodding your head. Except in this case, it was further confounded by the Spaniards, Yanks and others.

Many people think that Turkey is named Turkey after the country Turkey

Mexicans were the first, to domesticate and raise Turkeys many centuries ago. They apparently called it the ‘huexolotlin’. Obviously nobody listened to Mexicans in those days or do so today.

When the Europeans started trading via Calicut in India, they saw wonderful sights & documented it, and one exotic bird which impressed them was the Peacock. This bird (now the national bird of India) is called Mayil in Kerala and in TamilNadu, but its feathers are called Thokiyam in Tamil (note : Thoki – Thukki this is the one and only Tamil word in the old Testament and borrowed by Hebrew). Apparently some of the colonials picked up this Tamil word and some others called it the Calicut hen. In those days many things exotic were for that reason somehow attributed to Calicut. So let us agree that the word Mayil did not catch on, Thukki did since Biblical times.

Columbus landed in the America's (new India as it was subsequently termed) and thought it was India, saw the Turkey birds (let us assume that Amerigo Vespuchi saw none or was wiser) thought they were Thukkis and believed he was for sure in India. To summarize, Spaniards had by then decided that the Turkey bird & Peacocks are fowls from the Indies…So they get the family name Indian fowls, Calicut hens, Thukki etc..

Then there was the Guinea-fowl (which lived in sub-Saharan locations). This bird was popular cuisine in Roman/Greek days and was reintroduced into Europe by Turkish merchants. It appears that that is how the Guinea fowl started being called Turkey birds by the English and others, since they were supplied by Turkish merchants.

Well we are half way now…..These quaint birds (Peacocks, Guinea fowls and Turkeys) were called Indian birds by the Spaniards (also the same by the Arabs and Turks). The English still did not know about the Turkey fowl, they called the Guinea fowl ‘Turkey’ since they got it from Turkish merchants or since it looked like the Thukkis (note also that Thukki, and Turki sound just about the same after a few drinks) that Spaniards talked about.

In early 17th century, the Pilgrims reached the "New World". The colonists saw turkey cocks gobbling and strutting around, and they were similar to the domesticated birds (Guinea fowl-Turkeys or Calicut Hens) they brought from England. So they ended up calling the American fowl too by the same name, Turkey (Finally India & Turkey meet officially in the US thanks to the English!), but the Turkey was obviously not the peacock.
When the Turkey did arrive in India finally, it came via the Spanish & the East Indies, and by then the name for it was the "Peru bird", as that was what the Portuguese called it. Indians also called it the Peru bird.

Boy! Can you imagine how many more such errors could have crept into History!

Now did you know that the Greeks called it the French bird and that the Japanese called it the Chinese bird?

Its zoological name is Meleagris gallopavo (pavo is Peacock in Spanish)

Benjamin Franklin, fearing that the 'bad moral character' of the bald eagle would reflect poorly on the young nation (USA), attempted to have the Turkey declared the national bird, BUT FAILED…That is a great story –
read this

So we went from England to Africa to Spain to Portugal to USA to Peru to Turkey to Calicut in India…I am sure more research will bring in more countries… The bird considered to be a slow and lazy one, traveled a long long way without being at most of its purported homes…to reach your Thanksgiving table..

So enjoy your meal
and give this a thought...Pictures:

A joyful bargain over a couple of hindi - turkey the bird -Safranbolu / Türkiye
Turkeybird picture courtsey www.lilytherese.com/Turkey_bird.jpg

Burma Bazar - In the early 80's

It has been ages since I ventured to that corner of Chennai. At the Parry’s corner (called so since EID parry were headquartered there) in erstwhile Madras, during the early 80’s, there existed a long strip of ramshackle ‘hole in the wall’ shops where all kinds of smuggled (or more correctly (!!) stated these days as ‘grey market’ goods) were displayed and sold. The customs department had very high customs tariff’s on imported equipment and there were strict limits on what one could bring into the country and to what meager value. This promoted smuggling and the Burma bazaar catered to those who wanted that CASIO calculator or Yamaha music keyboard or a Panasonic Two in one and were willing to pay a bit more of a price..

I used to work in Madras then, right at Parry’s corner at the Bombay Mutual building. It was a great period that, with few college friends living in the nearby YMCA, I would bus down from Triplicane…great lunches at Hari Nivas…and sometimes real funny encounters & incidents. Lunch time was when everybody would get out and stretch their legs, though it was hot and humid out there in Madras.

Back to the Burma bazaar story. Go past the Lingi chetty and thampu chetty streets (where they still make 777 brand masalas & pickles) to the beach road and you will find it. It sure looked promising; there were plenty of lookers and askers, but not so many obvious buyers. Most would walk by like tourists to take a look at the forbidden stuff. Stories floated around that it was duplicate stuff, not Japanese, but made in some other place, or that they were damaged stuff which won’t work. These purchases had no warranty policy or anything. You buy it you are stuck with it. In the evenings, the shops would be shuttered and the guys took all the stuff home. Policemen walked by, turning a blind eye most of the time. I guess they were on retainers.

Some of the shops that sold music systems (big Two in ones or three in ones) displayed only catalogs, not the hardware itself. It was in front of one of these shops that I was standing with my cousin who was visiting Madras. He wanted a two in one and we were trying to locate one at Burma Bazar. We found a Panasonic system, and started the bargaining process. You had to do that in Burma bazaar, you see. Prices firmed up eventually at 30 to 50% less, after a half hour heated discussion. We were reaching nowhere today; prices were still 20% higher than our budget when this guy says ‘come with me’. With great trepidation, we accompanied him in an auto to some other part of the city, somewhere far down Kasi or Thambu chetty street - a dank and dark gully. We were then taken to a room on the second floor where a lot of hustling and bustling was going on, it was the main ‘godown’ for all the stuff.

Freelancers would row to the ship anchored beyond territorial waters and bring aboard, the smuggled stuff. The items would be packed in plastic gunny bags, weighted under water and towed by the boat to distant parts of Madras shoreline and then brought to the Kasi chetty street ‘Gudam’.. Sometimes water seeped in and eventually destroyed the stuff. Sometimes it arrived safely. If wet, they dried it and cleaned it and gave it to you without your knowing a thing, an on/off test was allowed, no warranty beyond that, after a while the corrosion set in and the stuff sometimes conked out. Sometimes the stuff was a Korean look alike but stating Made in Japan (ironically Korea is more advanced compared to Japan, in many areas, today!!)

Seeing all this, and fearing our safety (we had Rs 500 cash in our pockets) we were no longer interested in buying and wanted to vamoose ASAP. In fact we were quite terrified being in the den (much like one pictured in Hindi movies with Ajit but no Mona).There was the Bossman Chettiar lounging in the corner back to a pillow & barking orders. We were formally presented before him by the shopkeeper. He asked us what we wanted, and what price we were willing to pay. We stuck sheepishly to our price (without further negotiation – as we were scared shitless) and the deal did not go through. We were then told in nice & no uncertain terms to get the hell out. There ended the encounter with the man. The guy who brought us there was understandably furious ( he had lost face) and walked away uttering dire threats - if we ever went to his shop again etc etc , We had to find our way back to Parry’s on feet and have since then avoided Burma bazaar like plague..


After writing this I checked out if Burma Bazar exists these days. The first hit on Google was from the Tourism department of India!!! So the whole thing is legit now???

Parry's Corner is one of the biggest markets of the city and deals in wholesale as well as retail trade. Trading in almost all kinds of goods from plastic goods to textiles and stationery, and from ready made garments to household items can be had here for reasonable prices. Nearby is the famous Burma Bazar where one can find all sorts of imported goods ranging from electronic gadgets to readymades and perfumes.
Burma Bazaar gets it name because originally Indian refugees and traders from Burma would sell their wares at the Bazaar..

Incidentally a tamil movie is being released with Burma bazaar as the backdrop titled ‘Vattaram’.

These days, I understand one goes there for pirated DVD’s and VCD’s. Burma Bazar has even provided a proposal to regularize this business!!

Picture courtesy - The Mizzima News

Anybody remember the Moore market neighboring Madras central station? I recall reading a report years ago; stating it was all lost in a fire!!! That was one hell of a place, one could find rare books at MM!!