Looking Back
Swaran Singh
MY CHINA DIARY 1956-88 by K. Natwar Singh Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2009, 205 pp., 395
August 2009, volume 33, No 8/9

Diary writing is a very personal and spontaneous recollection of and reflection on everyday life events. A true diary is never written with the intention of publishing it and only rarely assumes importance to people beyond one’s immediate periphery. Most often, diaries are used by people for writing more profound memoirs, autobiographies, or biographies. Even then, a less careful use of these notations recording our heartfelt responses to events and people around us threatens to bring to light our worst (as also best) traits, especially our innermost biases. Given that several of these events and personalities may have become ‘historic’ and ‘public’ over the years, publishing one’s diary becomes a rather daring enterprise, to say the least. Diaries also reveal our innermost sense of history, even destiny. This is exactly why, very often, accomplished public figures like great statesmen, litterateurs, and officials, who have managed to pen down tedious everyday details and then managed to also preserve these for scores of years, find publishers chasing them to bring their ‘period piece’ to public scrutiny.

It is like opening an archive. It is in this backdrop that at least two things make the arrival of this book, My China Diary 1956–88, significant.


  1. Natwar Singh combines all three roles of being a former official, statesman and litterateur. He had a 31-year chequred diplomatic career during India’s formative years which were followed by his joining politics at the cusp of change from mid-1980s and remaining, for over the next two decades, a very visible, even controversial politician. He is also known for his fondness (to put it politely) for Nehru and E.M. Foster and, like them, has a litany of well-known titles published under his name even though several of his critics may wish to hold their judgment on his being either a statesman or litterateur of any great standing.

Secondly, and more specifically for students of China studies, Indian debates on China have been notorious for being devoid of primary sources which makes this the first book of its kind. The author’s being present at the making of history—both during the deterioration (late 1950s) and revival (late 1980s) of Sino-Indian ties—seems to provide him with a unique profile. Several of his contemporaries, then posted in more ‘civilized’ capitals, may now have reason to envy his plight during the late nineties as also his being at the center of India’s China policy making during the late eighties. To quote him: ‘If I were asked to name one achievement in my fifty years’ involvement in foreign affairs and diplomacy, I would, with pride, point to the breakthrough in Sino-Indian relations in December 1988’ (p. 113).

Upon reading this very engaging book though, one has several additional reasons to recommend it. Its reference details on all the names mentioned, selections of two crucial periods of historic significance in India-China ties, its historic photographs (especially Invites) and above all candidness shows what a combination of a sharp diplomat—who knew what to write—and a thoroughbred academic—who censors nothing from publishing—can accomplish, when driven by a sense of responsibility. To use another quote that was to prove so prophetic, the 26-year old young diplomat on his first posting to the hermit middle kingdom—often lonely and malnourished in Beijing—was to record this on 1 January 1957: ‘The international situation has been disturbing and at heart I remain a slave to political life and will probably land up in politics. Yet, I must say the IFS offers an exciting career’ (p. 46).

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