A senior retired bureaucrat met Ranjan Mathai, then deputy high commissioner in London, and asked him casually where he was going to settle down after retirement. Mathai was frank. He didn't have a house. So he would have to do something, he didn't know what
That was Mathai until a few years ago, a hardworking middle-of-the-road bureaucrat, risen from the ranks. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, nor descended from a family of foreign secretaries. He is not known to have any political predilections or connections; he is just a regular guy.
Mathai has served in France -- an important posting from India's point of view -- but has neither been in Pakistan nor China. Nor has he had extensive experience of the US recently or shown his spurs in significant economic diplomacy. On the other hand, you could argue that former Foreign Secretary Kanwal Sibal's two most important postings were Egypt and France.
MathaI's language is German: He was posted in Colombo and Tehran as a young officer and in Israel, Qatar and France as ambassador. The area where Mathai has considerable experience is the Indian neighbourhood barring Pakistan-Afghanistan.
He has handled Nepal; and Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Maldives as a joint secretary, although that was some time ago. As India really needs to fix its policy in the neighbourhood, his wisdom will be crucial.
It was during his tenure as ambassador that French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to India, and important deals, especially those relating to nuclear energy, were firmed up.
France accorded India a signal honour -- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was guest of honour at the Bastille Day celebrations in 2009. On the other hand, Mathai has been out of the policy-making loop for 13 years, out on postings.
That he was the most senior in the batch was no secret. He could have been asked to come to Delhi a few months earlier to be an understudy. Now, no matter how hard he works, it will take him the crucial first few months to get up and hit the ground running.
The first challenge will, of course, be to keep the Pakistan rapprochement -- or re-engagement as India likes to call it -- on track.
Most of all, he is judged to be a decent, hardworking individual and his junior colleagues are hoping it is this trait that will be the signature leadership message of the appointment.
Mathai will have to work with Nalin Surie, currently the high commissioner in London, and his senior. Not bringing back Surie was the government's decision, and not Mathai's. The Foreign Service understands this. But do Surie and Mathai understand this as well?