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July 18, 1998


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The Rediff Interview/ Gerhard Fischer

'Here you have daya and karuna and when you walk by him, you pity him and maybe throw a paisa in his bowl. That's it, nothing more'

We were talking about World War II and the Russian winter.

Exactly, okay, okay. Let us go back to the Russian winter and how we stormed back.

How bad was the winter?

Toughies had a hard time. Weaklings had a harder time.

Were you a toughie or a weakling?

I have always between a toughie. Remember, I was only nineteen years then….. (he was silent for sometime as if lost in a reverie.) Okay…. Five years went by. On top of it, to make it really worse, I was a prisoner of war for two years and nine months. I wasted eight years of my life. Eight years later, I found myself free, but my parents were in China, I was in Germany.

Were you taken as a prisoner of war in France by the Allies? When did they free you?

Gerhard Fischer It is a chapter in my life as crazy as I am. Can you believe, they kept me as a prisoner of war for two-and-a-half years after the war was over? I say this to everyone. Conventions are on paper and nothing more. Facts in life are different from the nice things written on paper. Even though I say it is a chapter in my life which is as crazy as I am, I wouldn't have missed it because it means a great deal in life. In such dire conditions of life, masks disappear. When the bullets whiz past you, your mask will disappear and only then you will see the true person. So, it was a great experience.

Alas! It took eight years of my life to learn all that. (Some tiny tots from the school came to greet him then and he greeted them in Tamil, Vanakkam Soukhayam?) Of course, eight years wasted. When they decided to release me, they asked, where do you want to go? Where would I go? I love mountain countries… I dreamed about being a doctor… But then, I was a shaven headed young man, in wooden shoes, one shirt and a trouser, without a penny in the purse and parents in China. So, medicine was beyond my dreams. Without a penny to buy even a piece of bread, how could I have medical studies? So, I decided to forget about medicine.

Then, I registered in law but again, I did not attend classes but did various jobs to make money. That was 1948. For three years I worked which was again an experience. I made more and more money to put in the safe account.

What kind of jobs did you do?

I was a truck driver. I was this and that. After three years, I had enough money. So, I went to an institution which we call a 'crammer'. It crams things into you. There was this famous legal crammer and I said to the crammer, I am late, I am old and I am in a hurry. Would you cram everything that I should have learnt at university where I had entered, but did not attend due to lack of time? Would you cram it into me and help me pass this law examination?

Fortunately I had a friend in the war who had avoided captivity but knew this man, the crammer and put in a good word. He said, 'Look at this young man, He is from China and struggling in a foreign country. Take him and help him see.' China was my home country! Even then I cheekily said, 'Listen, I have only one year and you have to teach me everything in one year.' He said, 'What? One year? You need four years.'

Were you in a hurry?

At 27, with nothing under my belt, I was in a hurry. He said, 'Okay. But 365 days without a single moment of rest.' Beggars cannot be choosers. So, I said, 'Yes.' He should have said, 'Young man, there is a door in front.' But he did not. But he quoted an enormous amount. I had that much money but I did not expect to pay that to this man. So, I said to him, 'Money back if you don't succeed.' Again, he should have said, 'Get out.' But he said okay. And he got me through,.

What would I do after that? I had a law degree. Coming from abroad, I wanted to be abroad, so I entered the foreign service. And here I am, 35 years in the service. I had assignments all over the world. Fortunately, the first two three countries where I was assigned had leprosy.

As a student in Peking, I was once asked whether I would volunteer to nurse leprosy patients. They ask all students. That was before Fleming came in with the medication. So, I was in a leprosy station, and from then on, I wanted to nurse leprosy patients. I felt, these outcasts, needed attention, Outcasts, that was the word I used at Rashtrapati Bhavan. I said, don't treat us like outcasts. Don't treat us like the forgotten. We are also here in this country although you don't care about us. I don't mince my words. Yes, it wasn't easy for those assembled there. But I had given a copy of my speech to the government earlier, just to be fair.

So, I moved from place to place.

Did you enjoy your work as a diplomat?

Oh sure. Yes, I had a fabulous career. When I had had enough of Vietnam and Malaysia and India, I was given an European posting. That was a mistake. My government had three European embassies, and in 1985. I decided, enough is enough. I wanted to come back to India.

Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

Gerhard Fischer Interview, continues

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