Me and my Boss: The "Sonny" Experience
What will you have for breakfast tomorrow morning? Sonny asks me. I am puzzled by the question.
We are in New York in 1975 for the United Nations General Assembly. We are booked to stay at the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South, but walk out in protest when the hotel asks to take an imprint of our credit cards.
The practice is relatively new and we are not familiar with it. We think it implies distrust of us personally. With great difficulty, we then manage to find accommodation in an apartment hotel near the United Nations.
What will you have for breakfast tomorrow morning? Sonny asks me. I am puzzled by the question.
We are in New York in 1975 for the United Nations General Assembly. We are booked to stay at the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South, but walk out in protest when the hotel asks to take an imprint of our credit cards. The practice is relatively new and we are not familiar with it. We think it implies distrust of us personally. With great difficulty, we then manage to find accommodation in an apartment hotel near the United Nations.
I will decide tomorrow when l go to the corner restaurant,” I reply. “But I would like to cook breakfast for you in my apartment. I am asking you now so that l can go out to buy the necessary provisions.
” I am taken aback. Sonny has been Secretary-General for about three months and has inducted me into the Secretary-General’s office. In India, where I belong, strict codes of hierarchy prevail. It is unthinkable for a superior to do such a thing. “I love cooking”, Sonny adds. “Just tell me what you would like to eat.”
I arrive at Sonny’s apartment the next morning to find the table already laid. I feel a little awkward sitting and watching him cook my breakfast. Orange juice, waffles, scrambled eggs and bacon, hot buttered toast and coffee follow in quick succession. It does not even occur to me to offer to help with the washing up. I am, after all, from India, where we leave such tasks to others.
I narrate the story to a friend. “All that I can say”, he replies, “is that your boss is working too hard to secure your loyalty”. It is the start of a very close working relationship and an enduring personal friendship.
I first met Sonny in 1973 when he had come to call on Indira Gandhi with whom I worked. He looked younger than his years, almost boyish, with his face flushed by Delhi’s intense summer heat. We chatted amiably in the anteroom, waiting to go in. Indira Gandhi then at the height of her power. Overseas visitors sometimes felt a little intimidated in her presence. One African High Commissioner, calling on her for the first time, sat in complete silence, unable to utter a word. Not Sonny. All his Caribbean charm was in full flow and the rapport between him and Mrs. Gandhi was very evident. He spoke to her about the situation in Guyana and of the Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of which he was host. He described the Amerindian-style structure of the Conference venue which appealed greatly to her fine aesthetic sensibilities. He finally broached his intention of standing for election as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and hoped India would support him.
Mrs. Gandhi was taken aback. “You are doing such a fine job as Foreign Minister. Why do you want to move to the Commonwealth position? It will be a loss for all of us.” Sonny explained his reasons. The Commonwealth offered a unique North-South platform. If it could be helped to become more outward- looking, it could be harnessed to stimulate consensus on a number of divisive international issues, at the same time advancing the interests of developing countries on many fronts.
I could see that Mrs. Gandhi remained skeptical. Her own experience of the Commonwealth did not suggest to her that Sonny’s hopes were feasible. She nevertheless promised India’s support. “I hope you will shake up the Commonwealth”, she said smilingly.
Arnold Smith, the first Secretary-General, was a Canadian diplomat. He had been preoccupied with the task of establishing the Commonwealth Secretariat from scratch, negotiating its status and privileges, gradually expanding its activities in the face of considerable opposition, and building up the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation.
Sonny Ramphal brought a new set of talents to Marlborough House, which made working with him exciting. He was much more articulate and had a fine way with words. Not without reason, he was often described as ‘His Eloquence’ rather than ‘His Excellency’. His powers of persuasion were impressive, and he could stand his ground in any discussion. His mastery of the facts was always thorough. He had charm and humor, and could jolly things along when jolliness was needed. He was media savvy, even if on occasion a trifle wordy. He was a skilled negotiator, with a sharp legal mind. He also knew how to mobilise his assets in pursuit of an important objective. During the Retreat at the Nassau Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1985, the issue of sanctions against South Africa dominated the proceedings and threatened to split the Commonwealth. How was Mrs. Thatcher to be persuaded? Who would best be able to bell the cat? “We must enlist our three best-looking Prime Ministers to negotiate with Mrs. Thatcher”, Sonny told me. They were Rajiv Gandhi of India, Brian Mulroney of Canada and Bob Hawke of Australia – a happy combination of good looks and political weight which Mrs. Thatcher would find difficult to ignore. He was political to his fingertips, quick in his grasp of political nuances and motivations and how to play on them to best effect. He was extremely well-tuned into world affairs, with a wide range of contacts and friendships with prominent political personalities. All these were qualities which he deployed with great effect. Working with him became a learning experience for all of us. His informality and camaraderie endeared him to everyone in Marlborough House, and many beyond it. He was that rare public figure from the developing world, a man without pomposity, stuffiness, or sense of self-importance.
Admirable personal qualities cannot, in themselves, be enough. Sonny Ramphal came to his job with a clear vision of what he wished to do. The Commonwealth is a curious entity among international organisations, neither fish nor fowl. What kind of role could it usefully play? All international organisations depend heavily on the quality of their leadership, and Sonny proved to be an exceptional leader. It was obvious from the start that he relished the transition from Guyana to London, and the wider opportunities which the Commonwealth offered. As Sonny put it, although the Commonwealth could not negotiate for the world, it could help the world to negotiate. It could do so because its diverse membership straddled all the major negotiating groups and made it a unique sample of the world community. The Commonwealth could also be progenitor of ideas to promote international cooperation in new areas. His enthusiasm for the Commonwealth, and his belief in its capacity to influence events, were unflagging. Not all Commonwealth leaders were as starry-eyed: whether Indira Gandhi or Mahathir Mohammed, it was Sonny Ramphal who brought them around to an appreciation of the Commonwealth’s worth. He was quick to visit every newly-elected Commonwealth Prime Minister to canvas his vision of the Commonwealth, answer questions, allay doubts, and build a personal relationship with each of them. In the face of British coolness to the association and the UK medias generally dismissive attitude, these proved to be countervailing assets of great value. A relationship of trust was built up which made possible the major achievements of his term of office.
I accompanied Sonny on many of his trips and sat in on many of his meetings, observing the skill with which he cultivated the Commonwealth’s political leadership. With the exception of Mr. Muldoon of New Zealand, he was received everywhere with warmth. Commonwealth leaders accorded him respect. They found their conversations with him stimulating. He always had something of interest to tell them about the world at large. He was full of ideas, planting seeds in their minds about how the Commonwealth could be made more effective, how regional cooperation could be strengthened, and how a variety of issues might usefully be dealt with.
In this he was assisted by the quality of staff he was able to attract to the Commonwealth Secretariat. Not all were high flyers, but enough of them were. Sonny resisted the notion that member countries should have staff quotas. The broad principle of adequate geographical representation was tempered by an emphasis on merit. Although a relatively small organisation, the Secretariat was high not only in quality, but in motivation under Ramphal’s leadership. An effective Secretariat helped him to refine and develop his own ideas and to pursue them with vigour. There were Commonwealth Expert Groups on a range of issues, including a pioneering one on the issue of climate change. The Commonwealth was first in the field on this issue, thanks to Sonny.
Long before the concept became fashionable, Sonny made the Secretariat a “flat” organisation, with hierarchical barriers reduced to encourage a flow of ideas as well as to foster team spirit. He never pretended to any superior wisdom, kept an open mind and welcomed argument and counter-argument. He was generous in his praise for tasks well done, giving credit where credit was due. He was less good at pulling up those who didn’t perform. At a personal level, he shied away from confrontation and was often unwilling, within the Secretariat, to bringing erring colleagues or staff into line. I’m still not sure whether this was out of innocence, weakness or misplaced tolerance. Paradoxically, he was not averse to confrontation on big matters, or taking the risks that such confrontation might entail. His disagreements with Margaret Thatcher and Lord Carrington are well publicised, but there were others as well with different political personalities on a variety of issues.
What mattered most was that he was always there to give us counsel and advice when we were out on difficult field missions as, for instance, during the Commonwealth Observer Group’s work in Rhodesia and later, during the mission of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons’ Group to South Arica.
One quality which we all admired and which stood the Commonwealth in good stead was his ability as a draftsman. His political skills and legal background made him a superb bridge-builder between different points of view. The Commonwealth drew heavily on this particular Ramphal skill. “You must always be ahead of the game,” he told me, “by having a draft ready in your pocket to table at the right moment.” It was this tactic which contributed greatly to the resolution of divisive issues at successive Heads of Government meetings. Ramphal’s penmanship underlay the Gleneagles statement on the sporting boycott of South Africa; it was also the basis of the Lusaka Accord on Rhodesia, where Ramphal cobbled together common elements from the positions of Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and Mrs. Thatcher around which agreement might be possible. When the draft Accord was prematurely leaked by the Australians to the media, Sonny’s intervention proved critical in ensuring that the Accord itself was not scuttled. Again at the Nassau CHOGM in 1985, I remember sitting with Sonny for hours and giving him such help as I could as he worked laboriously on drafting the Commonwealth Accord on Southern Africa. He confided to me that if Britain dissociated itself from it he would resign, as this would represent both a personal failure and a severe weakening of the Commonwealths efforts to achieve a non-racial South Africa. Although Britain remained in the Commonwealth tent at Nassau on the issue of South Africa, it opted out at Vancouver in 1987 and Kuala Lumpur in 1989. By then, it was clear that any patchwork formula to keep Britain in would be at the cost of damaging the Commonwealth’s credibility in the eyes of all the rest of its members, as well as internationally. In the event, the Commonwealth gained in confidence and cohesion, demonstrating a capacity to act without British participation.
Rhodesia’s transition to majority rule and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa were the two most testing issues of Ramphal’s tenure of office.
Ramphal’s skills in political management were much in evidence in the wake of the Lusaka Accord on Rhodesia. He was constantly on the phone to the Presidents of the Frontline States to ensure that the Patriotic Front – ZAPU and ZANU – did not boycott the Lancaster House Conference as they had threatened to do. Denied the status of an Observer at the conference, Sonny finessed his exclusion by convening regular meetings of the Commonwealth Committee on Southern Africa, both to be briefed on the progress of the conference and to find ways of overcoming difficulties and disagreements. He was also signalling that the Commonwealth was an important player itself and intended to remain so. Key Commonwealth leaders like Kenneth Kaunda, Michael Manley, Julius Nyerere and Malcolm Fraser came in at different stages and helped to forge the necessary compromises. Each kept in the closest touch with Sonny and consulted him in advance at every step. He was like a spider at the centre of a web. Equally important was his role in keeping Mugabe and Nkomo at the negotiating table, helping to allay their fears of British trickery and finding solutions to their objections. Although Lord Carrington was dismissive of Sonny’s role and regarded him as a meddling hocus- pocus, he was in fact pivotal to the success of the conference. He proved to be a tireless behind-the-scenes mediator, shuttling between all the principal players. Ariston Chambati, one of Nkomo’s aides, later said: “We nicknamed him ‘the Mouse’, because he scurried back and forth. When we had a difficult situation, Nkomo would say, ‘Call the Mouse’. He was negotiating a settlement, very quietly passing on messages to both sides. His role was appreciated.” Without Sonny’s interposition, the deadlock over land compensation would not have been broken, there would have been no collective Commonwealth Observer Group or Commonwealth Monitoring Force or revised cease tire terms: without these components, the Patriotic Front would have returned to the bush to resume the war. The Commonwealth’s central role in ensuring Rhodesia’s peaceful transition to majority rule owed much to Sonny Ramphal’s energy and ideas, and the trust which all the players except Carrington reposed in him.
The Commonwealth Observer Group in Rhodesia’s independence elections, charged with the responsibility of ascertaining impartially whether the elections were free and fair, was by far the largest and most ambitious Commonwealth operation ever attempted in the field. It also proved to be a landmark in election observation, setting a new benchmark in comprehensiveness and in proactively ensuring a level playing field for all the parties. The British opposed the very idea of a Commonwealth Group, worried that it might complicate their own supervision of the elections and restrict their freedom of manoeuvre. They wanted separate national teams from selected Commonwealth countries, each comprising only a few individuals. A fierce argument arose. Sonny argued strongly that the Lusaka Accord itself envisaged a collective role for a Commonwealth Group; indeed, the fraught situation within Rhodesia demanded no less. With overwhelming support from the rest of the Commonwealth, he was able to carry the day.
In his briefing to the group before it left for Salisbury, Sonny emphasised that although it would have no executive role, the Commonwealth would expect it to use its good offices in the cause or free and fair elections. The Observer Group did so with great effect, giving counsel on many matters to the Governor Lord Soames (who at one stage seemed inclined to ban Mugabe’s ZANU (PF) from contesting the election), maintaining close contact with Sir Jonn Boynton, the British Election Commissioner, listening to complaints from political parties and generally instilling confidence among a wide section of the populace by travelling widely in the country and observing for itself the situation on the ground. The whole exercise was of course fraught with risk, including the possibility of malpractice and even repudiation of the outcome by the Rhodesian security forces. By its presence, scale and style of operation, the Group exercised a reassuring and stabilising influence, building confidence in the country that the electoral process would be fair and the poll secret. I still remember our astonishment when Mugabe, on the very eve of the poll, revealed his ignorance of election procedures. He complained that there were going to be nine ballot boxes at the polling stations, one for each party: how each individual was voting would therefore get known. We assured him that there would be only one ballot box, ensuring secrecy of the ballot.
The group had to rely heavily on Ramphal’s intervention to fulfill its mandate in the spirit intended at Lusaka. Having been forced to accept a Commonwealth Group, the British then tried to delay its arrival to prevent it from covering too much ground or acquiring too high a profile. The Governor also wanted to deny the group the additional staff it wished to have on the ground in order to cover actual polling in a comprehensive manner. On this, he was unyielding. The Chairman of the Observer Group there upon told him that the group would not be in a position to arrive at definitive conclusions on the conduct of the elections “if substantial additional staff were not allowed. The Governor still did not budge. The British Foreign Office only relented after Sonny elaborated on the damaging consequences if the group said its work had been impeded, and it was unable to give a clear verdict. ‘The Mouse’ again carried the day.
If Rhodesia demonstrated Sonny’s skills in creative political footwork, South Africa stretched him even further. The apartheid regime was more firmly entrenched, the commercial interests of the UK and other developed countries much bigger. Punitive measures such as sanctions would hurt these interests and stimulate strong resistance. Most of the UK media were not on the Commonwealth’s side, yet Sonny never lost heart or abandoned faith despite vitriolic criticism.
I have often wondered what drove Sonny Ramphal to champion the values and causes which were to dominate his tenure of office.
Racism is, of course, the negation of the Commonwealth’s most fundamental value, just as racial equality is its very essence. Any equivocation on this principle would destroy the Commonwealth and Ramphal, like Arnold Smith, was always in the forefront to uphold it. However, it was not just an intellectual belief, but a deeply felt emotional one. It had something to do with his own background, the memory of his widowed great-grandmother’s migration to Guyana as an indentured labourer to escape the discrimination and harshness with which Indian rural society treated widows, and the consciousness of what this new form of slavery must have entailed for her. There was, therefore, a very special passion whenever Sonny Ramphal spoke about issues of race, of apartheid, of subjugation and of exploitation. On this core value, Ramphal was not only immoveable but, when necessary, belligerent. Yet, while holding firm on principle, Ramphal was anxious to avoid splitting the Commonwealth. There were many who felt that Mrs. Thatcher’s attitudes on South Africa were tinged with racism, reinforced by Denis Thatcher’s own predilections. But in taking on Mrs. Thatcher, Ramphal did careful political homework in advance, in order to forge a seamless partnership between all the remaining Commonwealth countries, developed and developing. Ramphal’s voice by itself would have been of little avail, but with the backing of all its members bar one, it could not be brushed aside. In a television interview given some months before he died, Denis Thatcher complained of that damned nuisance of a man called Ramphal, who was forever agitating the anti-apartheid cause. When asked for his reaction, Sonny said it was a compliment, proof that his own efforts had been effective.
The turning point was the idea of sending a Commonwealth Eminent Persons’ Group to South Africa to mediate and kickstart a negotiated settlement between the apartheid regime and representatives of the black majority. It was floated by Prime Minister Hawke to Sonny during his pre-CHOGM visit to Australia. It bristled with difficulties and Sonny was quick to draw Bob Hawke’s attention to them. Would such a group be viewed by African Commonwealth leaders and, more importantly, by blacks within South Africa as one more delaying tactic to blunt the international campaign against apartheid? Could the apartheid regime be trusted? How would the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front view it, and would they cooperate with he group? Would the apartheid regime itself countenance an external interference in its affairs? After anxious discussion, it was left to Mr. Hawke to float the idea at Nassau and for Sonny to prepare the ground. If Britain agreed to take part in the mission, it would be much more difficult for the South African Government to reject it. More problematic was the issue of securing African endorsement and cooperation. Sonny was ever mindful of the paramount need to keep Britain in play and to avoid any split between Britain and the rest. Despite strenuous African misgivings, he was able to bring them round to the view that a full-blown regime of sanctions could be postponed in order to keep Britain on board, at the same time trying to open the way for a negotiated settlement by talking to the apartheid regime. If the Eminent Persons Group failed, Britain would find it much harder to resist the call for punitive measures.
I was asked to lead the Secretariat team and entrusted with the task, along with my colleague Hugh Craft, to go and talk to the black South African leadership. Both of us went with a feeling of trepidation. Through friendly interlocutors, we were able to meet many of the prominent black figures, including Winnie Mandela, Trevor Manuel, Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak and Azhar Cachalia among others. We encountered considerable cynicism about the initiative. All urged a tightening of sanctions. They rejected the argument that sanctions would hurt the blacks most. “We are hurting so much already that we will gladly accept more hurt if our pain can be brought to an end sooner” was the common refrain. We explained why they should cooperate with the group. If it succeeded, it would open the door to negotiations and the release of political prisoners. If it failed, the international campaign for sanctions would receive a boost. Given the tight six month time frame which was envisaged, this could not be a tactic of delay. I was delighted to report back to Sonny that black opposition had given way to skeptical cooperation.
Although the group’s mission failed, it elaborated the formula and set in motion the chain of events that led to the release of Nelson Mandela and his colleagues and the negotiated settlement which followed. In recognition of the freedom movement’s debt to the Commonwealth and to Sonny Ramphal personally, Nelson Mandela’s first engagement in London following his release was an emotional reception hosted by Sonny in his Mayfair home. Winnie had become my friend after our repeated meetings in South Africa. Nelson I had met only once in Pollsmoor prison. As Winnie and I hugged each other, Nelson tapped me gently on the shoulder. “Do you remember me?” he asked.
The political issues which dominated his tenure of office are relatively well-known. Less well-known are Ramphal’s efforts to extend the scope of Commonwealth functional cooperation as well as the capacity of the Secretariat to meet the needs of its developing member countries. Sonny was clear that the Commonwealth would have to pursue two parallel but linked agendas: on the one hand, the high politics of Southern Africa and the struggle against racism; on the other, a solid and growing contribution to the development efforts of its members.
On the development front some battles were won, others lost. The issue of Commonwealth student mobility became a flashpoint after Mrs. Thatcher’s decision to introduce full cost fees for all non-EU overseas students. This threatened to cut a vital link in Commonwealth relationships, fostered by the age old tradition of students coming to the UK for their higher studies. The three golden threads of the Commonwealth connection, Sonny argued, were the English language, the common law and Commonwealth student mobility. The imposition of full cost fees on Commonwealth students would cause lasting damage. His appeals fell on deaf ears. Despite strenuous efforts at successive Commonwealth Education Ministers meetings, aided by the work of the Commonwealth Standing Committee on Student Mobility, Britain did not budge. I remember suggesting informally to Peter Brooke, the then Secretary of State for Education, that Britain should consider earmarking a portion of its overseas aid budget to cover the additional costs which full cost fees would entail for Commonwealth students, thereby assuaging Commonwealth anger as well as preserving Britain’s position as the destination of choice for Commonwealth students. This too did no find favour. The consequence was a sharp decline in student flows to the UK, especially from the poorer developing ones. In the case of India, for example, a decisive and accelerating shift began to the United States, a phenomenon which the UK has been trying to counter in recent years through an enlarged scholarships programme. Although Indian student flows to the UK have increased, the tide continues to run strongly in the direction of the United States, and more recently to Australia.
There was only one positive outcome from this unhappy development. The idea of establishing a full-fledged independent degree-awarding Commonwealth Open University was canvassed. It appealed to Sonny, who put his weight behind it. Alas, it was felt to be too ambitious an idea. As a compromise, the Commonwealth of Learning was established, with its headquarters in Vancouver, to promote Commonwealth Cooperation in distance learning. This new multilateral institution is perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Ramphal years to Commonwealth functional cooperation.
The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Cooperation, established during Arnold Smith’s tenure, also grew, but not substantially. It nevertheless gave some modest additional credibility to the Commonwealth as a development organisation. Within the Secretariat itselt, Sonny successfully pushed for new programmes to be instituted in the fields of industrial development, food production and management development, together with a more high profile women’s development programme backed by regular meetings of Commonwealth Ministers for Women’s Affairs.
Towards the end of Ramphal’s tenure, it was apparent that the major financial contributors wished the Secretariat to be cut to size to give priority to other issues, such as human rights, democracy promotion, and better governance. Sonny’s departure made it easier for them to weaken the Secretariat’s developmental role, ignoring the link between the promotion of democracy and development. They were uncomfortable with the profile it had acquired under his leadership and the demand for more resources to aid its development efforts.
Although he was intensely serious in relation to his work, no account of life in Marlborough House with Sonny would be complete without some reference to the other side ot his personality. He radiated an infectious joie de vivre, a sense of fun, a love of food and the other good things to life. His appetite for shopping was insatiable. India was his favourite shopping haunt and he would take out as much time as he could during visits to Delhi to trawl the shops and unearth hidden treasures. Jackie Kennedy is said never to have bought anything as a single item even when buying for herself. Sonny was a bit like her in this respect. Almost everything would be purchased in multiple numbers – not, as in Jackie’s case, for himself alone, but for his extended family and friends. His annual Christmas party for the staff was always a hoot, with Sonny on the dance floor till the very end. Smaller parties at his house were filled with bonhomie and laughter. Even the annual Commonwealth Day Reception at Marlborough House, to which the Queen and Prince Philip came, had a quality of liveliness far removed from the normal diplomatic receptions to which London is accustomed, or the formality which the presence of royalty seems to demand. Often there would be a steel band. Always there would be a potent rum punch, served out of an enormous silver punch bowl specially manufactured in India for the occasion. His butler Indal would not consider his duty to be done if at least some of Sonny’s guests did not find it difficult to leave without physical help.
Accompanying Sonny on his visits to Commonwealth countries was a wonderful mix of work and fun. On his first official visit to Sri Lanka, he expressed a wish to go duck shooting. We were ferried by helicopter to some spot a short distance from Colombo and, with army help, driven to the shooting venue. There was much excitement as successive waves of ducks rose in the air. Sonny ran all over the place, gun blazing, but the ducks all got away. We were consoled at a Sri Lankan army camp with the most delicious crab curry I have ever eaten.
In New Zealand, an opportunity arose to go trout fishing in a lake. Apart from Sonny and myself, there was my colleague Henry Lynch Shyllon from Sierra Leone. He had clearly never been fishing before because he came dressed in a three-piece suit. Arriving at the lake, he said that he did not know how to swim and would therefore not take the risk of going out to fish in a boat: he would prefer to stay on the shore, rod in hand. Sonny’s enthusiasm had brought him this far, but could take him no farther.
In Barbados, during a meeting of Commonwealth Finance Ministers, some staff members wished to go for a midnight swim in the sea. Would Sonny come too? Of course he did, but stayed in shallow water We discovered he was not a swimmer, but he was always a good sport.
Towards the end of his tenure of office, I accompanied Sonny on my first visit to Guyana. He showed me around Georgetown with mixed feelings: pride at its splendid wooden architecture, regret at the run- down condition of the city, embarrassment at the yellow coloured tap water and the extreme shortage of toilet paper.
It was Diwali. It was a joy to see it celebrated as it must have been in India a century ago. Everywhere, Indian homes were lit only with little ‘diyas’, the traditional earthen oil wick lamps, without any of the garish electric lighting that you now often see in India. Nor were there any firecracker explosions which have made Diwali a festival of noise as much as of light in its home country. In Georgetown there was only illumination, and silence.
Sonny insisted that we go into the interior to do some fishing. The river teemed with piranha and I wondered how quickly they would devour me if I fell into the water. It turned out to be the easiest fishing of my life. Piranha after piranha was landed, with each piranha adding to the smile on Sonny’s face. If only it could have been as easy to land some of the political piranhas he had to deal with!
Most memorable of all was a visit to Delhi during the festival of Holi, which is celebrated in North India with riotous abandon. Everyone is free to throw colour at everyone else or spray them with coloured water. We arrived at the Holi celebration hosted by the proprietors of the Times of India. Huge vats lined the garden, each filled with water of a different colour. Some of the guests were being hoisted and dunked right into the vats, emerging out of them looking like bedraggled nothings-on-earth. Sonny looked worried. He was relieved when a young woman came up to him and proceeded to smear his face with what he thought was colour but was in fact oily, sticky, jet-black paint. When she finished, Sonny looked as if he was about to step on to the stage to play the darkest-ever Othello. Many more layers of vivid reds, blues and purplessoon adornedall of us. Returning to our hotel, Sonny got the shock of his life when he saw himself in the lift’s mirror. The rest of us could not stop laughing. “But I have to see Rajiv (Gandhi) later this afternoon”, he said plaintively. “How on earth will I get all this off?” His scrub down was only partially successful. Rajiv, too, had a good laugh when he saw him.
At a personal level, Sonny’s biggest disappointment was the failure of his candidacy in 1981 for the post of UN Secretary-General. Brian Urguhart had warned him that this was not a competitive exam, designed to choose the best man. He took his defeat gracefully, and returned from New York to plunge with renewed vigour into his Commonwealth endeavours. The UN’s loss was the Commonwealth’s gain.
At the end of his 15 vears as Secretary-General, rich tributes were pad to Sonny by the Commonwealth’s political leaders. Sir Lynden Pindling. Prime Minister of the Bahamas, said Sonny had swept the Commonwealth off its feet, as a young suitor would a damsel. He had taken her to the dance floor, and taught her how to dance. They were made for each other.
The Commonwealth waits expectantly for another suitor like Sonny Ramphal.