07/08/2013 04:23 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

A Tryst With Nelson Mandela

As the world watches and prays for Nelson Mandela, I am led to nostalgic reflections of my experiences meeting this great man.

The story begins with my official tour of duty in southern Africa in the late '80s, and then to South Africa in the '90s.

In most of the free world's professionally-managed diplomatic services, the road to the high seat, known as "Ambassador" or "High Commissioner" (the latter used by nations of the British Commonwealth) comes at the end of a long haul in different capacities and several stations around the world. Invariably, the first such assignment comes in an "uncomplicated" station -- more likely to be one of the Scandanavian capitals rather than Tehran, Cairo or Moscow.

The foreign service to which I belonged was no exception. After travelling down the road for some 19 years, my superiors at the foreign office felt that it was time to dispatch me as 'HOM' (the internal acronym for Head of Mission, known to the outside world by the more exotic title of 'Ambassador'). The station was a new mission to be opened at the doorstep of a nation that had become a target of adverse international attention due to its overtly racial policies. The success of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. under the stewardship of the late Martin Luther King Jr. had only served to bring it into even sharper focus in the international arena.

"These are exciting times for a diplomat in that part of the world," I was told, in what was the standard terminology used for dispatching any foreign service officer to a knowingly unexciting part of the world. The only interesting part, added almost innocuously in my brief, was to 'keep a watchful eye on events next door.'

Three weeks later, I landed in Gaborone, a capital whose name I had never heard before, after a terse two-line announcement in the local press about opening a new High Commission in Botswana and I had been appointed as the High Commissioner. Little did I know that in the years ahead that I was to become witness to perhaps the most exciting event in postwar African history and enjoy a unique privilege: to get to know closely a future world icon in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

My first of several meetings with Nelson Mandela took place in Gaborone in April 1990 when I extended a formal invitation to him to visit my country -- which had bestowed on him the nation's highest civilian honor while he was in prison, for his unremitting struggle against apartheid and for the freedom and dignity of his people. He was deeply grateful for the invitation, and thanked me profusely for the immense help that my country had given to the ANC (African National Congress) when it was under severe restrictions by the white minority government that ruled South Africa. The prescheduled 15-minute meeting went on for nearly an hour as he recounted the inspiration that he drew from Mahatma Gandhi in his moments of despair during 27 years in prison, and the selfless help that India had extended to the ANC. He ended the meeting with a sentence that he was to repeat on at least two subsequent occasions, namely, "Remember, India sent Mohandas Gandhi to South Africa, but it was South Africa that returned Mahatma (Great Soul) Gandhi back to India." He apologized for his inability to visit India soon, because as he put it, "There is still a lot of work to do for getting South Africa firmly on the path of a true (meaning 'non-racial') democracy." With the benefit of hindsight, we know that it still took another four years of painstaking negotiations with the white minority rulers before political power was truly transferred to the country's majority through free and fair democratic elections.

I left Gaborone in fall 1990 for a highly productive sabbatical year at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs to study and research the "Political Dynamics of Internal Reform in South Africa" before returning to South Africa in time for the country's first-ever non-racial elections in May 1994 that returned the ANC to power and to Mandela's first presidency. During 1993-94, I had the privilege of several one-on-one meetings with him to discuss matters of mutual interest in the growing relationship between India and South Africa. I left Johannesburg in mid-1995 after completing my term as India's first Consul General in that city. After three years as Consul General in New York (1995-98), I again returned to South Africa, during Mandela's second term as president, and had the privilege to present my credentials -- this time as India's High Commissioner to South Africa. Gracious to a fault, he departed from his prepared text to say: "We are among dear friends, and I am happy to welcome you back to South Africa once again."

What struck me most deeply in my meetings with him was the almost unbelievable extent of his forgiveness for his captors who had kept him wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years. "How do you do it, Madiba*?" I dared ask him in one of our meetings. His reply was quick: "There is a higher cause here than my imprisonment," he said, adding, "It is the cause of unity of the people of South Africa after a long, very long, ordeal."

He knew that the unity he was talking of -- between the minority white rulers and the majority black people -- would be impossible to achieve without the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation of which he was the one and indeed only symbol, as well as its fountainhead. Without it, South Africa would have been plunged into an unprecedented bloodbath, perhaps even a long civil war. He was determined to prevent that from happening and, as we all know with the benefit of hindsight, succeeded.

When I took leave of him in December 2000, I invited him on behalf of then-university president Shirley Strum Kenny to Stony Brook University, where I was to join in January 2001 as Visiting Professor. He graciously accepted the invitation, and was to come to Stony Brook on Sept. 15, 2001, only to be overtaken by the tragic events of 9/11, which resulted in the cancellation of his visit.

*An African term of endearment and reverence -- reserved for elders and the wise.