The book ‘From ESTATE to EMBASSY’ was released on the 5th April, 2019 by Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. Co-Author of the book, Dr Anitha Devi Pillai shares her experiences writing the book.
The Author’s Note: The Scribe’s Journey
By Dr Anitha Devi Pillai
Have you heard the story of how the great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, was written? It is believed that when the sage Vyasa wanted to write the epic, he asked Lord Ganesha to be his scribe. As he started to narrate, Ganesha’s feather pen broke unfortunately. In not wanting to interrupt the narration, Ganesha broke off half of his tusk and continued with the transcription.
My journey as a “scribe” of this biography was far less dramatic but the story of Ganesha as a scribe resonates with me in many ways. Like Ganesha, I, too, sat for long hours listening to my “Vyasa”, Ambassador Kesavapany (or “Uncle Pany”, as I fondly call him), and transcribing images, dialogues and poetry into written form. Like the Mahabharata, there were many stories within the story of Kesavapany’s journey as an ambassador.
It all began in 2017 when a conversation with Uncle Pany drifted into biographies and, specifically, the not uncontested value of sharing his colourful life as a diplomat. I managed to assure him there would be a ready audience out there to appreciate his entertaining adventures in diplomacy and even benefit from his experiences. When we started work in earnest a few months later, we envisioned we would be done in a span of six months. As he recounted his experiences at various
stages of his life, I audio-recorded our conversations and took copious notes. Later, these notes and the transcript of the conversations grew into neat chapters. While I worked on my manuscript, he too worked on his. We then spent the next few months merging his version with mine and filling in the gaps. Thankfully, unlike Ganesha, I did not have to struggle to keep up with the narration. My “Vyasa” was only too happy to oblige when I had questions about the sub-plots that he very
patiently narrated, pausing to help me with the spelling of a name or filling in a needed detail of an event or the words of a poem that came out in spontaneous bursts. On the last leg of the journey, we checked the manuscript line by line, with both of us taking turns to read the text aloud to the other. Well, that was the plan at least, but, quite often, even during this last leg, he was adding more and more details.
Uncle Pany’s memory is a reservoir of intimate details of events, people and conversations. His memory amazed me the most. Often, I found myself looking up the year of an event or the spelling of a prominent member of the community, only to find out that Uncle Pany had got it right. The icing on the cake was hearing him recite poetry, word for word without missing a beat. Some of the poems that are encapsulated in his memories are captured in this book verbatim.
I found myself lost in the English countryside and ballroom dancing, in a time before Malaysia got her independence when he was still a starry-eyed young man, and in the intricacies of foreign diplomacy in different lands.
My journey documenting his life was greatly supported by his wife, Mrs Padmini Kesavapany, who was always within earshot to give us a helping hand. Often, her words would find their way into the book as well. This book would certainly not have been possible without her support. Aunty Padmini, their sons, Murali and Sashi, as well as their grandchildren, Kishan and Jaynna, helped us to select the photographs in this book. The photographs brought more memories flooding back to the family and their anecdotes were later included, which enriched the biography. These anecdotes provide an additional lens on Uncle Pany’s life.
I am deeply grateful to Uncle Pany and his family for letting me view their lives with a pair of writer’s binoculars. At the end of the day, this is the story of a man who was once told that the birthmark in the shape of a “chakra wheel” on his foot would take him across the oceans many times. It is the story of a man who was inspired by Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s speech that he had heard as a young man, motivating him to move to Singapore later and devote his life to the civil service.
It is also an ongoing story of a man who never retired, which I know only too well, as I had to struggle to find space in his packed schedule of meetings, charity work and community work to write this story. Something tells me that there is a second volume to this book in the near future. After all, right up to the day we had to hand over the manuscript, he had more to add.
The journey continues.
(Extract reproduced from K. Kesavapany & Anitha Devi Pillai (2019). ‘From Estate to Embassy: Memories of an Ambassador’, pg. 182-184 Marshall Cavendish: Singapore.)