The week before Diwali was an exceptionally busy week at work. I was on regular duty at the consulate but all the work had to be crammed into fewer hours because we celebrated the Festival of Lights throughout the week with shared breakfasts and lunches, a rangoli competition and a full-on party with dancing.
Diwali in India feels a bit like Christmas at home. It’s a major holiday and everyone seems a bit more sociable than usual. Wanting to share in the fun I joined in wearing the traditional dress to work.
There are multiple Indian clothing options for men and women and it was fun to see how my American colleagues embraced various colorful outfits. On a regular day many already wear “Nehru vests” over their work shirts but Diwali required something more festive: a nice kurta (long shirt) or, for the more flamboyant, a wedding coat with wide shoulders and sparkles all over.
For women there are kurtas, sarees, and glamorous lenghas (a crop top with a big skirt). The saree is most common and comes in endless, stunning varieties. But they're tricky to wear. It’s basically a long stretch of fabric and it has to be wrapped and draped a certain way. Even when done correctly it’s challenging to move in. It restricts your walking and the part that goes over your shoulder as a scarf slides off constantly unless you pin it. Also, and this feels very 19th century to me, you have to wear a petticoat under the skirt to get the desired shape.
I wore a saree that's “ready made” (no wrapping required) and needed minimal draping. Still I needed the help of an Indian colleague to cover up my midrif with the semi-sheer attached scarf. I also had to retire my desk chair for the day because with each movement the fabric of the skirt got caught between the wheels.
So I had a lot of fun this week, but also a bit of stress due to my extracurricular activities. I've started to feel settled at work and figured I might as well sign up for helping out with high-level visits from Washington and represent the consulate at events when needed.
The CEO of the U.S. Development Finance Corporation (DFC) came to Mumbai to sign two multi-million dollar contracts with Indian companies and my DFC colleague at the consulate needed someone to manage the busy schedule. As a result I spent an entire day (14 hours) at the Taj Hotel helping out with logistics for meetings, a press event and a reception.
High-level visits from the Department of State, Congress, or other parts of the government tend to cause a tremendous amount of stress for diplomats in the field. We’re responsible for everything from booking hotels and restaurants, to organizing transportation, identifying venues, rallying the press, and most importantly: arranging access to key contacts and anyone else they want to meet. Hundreds of hours of planning can go into organizing a single day.
In my experience government VIPs are all workaholics. They have no problem with (read: they demand) back-to-back meetings from morning to night, even though they’re jet lagged and barely slept. In some ways it makes sense though. They’re not coming all the way from DC to sit at the hotel pool—it’s their chance to meet implementing partners and beneficiaries they otherwise only know virtually. Also, they don't have much time because they run busy offices back home and the whole time they’re away work is piling up. Plus they seem to feel a strong sense of responsibility over spending taxpayer money on an overseas trip. Like they can only justify it if they get everything out of it they possibly can. In other words, there's a lot of pressure on something that feels like it shouldn't be that complicated. I enjoy high-pressure environments sometimes, but I'm glad this isn't a routine part of my job.
Anyway, that was Tuesday. On Wednesday, I agreed to go to a book presentation after work because it was important that someone from the consulate was present. The invitation had been passed down multiple levels—from the Consul General (who was out of town for work) to the mid-level officers (who were also mostly traveling) to the junior officers.
It was a book about the US-India strategic relationship over the past 15 years. I figured it would look bad if nobody from the US showed up, especially since the author was a former consulate employee and had been very persistent about getting an RSVP. However: representational events are always a bit of a risk.
In the best case scenario the event starts on time. It begins with speeches and presentations and then there’s time to chat with other guests and have some refreshments. I think it’s fun to meet new people and check out a beautiful venue. I always learn things and gain new perspectives on international relations that inspire new ideas and friendships. Representatives from the consulate are treated with all the egards, so it’s also a chance to feel like a real diplomat rather than the bureaucratic grunt I feel like most days. Ideally, after an hour or two, guests are free to leave.
This event was not the best case scenario. I arrived early, but the book presentation started half an hour late. There were six panelists and I realized far too late that each of them was going to speak for at least 20 minutes. Along with other "guests of honor" I sat in the front row—stuck for two hours, without food or water, unable to walk away without drawing the attention of the 100 odd guests. But at some point I simply had to leave because of my kids. So, an hour after the event was supposed to end I made a quick exit. I felt embarrassed sneaking out (and rather undiplomatic) but also a bit annoyed, since the times on invitation had been misleading. When I turned to close the door behind me I noticed I wasn’t the only person who’d had enough—representatives from the Swiss and South African consulates had followed my lead.
On the way home I got stuck in traffic. Mumbai at rush hour (4-8 PM) is no joke. So I had a lot of time to ponder why I was doing this. I’ve been going to receptions for many years now and I always find them a bit silly in some respects. The boring protocol of recognizing and thanking guests, the flowery language used in speeches that are invariably too long for anyone’s comfort, the awkward introductions to people you’re probably never going to see again. And yet. I keep going because it’s what makes the difference between working overseas versus a gray office in Washington DC. I think getting out of my comfort zone, giving up some level of control over the situation and opening my mind to new experiences and ideas are necessary to better understand others and make connections. Who you know and what you know are important in so many ways and, at least to me, personally fulfilling because I learn so much and I meet so many great people.