HAILE SELLASSIE I
The teaching assignment was a bit on the tough side for me. I was asked to teach English and Mathematics. English and Algebra were not difficult. They were after all my own favorite subjects as a high school student. I had not, however, counted with having to teach Trigonometry, which I had never studied in school.
In the Trigonometry class, I told the students, several of whom were older than I (I was just past 26), that it was their bad luck that they had a teacher who had never studied the subject before. I promised to keep ahead of them by learning at home. But where I did not know the solution to some problem, I did not try to bluff my way through. I told them plainly that I did not know. And they liked that kind of honesty. They cooperated most heartily. Sometimes one of the brighter boys would show me how to solve it, always politely and deferentially. No loss of face for me.
Ambo was a Spa, a town of hot springs. The soil was volcanic and in the underground was always very hot mineral water. Even from the taps at home came only hot mineral water. Many people came to Ambo from all parts of the country for a bath in the healing waters. The water from Ambo was bottled and sold all over Ethiopia.
The Emperor Haile Sellassie had also a palace right next to our college, where he occasionally spent short holidays. His eldest granddaughter, Princess Aida, lived there with her husband, Prince Mangesha Seyoum, the Governor of the District of which Ambo was the headquarters. I got to know the prince and the princess, and they also seemed to like me. They occasionally invited me for a meal.
The atmosphere in the school was quite congenial; I got along with the students, who were all in their twenties. The teachers were also friendly and cooperative. All the students, who were boys, lived in hostels on campus. Sometimes I would take a whole class out on weekend expeditions to the neighboring mountains.
We had been told of a crater lake some 20 kilometers away, with an island in the middle, on which “savage” people lived, with their own language and customs. There was no road, but only a beaten track leading to the brink of the crater. Some of the boys were interested in a trip to this island, despite the dangers involved. We decided to go.
We, a group of about 15, started early in the morning. I was given a mule to ride, since the boys thought I could not walk that far. I did walk part of the way. There was another mule carrying blankets and food. We were going to stay overnight, possibly in the open air. The adventure was quite promising.
We had walked all day, and still there
was no sign of the crater. I began getting a little anxious, because there
was no time to go back and dusk was falling. I was wondering whether the
lake and the island existed, or whether we had lost our way.
We had gone down a third of the way, when we stopped and reflected. It was fairly dark, and we could not see whether there were any boats down below that would take us across to the island, if at all we managed our descent to the water level. And if the people were as savage as they were reputed to be, why take the risk of an encounter at nighttime? So we decided to strike camp, but there was no level ground anywhere. It was a steep 70o incline, and I had found it difficult even to walk down in the dark.
Each one covered himself in a blanket and slept on the slope, some using stones as pillows, with at least two trees next to each to stop us from rolling down. There was no moonlight. The skies were overcast, I remember. I think we slept well, despite our anxiety about the morrow; we were all quite tired and the night was cold.
As day was dawning, we could see that a boat from the island had landed on our side of the crater. A group of people with kerosene lamps in their hands were wending their way up. We walked down to meet them halfway. Their leader, a senior person, spoke good Amharic, and asked us: “What have you done to us? Why do you come at night and stay in this dangerous jungle, full of hyenas and other wild animals? If something had happened to you, would we not have been blamed for not looking after you?” It was all said with such friendliness and cordiality that I felt ashamed.
I apologized profusely on behalf of my party. But he continued in that same reproving but affectionate tone: “Did you think we were wild animals or demons? You could have come down and we would have found places for you to sleep in our humble homes. Come now, and have something to eat with us”.
We went down with them and ferried to the island, where a big party had gathered to welcome us. We were ushered in to a fairly commodious round thatched hut with mud floor, which must have been their community center. We were all given seats on the floor, and some Tella or fermented barley beer to drink. We told them where we were from, and they told us all about themselves. They did not eat any meat, though they had cattle. They lived on grains and fish, if I remember right. All of them looked rustically healthy, cheerful and bright. Their women and children were full of curiosity to see these strange visitors from the outside world.*
They were preparing a big feast for us. All of a sudden we were told that the governor of the district, Prince Mangesha Seyoum was going to join us soon. He had come by a different route and had arrived near the crater in a Jeep, doing the journey in less than three hours. This was the first visit of the Governor to this island, and the local people made a big event of it, with dancing and feasting, but without meat. The Prince told me that I could have come with him in his Jeep, if only he knew I wanted to come. Anyway we had a great and joyous feast, with barley pancakes and spicy side dishes, but no meat.
The important point is that these isolated island people, without any social contact with the Amhara people of the land, were far from savage or wild. They were dignified, refined and courteous as well as hospitable. I told my boys that they should not always believe stories they hear about other people. I began to shed some of my own inherited prejudices about the alleged “savagery” of “primitive” peoples. People may not know how to read or write, but still be civilized in the sense of being spontaneously and warmly human.
A New Turning Point
One fine day, we were told that the Emperor had arrived at the Ambo Palace for a few days’ holiday. He wanted to visit our College, and we decided to put up a special program for him. At very short notice, we produced a short Amharic play and rehearsed it. Under my guidance, the students also decided to enact in English, some scenes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, centering on the murder of Caesar and on Mark Antony’s great funeral oration. Since none of the students were advanced enough in their English to memorize those long speeches, I took on the role of Mark Antony myself. I must have loved that kind of Shakespearian rhetoric, for I can still remember some of the lines, 48 years after I hurriedly memorized them:
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me
The show went very well. Emperor Haile Sellassie appeared very pleased. I was, besides acting as Mark Antony, also directing both the Amharic and the English plays. At the end of the show, I made a little speech, in Amharic, thanking their majesties (the Empress was also there) for honoring us with their visit.
As soon as my speech was over, the Emperor beckoned me to his side and said, in English, “Where did you learn that Amharic?”
“Here, in this country, your Majesty,” I replied in fairly flawless Amharic.
“Here? How long have you been in this country?” this time in Amharic.
“One year and a few months, Your Majesty,” I replied, bowing politely.
“One year and a few months? Some of the
Armenians who have lived in Ethiopia for forty years do not speak as well
as you do.” The Emperor was laughing genially.
I readily agreed and got him a text. Only in later years I realized how the murder of a Caesar or Emperor was fascinating to him, since he was himself, like Julius Caesar, in constant danger of being killed by his internal enemies or by aspirants to his throne. Haile Sellassie’s spoken English was not quite up to the mark, but he followed the Mark Antony oration with avid interest. He had been trained by French and French Canadian Jesuits in his childhood, and spoke French more fluently than English. But he had learned to listen to and understand English during the time of his long exile in Britain. He had lived with his family, in Bath, England, for several years during Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia.
For me this encounter with one of my childhood heroes was a moving experience. I had seen so little of the world, and this recognition by the Emperor was a great thing for my natural vanity. I praised and thanked God for the radical change in my public image, from what it had come to be in Jimma. Strange indeed are the ways of God. But what soon followed was an even greater surprise.
Senior Amharic Teacher!
In the third week of December 1948 I received a strange order from the Ministry of Education. I was transferred from Ambo and posted to the Haile Sellassie I Secondary School in Addis Ababa, the then premier educational institution of the country. I was to be the Senior Amharic Teacher in the school, and this was in accordance with the wishes of His Imperial Majesty! I was flabbergasted. I could turn the offer down, but that would not be very wise. I decided to take the bull by both horns.
I could read and write, as well as speak Amharic, but I had no scientific knowledge of the language whatsoever.
All I had was the few lessons given to me in Nazareth by my fellow teacher Ato Telahun Damte. There were not many books available for me to read. I got hold of the only available Amharic Grammar book by CH Armbruster, and went through it once. It was a thick tome and I found the approach much too academic for young Ethiopian students. So I decided to write a new Amharic Grammar of my own, in a high school notebook. That took the whole of the Christmas holidays.
I went and joined the prestigious Haile Sellassie I Secondary School in Kotabe, on a beautiful hill, just outside of Addis Ababa. Most of the students were boarders, from the upper crust of society, the pick of Ethiopia’s total student population. Special quarters were provided for me in one of the hostels. The Director of the School, by that time, was none other than Dr. Robert N Thompson, the man who had recruited me in India less than two years ago, and later helped me with the appeal to the Emperor in the Jimma case.
University education had not begun at that time in Ethiopia. The two other secondary schools, General Wingate School under British management, and Tafari Makonnen School under French Jesuit management were also prestigious. But our school, under largely Canadian management, was Number One. The other two schools had also an Englishman and a Frenchman respectively as Amharic teachers, but they were, unlike me, real scholars who had spent years on the study of Amharic and other cognate languages, and were quite proficient in them; though their spoken accents were far from perfect. Only at that point of correct (not Indian) accent and fluency I did probably excel them both.
I was to teach in the 11th and 12th grades. I had an assistant, a venerable traditional Ethiopian scholar-priest, Kanhgeta Hailegiorgis, a well-known literary writer in Ethiopia. He was most Friendly and helpful, and did not show any signs of resentment about a young foreigner being placed above him. I did not have a tenth of his Knowledge and command of Amharic. When I had a doubt in Amharic, I consulted him. If he could not help I could always go to the Minister of Justice, Ato Marsae Hazan, who had by that time written a book on Amharic grammar. He became a good friend.
The same policy worked as in Ambo. The
very First day in calss, I told my students that it was their language
which they had learned from childhood, besides having ten or eleven years
of schooling in it. I was a faltering learner, and I was likely to learn
more from them than they from me. Again, they responded positively to
All the three secondary schools took their examinations from London University. I was very proud after my first year of teaching to notice that my students had not only outdone the other two schools, but actually surpassed our own previous record in the London University’s Amharic examinations. It was of course not due to the superior quality of my teaching, but because of their enthusiastic interest in working with me.
Besides, it was the Emperor’s favorite school. Almost every month he paid us a visit. The school was obviously the hope of the future for Ethiopia. Often he brought us a truckload of sweets and fruits for distribution among the students. Sometimes he would send for me from the Director’s office, simply because he wanted to hear me speak his language, as he once told his wife in my presence.
It was at this time that I started regular private study classes in the Bible. Many students came, voluntarily. I was only a layman. So I got one of the monk-priests in town to help me, and to lead liturgical worship services. His name was Abba Habtemariam, a very intelligent and devoted priest. Later, during my second sojourn in Ethiopia, I was able to present him to the Emperor and he became famous as the Rector of the Emperor’s Trinity Cathedral, then the largest church in Ethiopia.
Together with Ababa Habtemariam, we ran religious programs, without contradicting or opposing the traditional practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Jimma episode was by this time well behind us, and no one would stop me from taking these Bible study classes. It was during these private study classes that I realized how abysmal my ignorance of the Bible and other religious matters were. I decided to correspond with some Protestant Christian institutions in America about going to College there and pursuing theological studies either simultaneously, or after graduating from College.
It was always the more conservative Fundamentalist Bible schools that offered me scholarships in America, and I was not very happy. Then one day again the way of God opened up.
The Way to Goshen
One day I was on a train to Debre Zeit (Beshoftu), a resort town with a crater lake, only some 40 kilometers to the East of Addis Ababa. To me it was a weekend vacation, but God had something in store for me. Sitting in the same compartment with me were some of the American Mennonite missionaries whom I had known in Nazareth. They were glad to see their old friend “Mr. George”, and soon introduced me to their companion whom I did not know. This was Orie O Miller, the Secretary of the Mennonite Central Committee in America, and chief of Old Mennonite relief operations all over the world. He was visiting the mission centers in Ethiopia, and had been told about my Jimma and language exploits. He was very much interested in my plans for the future, and I told him that I was planning to go to America for further studies. I explained that without a B A degree, I find it difficult to find admission to any respectable theological college. I asked for his advice.
“A degree is essential if you want to do further theological study. My brother Ernest Miller, who was formerly a missionary in India, is now President of Goshen College. I am sure he can find a place for you, and Goshen is a good college, located in Indiana, not far from Chicago. Give me all the details, and let me work it out for you”.
So he worked it out. I sent in the required forms. I was admitted and offered a scholarship, which would cover all but my travel expenses. I had put by enough from my savings to pay for the ticket.
Leaving Ethiopia - A Difficult Task
My three-year contract with the Ethiopian government was nearing its term, with the end of the school year in June 1950. (The actual time spent in Ethiopia would be two years and seven months, having arrived in November 1947). Around March, I received a letter from the Ministry of Education, requesting me to renew my contract for another three years. I very courteously replied that, as I had told the Director General during the Jimma episode, I would not extend my stay a day beyond my first contract. I turned down the offer of renewal of contract. I said in my letter that I was planning to go abroad for further studies.
I remember one day particularly, just before the close of the school year, when examinations were over. We were having the National Annual Sports Day in our school grounds. All sports teams in the country were coming to our school: the army, the air force, the Imperial Bodyguard, the police, and other schools. The Imperial Majesties were the Chief Guests. All the senior Government officials and the Diplomatic Corps were present.
I was asked to be the announcer, explaining to the crowds by microphone and loudspeaker, the main events and results. I did it in both languages, English and Amharic. I think people were impressed, because in those days it was a rare bird indeed who could handle sports matters in English and Amharic with such fluency. Rarely did a good speaker of English have the right Amharic accent; important people were talking about the announcer, making up legends in the process. It was again a day of triumph for me. I was becoming a legend and a celebrity.
Major Encounters with the Emperor and Family
After the sports event was over, the Emperor and Empress decided to give their family a conducted tour of the school of which they were very proud. It was a large family indeed: Crown prince Asfau Wossen, the eldest son; Princess Tenagneworq, the only surviving daughter; Prince Makonnen, regarded by people as his favorite son; the wives of the two princes; half a dozen or more grandchildren; Prince Sahle Sellassie, the youngest son, a bachelor. The Emperor was walking in front. He called me to his side, and was talking to me in Amharic, still walking.
“We have heard that you are leaving our country”, said the Emperor to me. “Why?”
“Oh, I would like to study further, Your Majesty”.
“What are you going to study?” the Emperor asked me.
“I would like to study Theology, Your Majesty”.
“Where would you study theology?”
“In America, Your Majesty. I have a scholarship. Yes, Your Majesty. I have first to get a college degree”.
“You do not need to study any theology. You know enough now. You stay here and work with me. We need you in the Palace”.
“I have a scholarship and have already bought my ticket, Your Majesty”, I said, quite foolishly.
“That is not a big problem. You stay here. We want you on our personal staff.”
I was hesitating about what to say, but sensing that I was about to refuse, he soon added: “Don’t say anything now. We will talk to the Crown Prince, and you can discuss the matter with him”.
The Crown Prince was walking just behind, listening to the conversation. The Emperor called his son and said something to him. I withdrew, and did not listen.
The Crown Prince then came and said to me, “I want to talk to you. Can you come for breakfast at my palace tomorrow morning at eight?”
Next morning, I went to the Crown
Prince’s Palace, which was just outside the Emperor’s heavily guarded
Palace, near the six-road junction called Siddist Kilo. The reception was
most cordial and the breakfast sumptuous. The Prince told me that his
father had asked him to persuade me to stay. I could ask for whatever
salary I wanted. I would not be a teacher, but work on the Emperor’s
staff. The Emperor had taken a liking to me, he told me. The Emperor
needed trustworthy people around him. He advised me to accept the offer
without asking any further questions.
The Pressure Continues
That, however, was by no means the end of the pressure. I was called up first by Abuna Theophilos, the powerful Archbishop of Harrar, who resided in Addis Ababa. He was known to be very close to the Emperor. I had known him well, since he was also a great scholar of the Ethiopian tradition, previously famous as Liqe Liqawent Mahari. He was also the Chief of the Emperor’s Holy Trinity Cathedral.
He called me to his residence, and used another tactic, that of scolding. “You are an Indian”, he said to me, mockingly, but affectionately and without any taint of racism”, and Indians have a reputation for being ungrateful”. He was trying to provoke me. He knew all about the Jimma episode as well as the rest of my Ethiopian career. He was in fact very fond of me, and I often visited him. So I narrated to him again some of what had happened to me in Jimma and the postlude, and asked him: “Who was ungrateful, Indians or Ethiopians?” “You are a cad”, he said, “to be bringing up all that story. That was part of your getting to know us, and now you have become one of us.”
Abuna Theophilos, still using the mocking and scolding technique, went on to tell me a parable. This was the story of a hen which had laid some eggs, and was hatching them. By some accident, a duck’s egg had come into the batch she hatched. Only when the chicks came out, the mother hen noticed that one was a duckling. She brought it up with her chicks, but when the duckling grew wings, it left the brood of chicken and flew away. The moral of the story was that I was the ungrateful duckling which had been hatched by the Ethiopian mother hen, and was now flying away.
The Archbishop told me I was a fool and did not know how to make the right decisions. I politely countered that I was indeed a fool, and that was why I could not change my decision to leave Ethiopia for the time being. For me, this was a period when I prayed intensely and for long hours, and my conviction about the call from God was unshakable.
Even that was by no means the end. So many people, Ethiopians as well as Indians and Canadians, whether prompted by the Emperor or not, tried to dissuade me from the decision I had made. One of the last attempts had a touch of humor to it. I have already referred to Blatta Marsae Hazan, the Minister of Justice, the great expert on Amharic, who was also very fond of me. He invited me to his home one day. After the initial courtesies and embraces, we sat down on a couch, and he told me quite directly that the Emperor had asked him to talk to me. With paternal affection he told me that my decision to leave Ethiopia was immature and mistaken, He had two proposals to make. The first was official. As Minister of Justice, he was to confer upon me Ethiopian citizenship. The second was personal. I should marry an Ethiopian girl and settle down in Ethiopia for life. He then told me he had a grown up daughter, who was a secondary school student. She was not at home, but was in boarding school. He produced her photograph and showed it to me. “She is intelligent and good-looking, of fine character”, he told me. He then went on to produce some of her notebooks from school and showed them to me.
Needless to say, I was embarrassed, even a bit confused. It was not polite to say a downright no to both proposals. I barely wiggled out of the situation by saying something about my not wishing to marry until I had finished my education and so on. He still insisted on my accepting Ethiopian citizenship. I said could not consider it now, since I was leaving the country in a few days. That was the end of what was for me a very difficult conversation.
And I left Ethiopia in June 1950.
The Emperor Persists
I was a college student at Goshen Indiana, from 1950-52, working for a B A degree. In November 1950, I received a telegram. It was from His Royal Highness Prince Makonnen Haile Sellassie, the second son of the emperor. He was visiting America, and would be in Chicago for a few days. He would like to see me at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago, where he was staying.
I went, Chicago was some 120 miles from Goshen. He had booked a room for me at the Hotel, which by my standards, was luxurious. The Prince was glad to see me. He said that his father had entrusted him with two important jobs. One was to find an oil-prospecting firm in America which would help with the exploration for oil in Ethiopia. The other was to take me back with him to Ethiopia.
He was a few years older than I, but we were on easy terms with each other. I explained to him that I had begun my studies only a few months before, and I had to finish my degree before doing anything else. He asked me how long it would take for me to finish my course. I told him that I was working overtime to complete in two years the 120 credit hours needed for a degree, which would normally take four years. He suggested that I make plans to go to Ethiopia at the end of that two-year program. I could give no such commitment.
“Anyway, I am glad you have come. I want you to help me with some shopping in Chicago. I went to some good stores, but my God, how racist these people are! They are positively rude, just because of my skin color. We won’t speak in English, and even pretend not to understand English at all. I will speak Amharic, and you translate for me. I hear they are more courteous to foreigners, even if the skin is black. Besides, you can make them understand that I am a prince and all that. It will be fun to see what happens”.
So we went shopping. He would ask for the price or quality of some goods in Amharic. I would translate into English: “His Royal Highness would like to know the price of this crystal vase, and whether it is genuine lead crystal”. The change in behaviour pattern of the sales staff was obvious. We had great fun together in many Chicago stores. And I got a good lesson in American race relations in 1950. My friendship for the prince also became more intimate. We had many conversations on American racism and its state then.
In Person Again
During my final year (1954) at Princeton Theological Seminary, we heard the announcement that Emperor Haile Sellassie was paying an official visit to the USA, and that one of the places he had chosen to visit was Princeton University. I could only entertain faint hopes of seeing him from a distance, since it was unlikely that he would address the multi-thousand-student body or anything like that. So I was surprised to be called into the office by the distinguished President of our Seminary, Dr. John Mackay (whom we students fondly but with awe, called ‘Patriarch Mackay’. He told me that there would be a reception for the Emperor to which only the heads of faculty departments were invited, because the whole distinguished Faculty of Princeton would run to many hundreds, and there was not time enough even to introduce all the faculty members. He told me that President of Princeton University was inviting me specially to the reception because the Emperor had personally expressed a desire to see me! He was himself moderately surprised.
At the reception there were about fifty heads of departments and heads of schools. I was the only student present. We lined up in a circle around a large reception room, and the President went around the line with the Emperor, presenting each professor to the Emperor. He heartily shook hands with each, but hardly stayed to mumble a greeting to each. As soon as he spotted me in the line, he began smiling, and to my embarrassment, was constantly looking at me, and not at the faces of the professors being presented to him.
As they came around to me the President of the University said: “This is the young man Your Majesty wanted to see, Mr. Paul Verghese”. “Yes, I know him”, the Emperor responded beaming. And then to me in Amharic, “So this is your university. We have tracked you down. And we know that you have finished your studies and will be getting your degree in a few days. You are coming back with us to Ethiopia. No more excuses”.
I was positively embarrassed and pained. How can I have the guts to say no to the Emperor again? I prayed fervently in my heart, and said: “Your Majesty, I am profoundly touched. I am grateful for your Majesty’s affection and interest. And I do want to serve Ethiopia and you. But it is now seven years since I left India in 1947. I must go back to India and only there make my decisions”.
“There are no decisions to make. We are leaving this country in a few days, and we want to take you with us. We have a place cut out for you in Ethiopia. Do not go on stubbornly refusing”.
Other people in the room, including the President, were wondering what the Emperor was talking that long to an Indian seminary student. “I will talk to Your Majesty’s Secretary”, I said, if only to get out of my embarrassment. The Emperor moved on. I later explained to the Secretary that I was not in a position to come to Ethiopia at that time and that I had to go back to India.
A Visitor Asks for a Gift
1954 found me back in India, and for the time being at least, I forgot all about Ethiopia. There was much work to do in India, and life had become very full. I was still a layman, running a Meditation and Retreat Center for Christian lay people (The Alwaye Fellowship House), teaching religion at the Union Christian College, Alwaye, Kerala, working as Honorary General Secretary of the Orthodox Christian Student Movement of India, and serving as an Honorary Secretary of the Student Christian Movement of India. On all that later.
In 1956 the Emperor visited India. Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister of India. After visiting the North, Haile Sellassie came south to Kerala where I was. I had hoped to catch a glimpse of him during the grand reception in Cochin, but I missed the possibility, since I was nobody important. The Emperor was to stay in the island home in Bolghatty near Cochine, of the former British Resident. I could not get anywhere near the boat that took the Emperor across to the island. As I was waiting at the boat jetty, somewhat frustrated, a part of the Emperor’s party who had fallen behind came up, to take another boat across, which was waiting. Someone who had actually gotten inside the boat suddenly came out to the land, shouting “There he is! This is the man I was talking about.’’ It was Prince Makonnen, the Duke of Harrar, who came forward to embrace me. “We have finally found you. My father wants to see you. Our ambassador in Delhi, His Highness Ras Imru, will talk to you about it. I must now get to the island. Father will be looking for me. I will tell him that I have seen you. “He went back into the boat. I was glad that I had at least established contact.
That evening the formal contacts began. First it was the Ethiopian Ambassador in Delhi, His Highness Ras Imru Haile Sellassie, a cousin of the Emperor, a poet, a venerable figure for all Ethiopians. He told me that the Emperor had talked to him about me, and that he had heard a great deal about me before coming to India. He said that the Emperor had asked him to persuade me to go to Ethiopia. I told him that I was deeply involved in religious work, and should stay in India a little longer. Ras Imru later came to be a close friend, and we met often in Addis Ababa or New Delhi in later years.
The next contact was the next morning. I had been asked officially by the Indian Government to come and see the Minister who was acting as Indian host to the imperial party. This was Colonel J K Bhonsle, whose claim to recognition was that he had fought in the volunteer army of Subhash Chandra Bose, the Indian National Army which invaded British India for its liberation in 1942. I saw him in the Government Guest House in Ernakulam. I was in a simple white Khadi lungi and Jubba.
He looked me over, casting his eyes up and down, ostensibly somewhat sardonic.
“So, you are the man. Let me explain things to you. The government of India always seeks to please its distinguished guests. This guest, however, has asked for something which is not in the government’s power to give. He is asking for one of our citizens. On behalf of Prime Minister Nehru and the government of India, I would request you to accept the offer of the Emperor that you work on his personal staff in Ethiopia. You can mention the salary and other terms you want. His Majesty is ready to give you anything you demand. Congratulations”.
There was a tinge of unconcealed derision in his eyes and in his tone. Who but a foolish Emperor would want to make such a thoughtless offer to what appeared to be a very ordinary man? Such thoughts must have been going through his mind.*
“Sir”, I answered, “I am deeply honored by His Majesty’s offer. And I thank the Government of India for communicating it to me. I regret I am not able to accept it. I am a simple worker of the Christian Church. I am getting a salary of Rs. 75 (about US $ 16) per month. And I am quite happy with my salary and my work. I would like to continue in that work”.
“What! Do you know what an unusual offer and opportunity you are turning down? Do you understand what is being offered to you?”
“I believe I do, Sir. My vocation from God, however, is not to work in palaces, but to serve ordinary people, as I am now doing”.
“You are an extraordinary man!” said Bhonsle, “You are exactly the kind of person that Prime Minister Nehru is looking for, just now”. He paused and I wondered what was now coming. Then he continued:
“Prime Minister Nehru has a scheme for bringing some discipline into our nation. He wants to start in the high schools of our country. It is called ‘National Discipline Scheme’; the idea is that each high school student would be required to do a period of service in our villages before he completes school. The Prime Minister wants a person of character to be in charge of that national program. He has asked me to be on the lookout for someone like you. Come to Delhi. We will fix it up for you”.
His original tone of derision had given place to unconcealed admiration. I myself had heard of Bhonsle as an unmitigated opportunist, and quite apart from his INA past, which was at best ambiguous, I had no reason to be particularly favourably impressed with his personality as it emerged in the conversation. I was trusting entirely in the grace of God to guide me in these encounters, and the words came naturally to my lips:
“Thank you, Sir, for your confidence in me. And I thank the Government of India for its offer to me. But this is a job which requires organizational skill, which I lack. I am better at working directly with people”.
“You will have plenty of opportunity working directly with young people in high schools, and as far as organization is concerned the government has its own institutional structures and methods in that field. You would not have to worry about these. You only give inspiring leadership. I will be returning to Delhi in three or four days, and you can join me there”.
“Thank you, Sir, but I do not think that is God’s calling for me. I will continue with my present work, in which I am quite happy”.
Bhonsle became quite friendly and asked me many questions about myself. Then he called his wife, a fashionably dressed young coquette he had met and married in Singapore, who was in the adjoining room, and introduced me to her, saying: “Look, this man is turning down the Emperor’s offer, and he has also turned down my offer on behalf of the Prime Minister, of the National Discipline Scheme job. Remarkable man!” We chatted for a while longer, and I was glad to be done with the conversation. Bhonsle ended up by saying that I should call on him the next time I went to Delhi. I said I would do so. Mrs. Bhonsle engaged me in conversation on several subsequent occasions during the Emperor’s tour of India, but I was scared of her coquettishness. She invited me to visit them when I came to Delhi. I politely agreed, but discreetly refrained from visiting them.
The Final Move
I had not yet seen the Emperor personally. I made no move to ask for an audience. The next day there was a grand public reception for the Emperor at our Church’s Engineering College in Kothamangalam. I was invited and was seated on the front row in a large audience. I tried to catch the eye of the Emperor several times, expecting a smile of recognition. He saw me from the stage, but, instead of smiling, was glaring at me in apparent anger. I was depressed, for I had great regard and affection for the man.
The next day the Emperor was visiting the head of my church in Kottayam. The Emperor’s church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, (often wrongly called the Coptic Church), was in communion with our church, the Indian (also wrongly called Syrian) Orthodox Church. The five ancient Asian-African Orthodox churches, the Egyptian (the true Coptic), the Syrian, the Armenian, the Indian, and the Ethiopian, belonged to the family of “Oriental Orthodox Churches”, as distinguished from the family of Byzantine or “Eastern Orthodox Churches”, comprised some twenty churches of Greece, Russia, Constantinople, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and so on. The two families had separated from each other in the fifth and sixth centuries, subsequent to the Christological controversies arising from the Council of Chalcedon (451 A D).
Baselios Geevarghese II, Catholicos of the East, the head of the Indian church, was already in his nineties. A dignified and saintly prelate, he was widely respected by all, and was visited once even by Prime Minister Nehru and other dignitaries. I had gotten to know him well, and I was one of his special favorites. I had been asked to act as interpreter, since my Catholicos spoke little English, and I could translate directly between Malayalam and Amharic.
The aged Catholicos had come to the front door of his modest residence in Devalokam (the world of the gods), Kottayam, accompanied by me and others, to welcome the Emperor. The formalities of welcome over, the Catholicos had to be held by two deacons and guided to the reception room, where he was to converse with the Emperor. I came behind, guiding the Emperor to the reception room. He had not even smiled to me. He now started speaking to me in Amharic:
“You are the most wicked man I have met in my life”. The rancor in the tone was unmistakable. I certainly did not want to hurt the feelings of the Emperor, for whom my great admiration was compounded with sincere affection. Without thinking much, I blurted out:
“It is not wickedness, Your Majesty. I am a servant of the Church. He (pointing to the Catholicos in front) is the head of my Church. I will do whatever he asks me to do”.
“I do not believe you”, the Emperor said. “Not he, not even God Himself can bend your stubborn will”. He was angry.
The formal conversation began soon between the Emperor and the Catholicos, and it was a delight to translate. The Catholicos began: “Your Majesty, my own feelings at this time are like those of the aged Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem welcoming the Jesus child: I can now depart this life in peace, for mine eyes have beheld the face of the only Emperor our churches have”.
“Your Holiness, what greater happiness can a king worn out by the cares of state have than beholding the face of a saintly person like you?”
The conversation increased my respect for both personalities. Finally the Emperor said, and I had to translate:
“What about this stubborn young man? We need him in Ethiopia, and he refuses to come”.
“No one can persuade him against his will”, replied the Catholicos. “But he will do what is right and good, Your Majesty”. I was so pleased with the reply. The Catholicos had not tried to show off his authority over me or ask me to do as the Emperor says. His reply was cautious and guarded. He had defended my freedom, but also left the matter open. The Emperor asked his staff to give me his address in New Delhi where he was proceeding the next day. He was expecting a communication from me.
After we had said good-bye to the Emperor, the Catholicos called me and said, in the presence of several prominent bishops and leaders in my church: “Everybody wants Paul Verghese. I need him in our church, the Emperor wants him in his country, and there is only one Paul Verghese. It will be good for our Church if you go to Ethiopia and work with the Emperor; he is our Emperor; you will be able to help our church a lot from there; but it will be good also if you stay here and continue the work. I cannot tell you what to do. You must go home, pray devoutly, and make your decision in prayer again”.
I promised to do so and took his leave. I had gone a few yards from his residence, when he sent a deacon to call me back. As I came in, he dismissed all the others and asked me to sit down before him on the floor, on a grass mat which had been laid for me.
He talked to me affectionately for a long time, and said how difficult it was to make right decisions. He said he believed what he had said to the others, about my presence in India being very necessary for the Church, since my spiritual labors had been blessed by God in an unusual way. He then went on to say how equally good it would be for me as well as for our church if I would go and work with the Emperor on his private staff. It would be an honour to our church, and the Emperor himself would help our church through me.
He then said that I should pray and make the decision in the context of prayer. He said he would himself be praying that I make the right decision. He then cautioned me about trying to impose my own preferences on God in prayer, and then saying that it was God’s answer to prayer. He told me the story of two pious Catechists, the son of one of whom was marrying the daughter of the other. Both were praying to God profusely, as catechists and evangelists are prone to do; the boy’s father was praying God for a large dowry from the bride’s family, while the bride’s father was asking God that the dowry may be as low as possible. The Catholicos asked me again not to push God to get my own way from Him.
As I left his presence, I prayed fervently within myself, that I may be completely free from all self-seeking, genuinely and sincerely open to God’s guidance. There was the possibility that the admiration and applause I received from people for refusing the Emperor had gone to my head. Who knows the ways of the heart?
God gave me an idea on how to proceed. I went back to my home in Alwaye Fellowship House, prayed some more, and called together three of my friends, all from my church: the Revd. Dr. K. C Joseph, lecturer in English, and Prof. T C Joseph, lecturer in Botany, both from the Union Christian College where I also taught part time, and Mr. M. Thommen, my senior colleague and Secretary of the Fellowship House. I told them in some detail what had transpired in the three or four days preceding; also said that I had decided that I could not trust my own will. I would abide by any unanimous decision that the three of them together would make in prayer, whether I should go to Ethiopia or not. I gave them full assurance that whatever their joint decision was, I would accept it without question as the will of God, and act in accordance with it.
We were used to praying together as a group. We prayed together now that the will of God may be done. My colleagues thought it was too important a decision to be made on the spot. We should wait in prayer for twenty-four hours, and the three others should meet again separately to decide.
The next day we four met again. The other three had met and come to a decision. I was now in my own mind open to either possibility. It was my colleague, Mr. Thommen, who announced their decision. He said, “Vareechan, we all know very well that it was because of you that God had blessed this institution (the Fellowship House). It has now become a center of light to many. Without you, it may go down. For me, it will be difficult to keep up the work without you. Besides, Christian institutions and people as well as others, not only in Kerala, but also in the whole of India, have been benefiting immensely from your unusual gifts. Your presence is needed by our Church.
“But there is another side to the matter. It is now public knowledge that you have heroically sacrificed a great opportunity by refusing the Emperor. It was in the newspapers also. They say that you have refused him a dozen times. Every-body admires you for this great sacrifice. We all admire your sacrifice and faith. If, however, this thirteenth time also you refuse him, you will be so proud of your sacrifice, that it will be difficult to live with you. For the sake of your own spiritual welfare and humility, therefore, you should accept the offer of the Emperor. You should go to Ethiopia. That is our unanimous decision”.
It was not for me to question the logic of their argument. I had given them and God an undertaking, and my job was only to abide by it. The rest is God’s responsibility. So I humbly bowed and accepted their decision, and then we prayed together for some time.
The Emperor had left Kerala by that time and was back in Delhi. I sent him a telegram accepting his offer. A reply telegram came the next day, asking me to go and see the Emperor again in Calcutta three days later. I promptly went and saw him in Calcutta, a good 3000 kilometers from Alwaye, and he was glad to see me. I remember he gave me three thousand-rupee notes, which denomination of Indian currency I had never seen before, (or, for that matter, any time after), and asked me to get some clothes and other accessories. The air ticket would be sent to me in Kerala. That was that.
I remember also that the Emperor asked me to stay on with his party for a couple of days. The next day the Emperor went to the races; I accompanied Prince Makonnen. He was keen on betting on the horses. He insisted on my betting too. I remember doing it once, for his sake, staking five rupees and getting back twenty-two. I have never done any betting before or after that.
Ethiopia - The Second Sojourn, 1956 - 59
So, that is the story of my return to Ethiopia, for a second sojourn which was about as long or as brief, as the first one, i.e. less than three years.
Soon after I arrived, the Emperor gave me an idea of what he wanted me to do. The first was to supervise the new projects of Indo-Ethiopian co-operation. He told me how impressed he was by the developments in India, and how great a man Nehru was. He wanted to develop these Indian relations extensively. He told me that the Indian experiment was more important for Ethiopia than the western form of development. He wanted me to look after the three projects he had already initiated, namely the Military Academy in Harrar, to be run by officers of the Indian Armed Services, led by Brigadier Rawley; the Textile Project in collaboration with Birla; and a new Indo-Ethiopian trade agreement under negotiation. Some advisors were to come from India, Mr. Ramachandran (?) Nair, a senior Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer, for Community Development, and Mr. John Barnabas, a prominent social worker of Delhi, for Social Affairs. I was myself to recruit other officers later, he told me.
The relations with India was to be a major part of Ethiopian policy in the future, and I was to be the Liaison Officer for all these. I would work very closely with Mr. Niranjan Singh Gill, the Indian Ambassador to Ethiopia, and also with Ras Imru, the Ethiopian Ambassador in New Delhi. I will not go through any particular ministry of the Ethiopian Government, but will be working directly with the Emperor. Formally I would be attached to the Office of the Private Secretary to His Majesty, and to the Ministry of the Pen. “There are many things I want you to do for us personally from time to time”, said the Emperor to me in that first conversation after my arrival. Actually, these things turned out to be of various kinds: buying cutlery and crockery for the Palace use from abroad; reading the Emperor’s personal mail and answering some; studying aid projects like the US Government’s proposal to build a highway in Ethiopia and commenting on them; preparing drafts for the Emperor’s important public speeches; summarising long English documents for the Emperor briefly in Amharic; giving him advice on proposed educational and social reforms; and so on.
Sometimes when he comes back from a trip abroad, he would give me a few books in English and ask me to read and summarise them in Amharic. Once when he came back from one of his frequent trips to visit his friend Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia, he brought back a book banned in Yugoslavia, by the opponent of Tito, former Yugoslavian Vice-President Milovan Djilas, entitled The New Class. I wondered how he got hold of the book. It was an indictment, not only of Tito, but of the whole Communist system, rather precocious for that time, i.e., 1956-57. Djilas was arguing that Communism may have succeeded in eliminating the propertied class of Capitalism, but had in fact only replaced that class with the new Bureaucratic Upper Class of Communist systems, which were more ruthless, oppressive and undemocratic than Capitalist bosses.
Another book he brought with him on one occasion, I remember, was Anton Makarenko’s The Road to Life, a remarkabe work by a Russian Communist educationist about how to rehabilitate social renegades and criminals by giving them limited responsibilities within an accepting and non-threatening community. It was a deviation from Lenin’s wife Anna Krupskaya’s views on Socialist education, but I thought they had relevance for Ethiopia (remembering my own experience with the boys in Jimma). The Emperor was pleased with my summaries, and told me that even in Communism, if you could remove the poisonous elements, there were some very good things. The ideas were passed on to the Ministry of Education, but nothing came of it in the end, it seems.
There was also the important project of the Rajah of Faridkot, in which the Emperor told me that he was greatly interested, for a massive immigration of Indian people to a vassal kingdom to be set up in Ethiopia and ruled, under Haile Sellassie as Emperor and Sovereign, by the Raja of Faridkot. I must claim some credit for eventually sabotaging this project, since I had a very low opinion of the integrity and character of the Rajah, who was seeking to regain in Ethiopia the kingdom he had lost in India when Independent India decided to put an end to all former Princely States. I knew the Emperor badly aspired to have an Indian Rajah under him. If there were to be such, I reckoned, they should be rulers who would bring credit to Ethiopia and India, and not profligates and philanderers who mercilessly exploited their people. The Rajah had put a lot of pressure on me to promote his cause, but I could not do so in good conscience.
I had an office in a building inside the Palace Compound, called the Duke Beith, or Duke’s House. It was not accessible to the general public, but very close to the Emperor’s residence and office.
Princess Sybil, My Secretary
One day soon after, the Emperor’s 26-year-old granddaughter, Princess Seblewengel Desta, came to see me, and announced herself. She told me in perfect English that her grandfather had asked her to work with me as my secretary. She had spent 17 years in British educational institutions in England, taken a University degree, and had only recently returned to Ethiopia. She could speak a little broken Amharic, but could neither read nor write her own mother tongue. We arranged an office set up for her, but there was not much work for her to do since she could handle no Amharic and my memos to the Emperor had all to be in Amharic. A few weeks later, the Emperor asked me, with a twinkle in his eyes: “How is your secretary doing?”
Tactfully I answered: “Oh, she is a wonderful girl, Your Majesty, very capable, and very good in English. She is unusually bright and intelligent. Only thing is, she does not know any Amharic”.
“That is no problem”, said the Emperor. “You can teach her Amharic in your free time”. That twinkle was still in his eye. I was thirty-four, an eligible bachelor; she was 26, bright and intelligent. The point was obvious. I was to be co-opted in to the Imperial family as a grandson-in-law.
I saw later that Sybil had understood
the point too. I liked her, but marriage was far from my thoughts at that
time. Her own religious convictions did not go very much beyond ordinary
nominal membership in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and a little touch of
personal faith received from her devout grandfather. But I could not for
the life of me think of marrying a princess. I had to work with the poor,
and I would not fit into an Imperial family. I decided internally to
resist the pressure, trusting in God.
My own residence was outside the palace compound, so that I could receive private guests at home, which I could not have done if I lived in the palace. I had a car and a chauffeur, a guard, a housemaid, a cook and all that. My four-bedroom house, not far from the Palace, was not in the top class, but luxurious by the standards to which I had by then been accustomed.
One of the first things I did was to start a regular weekday Bible class in my home, which several Indians and western missionaries as well as a few Ethiopians attended. Before I knew it, there were six to eight Bible classes and lectures a week that I was running all over the city, in colleges and in homes. I was giving two evening lectures on religion every week in the University College of Addis Ababa. All these classes and lectures were well attended.
“St. Paul’s Hospital”
Just about the time I came to Addis Ababa, there had been a major bus accident in the northern part of Ethiopia. In which many Indian teachers and their families had either died or been seriously injured. One special case was that of Kunhoonhamma, a very young teacher’s wife from Kerala and her four-month-old baby. The husband, whom I never met, had died in the accident. The wife was in hospital, with 22 fractures, some of them compound. The bus had fallen off a hillside, in cool weather, at night. The baby, well bundled up, had rolled off the mother’s hold and rolled down the hill, stopped by a tree far below. Those who came to rescue the victims did not see the baby for at least 12 hours after the accident. When they finally found him, the baby was still alive, but totally unresponding. He refused to take any food, or to respond to any cuddling or caressing. His stare was fixed. The doctors had great difficulty feeding him and keeping him alive.
The Emperor came to the hospital and saw all the survivors. When he came to the baby which had been separated from his mother who was unconscious, he tried his best to get a smile out of the infant, but failed. The doctors explained to him that he was shocked at the loss of his mother for twelve hours and had gone into a catatonic trauma, from which only maternal love could wake him up. The Emperor immediately ordered one of his household staff nurses to take over the infant.
It was a burly, affectionate fifty-year-old Tigre woman who gave her whole heart to the baby, and finally weaned it from the trauma, after three days of continuous effort. Meanwhile the mother, in bandages and slings from head to toe, came out of her unconsciousness, but the baby would not respond to its own mother. It would respond only to the nurse. The Emperor often came to the hospital to see the baby, and sometimes talked to me about it.
When after months in the hospital, the mother was finally discharged, still plaster caste over her hip and legs, on crutches, with a baby who would not respond to her, there was no obvious place where she could go for convalescence, which would take several months. So came the mother, the baby and the nurse to my home and settled down. Meanwhile another teacher, also from Kerala, Mr. Nanoo, a Hindu in his late forties, had also been in the same accident, and been discharged from hospital, still on crutches. He also could not take care of himself, and so decided to move into my home. Thus my house became quite full. People used to call it St. Paul’s Hospital. There were visitors all the time. It was open house, from morning till late at night, though I myself was seldom at home. The office and my evening classes kept me busy.
The baby grew up in my home, and became fairly normal. He went to school in Ethiopia. Later he went to India and finished high school, and was admitted to Madras Christian College. One day, when he was twenty-five, he swallowed a large quantity of sleeping pills and committed suicide. I went to the funeral. It was a heart-breaking experience for me.
The Cocktail Circuit
I was a much sought after guest at Embassy cocktail receptions and dinner parties. The foreign diplomats must have thought that they could pump out palace information from me. The Indian Ambassador also frequently entertained me. The Russian Ambassador, Boris Karavaev, was particularly friendly; his main purpose must have been to squeeze out maximum information. There were times when I went to two and three cocktail parties in one evening, though I was careful not to let my evening classes suffer. Very soon I decided to give up whisky and hard liquors altogether, and to stick to wines and fruit juices. Ethiopian Government Ministers also began inviting me home for dinners and parties. There were also the imperial dinners which were particularly sumptuous. I had become very fond of Ethiopian food, especially injera and wat. Injera was a large flat thin pancake, about two feet in diameter, made of fermented teff (a local grain) flour, folded in four or rolled up. Wat could be any spicy side dish with sauce, usually chicken (doro-wat) or meat (sega-wat) or split peas (qeq-wat).
One of the most touching experiences was when a minister invited me to his house, and while at dinner, made quite a package of injera and choice dishes, kneading them together with his fingers, and then, asking me to open my mouth, put the whole lot in. It was a difficult experience for an Indian, but I had no option except to eat it. I was told later that this was a sign of great affection and warmth, though I found it slightly embarrassing at the time. But it was part of my acculturation process.
The same minister was once with me at the Race Course, when we had both accompanied the Emperor to watch the races. It was a Friday. The minister offered me a drink. I ordered tea with milk. He ordered a whiskey for himself. Ethiopians are very strict on their fasting laws, and do not eat any animal food on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as during Lent. Milk and milk products are also forbidden. He was surprised that I had ordered tea with milk on a Friday and asked me:
“Why do you drink tea with milk on a Friday?”
“Is it not better to drink tea with milk than to drink whiskey on a fasting day?” I asked.
He seemed baffled and said, “But, my friend, there is no milk in whiskey!”
Like all Semitic peoples, the Ethiopians do not eat pork; they also will not eat the flesh of any bird that flies, for they regard them as keeping company with the angels. I identified myself as much as I could with Ethiopian culture and behaviour patterns, including eating habits. But one thing I could never bring myself around to. That was eating raw meat. For the Amhara this was a great delicacy. At practically all banquets and dinners, this item would come somewhere immediately after the main course. One is offered a leg of beef, a sharp knife, and some powdered chilly to go with it. The guest is expected to slice off a choice morsel from the chunk offered, dip in the chilly powder and consume it. Even at the Emperor’s banquets, as one enters the huge banquet hall, one encounters hundreds of huge chunks of meat hooked to tall posts all along the banquet hall, covered with clean cloths, to keep away the flies. At the end of the main course waiters would move to the hundreds of posts, remove the cloth covers, and bring the huge chunks of raw meat to each table, with special knives and chilly powder. I managed consistently to keep away from this delicacy, for sentimental reasons rather than on account of principles. Since 1975 I do not eat meat at all. And I think I am all the more healthy for that. The Ethiopians, they say, invariably have tapeworms inside their body, because of their habit of eating raw meat.
Life with the Emperor
There was an endearing quality to Haile Sellassie. I felt drawn to him, and developed both affection and admiration for him. I discovered early that our ideas did not agree and settled for the fact that this would be a problem always.
He was a statesman and a strategist, but also a warm human being. He was quite abstemious, ate very little, and except for the occasional glass of champagne on a ceremonial occasion, did not drink very much alcohol.
He was very strict about his fasting and regular prayers and church worship. Especially during the Great Lent before Easter, when the Ethiopians fast for 56 days, he would not eat anything until three o’clock in the afternoon. He would be in his office, working. At three he would go to his private chapel, where there would be a special prayer service which lasted for an hour. Only after that he would break his fast.
Everyone stood in awe of him, including his own grown up sons and daughters, but not his wife, Empress Menen. She was the only forthright critic he had, so long as she lived. Her death seems to have signaled the beginning of a period of decline in Haile Sellassie’s life.
I always greeted him in the accepted Ethiopian way, even for his sons -- to bow all the way down before him and to touch the ground every first time you met him on a day. The protocol for the eldest son, the Crown Prince was a little more strict. We only had to bow, bending double and touching the ground with our fingers. The Crown Prince had to fall down flat on the ground before the Emperor, touching the ground with his forehead, in a gesture of obeisance like the Indian sashtangapranama. This he had to do every first time on a day he saw his father. I felt sorry often for the Crown Prince who was several years senior to me. People said all kinds of things by way of explanation. One story was that the loyalty of the son to the father was always in doubt, and therefore that this was a stringent requirement laid down by the father to enforce submission and obedience.
Three members of his perpetual entourage were accredited to me. I could approach any of them any time with a message or memorandum for the Emperor, and they would immediately transmit it to him, in office or bedroom. They were also the ones whom the Emperor would send to call me into the presence. Of course you could access them only inside the Palace, or sometimes in our “Sunshine Club”. This was a stretch of open tarmac between my office (Duke Beith) and the Emperor’s Palace. Most of the ministers who came to see the Emperor on business practically every day, spent their time gossiping and waiting in this open court for the Emperor to call them. There was a waiting room inside the Palace. Apart from the Prime Minister, few of the other ministers would go into this room. They preferred to stand in the sunshine and wait. Since only the Emperor could make all the important decisions, most of the ministers wasted whole mornings in the “Sunshine Club”. Sometimes the Emperor would not be able to call them at all, though he was quite businesslike and worked for long hours. It was the most inefficient way of running a government, but the Emperor would not readily hand over decision making authority to the ministers.
One day the Emperor was spending the week-end in one of his out of town palaces in Debre Zeit (Beshoftu), an hour’s ride by car from Addis. He asked me to come along. During our stay there in that beautiful crater-lake settlement, he asked me to come for a walk in his palace gardens. This was only a few months after I had started working in the Palace. As we walked back and forth, with no one within earshot, he enquired about how I was doing, and then said:
“I want your advice. I have a problem with one of my ministers. You know my Defence Minister, Ras Abebe Aregai. He is the richest person in the country. And yet, he is getting a kickback from the daily rations of every single soldier in the army. I have evidence for it now. What should I do?”
His Highness Ras Abebe Aregai was the leader of the Ethiopian Resistance to Mussolini’s occupation of Ethiopia, a rough country soldier risen to prominence because of his skill in strategizing and taking risks. When the Emperor was in exile in Europe, Abebe was an outlaw in the jungles of Ethiopia, leader of the guerrilla resistance fighters, sought by the fascist troops of Mussolini, but protected and respected by his people for his courage and skill. When the Emperor regained his country with the help of his own emigre’ troops and the Allied army, he honored Abebe Aregai with all kinds of land endowments and titles, until he rose to the highest possible title and rank in the country, Ras, equivalent to the Indian Rajah. He had been serving also as Defence Minister, at the head of one the largest armies in Africa. I knew him, but did not think very highly of him, not because he was not very cultured, but since I was told by everyone that he was dishonest and corrupt. He was known to be fabulously rich, living in a palace of his own.
Without much hesitation, I gave the emperor my frank opinion:
“Your Majesty, Ras Abebe is known to the people as a very corrupt man. He is not very popular among them today, though he was the people’s hero during the Resistance. On the other hand, Your Majesty’s prestige among the people is very high, and they would admire you all the more if you punish a corrupt man for his misdeeds. Such exemplary punishment would be very good for the country, where there is so much corruption and it is growing day by day, as I understand. Of course there should be an open trial, during which his crime and the evidence for it should be exposed”.
Haile Sellassie was silent for a few seconds, and then smiled at me, with a sad look in his eyes. “I was testing you. You are rather naive and politically inexperienced, as I expected. You know nothing about how a country is to be run. What would happen if I throw him down from his pinnacle? What I told you about him is true, and I have the evidence. But if I fire him, first, I would have a rich, cunning and very powerful enemy. Second, I will have to create another lord like him, for an Emperor needs these “buffers” between him and the people. I would have to endow such a lord with the wealth of the people. And when he gets sufficiently powerful, he will also become corrupt, like his predecessor. These things have to be handled differently, with skill and care. Statecraft is neither easy nor straightforward.”
Whatever was on the Emperor’s mind I never found out. I was not convinced by his argument. Of course I had failed his test in statecraft. I knew I was too naive and not wily enough for politics. Only much later I understood how much damage could be done by people regarding themselves as honest at the head of public affairs. I readily think of the experience of Jimmy Carter and Rajiv Gandhi who set out to do honest politics. I had failed the test, but I did not feel sorry. I did not want to pass such tests.
The Emperor went on to talk about other things. We talked about religion and international affairs and many other subjects. I kept the discussion about the Defense Minister in my heart and brooded over it. These were state secrets and I could not discuss them with anyone.
The Defense Minister Comes to Me
A few days later my private telephone in the office rang. I picked it up.
“Good morning, my lord; the Defense Minister would like to talk to you”, said a gruff military voice over the telephone.
“Right away!” I promptly responded. The voice of Ras Abebe Aregai came over the phone, without delay. It was smooth and polite, difficult to translate into English, but it went something like this:
“I have a petition to present to my lord. I want to come and see my lord. Kindly give me an appointment as convenient to my lord”.
In Amharic, addressing someone as “my lord” (getaye) is not unusual. It is more or less like ‘Sir’, but a little more courteous. “I have a petition to present to my lord” (getaye gar gudday allenh), is a courteous way of saying: “there is something I want you to do for me”. Still it was overly polite language for a senior minister to use to a junior member of the Emperor’s staff. If the Defense Minister wanted something from the Emperor, he would go directly to him, not through me. That was protocol and that was practice.
So I wondered what this call meant. I suspected something fishy, especially in the light of the Emperor’s conversation with me in Debre Zeit only a few days before. The only way the Defense minister could have known about that conversation was for the Emperor to have told him. Of course the Palace Mafia had bugged all the Emperor’s rooms and telephones, and the Emperor always suspected it; but we had our conversation precisely for that reason in the garden in Debre Zeit, that too walking.
“Your Highness, I should come to you. You do not need to come to me. I will come to your office or home. Just tell me when.” I was both courteous and deferential.
“No, no, I will come to your office at your convenience. Please tell me when I should come”. Ras Abebe insisted.
“Come right away, then, Your Highness. I will wait for you”.
“That is most kind of you. Thank you. I will be there in a few minutes."
I had allowed at least half an hour for him to arrive and was planning to go to the entrance of our building to welcome him. He surprised me. He must have been calling from the Palace, I later guessed. In a few minutes he arrived, accompanied by the usual entourage of generals and bodyguards, dismissed them at the entrance of the Duke Beith, and had walked in, alone, to the door of my office. I went to the door to welcome him, bowed politely, and guided him to my own office chair and asked him to sit on it, because it was the best chair around.
“Please do sit down, Your Highness”, I said, in as courteous an Amharic idiom as I knew, pointing to my office chair.
“By no means! That is my lord’s chair, and I cannot sit on it. I will sit on one of these”. He moved to take hold of one of the chairs on the opposite side of my desk. That was quite all right. I invited him again to sit on the seat he had chosen, myself now standing between the desk and my seat.
“My Lord has to sit down first”, he said.
“No, Your Highness is far senior to me, and must sit first before I can sit”. I said, mostly for the fun of a little parrying in the fencing game of counterfeit courtesy. Whatever the Defense Minister’s game was, I made up my mind not to give in so easily to his charms.
“My lord is more honorable. You must sit first. How can I sit, without your sitting”?
I was determined not to give in, at least in the game of politeness. So we kept on parrying, until finally I had to say:
“Your Highness, if you will not honor me by sitting down, then we have no option except to stand and talk.”
I had expected him to give in at that point and sit down, for we had both been standing now far a while. But not Ras Abebe Aregai! He was pitting his will against mine, and would not give in so easily:
“If that is the will of my lord, then we will stand and talk.”
So that is what we did. I stood between my office chair and desk, while he stood on the opposite side of the desk. I am always glad to have a desk between me and such people. Even between me and a class room or lecture audience which I fear may be slightly hostile. The desk is my defense.
“I came to see my Lord, because I need a little help.” He began quite cautiously: “It is a little personal help I need, nothing official.”
“But how can I, a poor newcomer, help someone like you, Your Highness?”
“My lord can help me. In fact you alone can help me.”
“Please tell me how I can help Your Highness.”
“You know how difficult it is for a minister to balance his domestic budget and make both ends meet. He has to give endless dinner parties and entertain lavishly. He has to live in grand style and maintain a large domestic staff, several cars, special clothes and so on. You know how meager a minister’s salary is. He gets only a little more than what you, my lord, gets.”
I was not quite getting the drift of the conversation. I had no way of guessing where it was all leading up to. Today I am slightly wiser and able to guess. But I was totally simple and naive in such matters, while being rather quick in the uptake of abstract ideas and philosophical notions. So I could do nothing but listen without interrupting. So His Highness Ras Abebe, whom the Emperor had called the richest man in Ethiopia, continued:
“So I have been trying to supplement my income by trying to build a couple of houses which I could give out on rent.”
This time even I could see the hoax. It was common knowledge that Ras Abebe had some 500 houses in the city, and was getting more than a million dollars every year in house rent alone. He had enormous tracts of land in his possession, and was one of the largest of the landlords in the country -- one reason why the people hated him. And he was talking to me, with a straight face, about “trying to build a couple of houses” and that too to “balance the domestic budget”! But I was not about to let out my indignation. I cannot lie with the same facility with which he could, but I was determined to see through to the end of the game. So I kept a straight face, normally a difficult thing for me to do. He continued:
“You know how expensive housing construction has become these days. I am running out of money and cannot finish these houses. I need a loan, desperately.” He paused.
Just look at the irony of it! The richest man in Ethiopia talking to a poor Indian who does not even have a whole thousand dollars to his credit in the bank, about a loan! I was in fact flabbergasted, and wanted to ask: “What is this game, Your Highness? Out with it.” Instead I politely responded:
“But what can I do about that, Your Highness?”
“Oh, you can indeed help me. In fact, you are the only one who can help me. That is why I came to you.”
My logical capacity, my understanding of sense and sequence, of reason and reasonableness, my ability to follow a conversation, was being unkindly stretched. Certainly he is not going to ask me to intercede with the Emperor to give him a loan! He should be smart enough to know what the Emperor thinks of him!
“But how can I help, Your Highness?”, I blurted out, not without a tinge of irritation. We were still standing.
“Let me tell you. The only source from which I can get a loan is the bank, the State Bank of Ethiopia. You know the manager of the Bank. He is your friend and fellow countryman, Mr. Menezes. If you put in a word for me, he will grant me a loan.”
Of course, there was only one bank in Ethiopia then, and that was the government bank. Mr. Menezes was a Goan, and we all knew that he was right at the center of all the corruption in the country. I knew him well, though I would have hardly called him a friend. He gave loans to all the corrupt landlords and profiteering traders in the country, and got a kick back from each of them. He was a close collaborator of the Defense Minister himself in the latter’s housing construction and other projects.
“Oh, Mr. Menezes”, I said: “He will do anything Your Highness asks him to do. It is better that Your Highness speaks to him directly, now. Shall I call him?” I made a move towards the telephone by my side.
“No, don’t. Don’t call him now. He has given me loans in the past, but don’t call him now. After I am gone, you can call him, and recommend a loan for me.”
I had no idea where the trap was, but I knew it was some kind of a trap. I was not going to fall into it. So, I said, very gently and very firmly,
“No, Your Highness, I will not be able to help you. I will not ask Mr. Menezes to give you a loan. You can ask him directly and he will give you what you ask. I have no doubt about that. But I do not want to be involved”.
It was firm and final. He saw it, and said, very modestly, “If you will not help me, I will have to go somewhere else for help. Thank you for your time. Pardon me for having bothered you”. He bowed and put forth his hand to shake my hand and say goodbye. I saw him to the door, and was going to accompany him to the outer entrance, but he would not let me. His entourage was waiting outside.
I came back to my desk, sat down and prayed. I thanked God for not letting me fall into whatever trap there was. I did not know whether the Defense Minister was going to be my enemy from this time forth. I did not worry too much about that. I reflected, seeking to make sense of this call.
I could not see the point. I decided to seek some advice, very discreetly. There was only one man among the senior ministers whom I fully trusted. He was a Tigre from the North, Ato Abebe Retta, Minister of Health. He was known not to be corrupt. So I phoned him and said I wanted to see him. He asked me to come right away. He was several years my senior in age, very honest and forthright, and rather fond of me. I could not share with him my conversation with the Emperor about the Defense Minister, because that was a state secret. But I narrated to him in detail the visit of the Defense Minister to my office,
He listened very carefully, reflected for a minute and then said to me:
“What you did was absolutely right. I have no way of knowing what the Defense Minister’s real intention was. I can only make a guess. You probably know that there is a group of nine or so top people who have woven a closed circle around the Emperor. No information gets to the Emperor without their knowledge, and what they do not want the Emperor to know, does not get through. Now the Emperor has foxed them by bringing you. You have broken through their circle. They would like to co-opt you into their circle. You have the unusual freedom of bringing anything to the notice of the Emperor, a freedom which I do not have as a senior Minister. They resent that”.
“But how do they co-opt me, by making me ask Menezes for a loan for Ras Abebe?” I asked.
“Again, I can only guess”, said the Health Minister. “Suppose for a moment that you fell into the trap and asked Menezes to help Ras Abebe with a loan. Menezes has been giving loans to Ras Abebe ever since the bank started, and you will never know what transpires between them. But I can guess what Menezes will say to you, something like: “Oh, Ras Abebe! I won’t give him a loan. I have given him many loans in the past and he is very remiss about timely repayment. But since this is the first time that you ask me for a favor, let me see what can I do,” That is all he will say. You will never even know whether Ras Abebe got a fresh loan or whether he needed such a loan. But one day when Ras Abebe sees you in the Sunshine Club or somewhere else, he will invite you to lunch or dinner in his house. You will have a sumptuous dinner. The guests will be so carefully chosen that they can be future witnesses to what goes on at the dinner. Probably there will be a secret movie camera (video cameras did not exist in those days) and a secret tape recorder operating all the time. Towards the end of the dinner, the Defense Minister will say to you something like: ‘Oh, I cannot thank you enough for coming to my rescue in what was a difficult financial situation for me. If you had not helped me, I would not have known where to turn. I would like to express my gratitude by this little token’. He would hand you a little envelope with some money in it, and it will all be recorded, with eye-witnessess. You would then have received your own kick-back, and then you are part of their circle, because they can use the evidence against you any time.”
Today I know that this sort of game is commonplace for political operators in India as well as elsewhere. But at that time I was totally inexperienced and unsophisticated in such matters. The explanation of Ato Abebe Retta completely convinced me about the power group around the Emperor, most of whom I could identify. For example, the Prime Minister (son-in-law of the Emperor), the Defense Minister, the Interior Minister, the Finance Minister, the Minister of the Pen, and the Holder of the Imperial Purse, who happened to be a priest were at the top of the ring of corruption.
I became aware that I was unsuited to power jobs in any government. I knew that I would not always succeed in resisting the blandishments of money and power. One thing the Defense Minister said was true. It was becoming difficult for me to balance my own budget, because of the frequent demands on outlays for clothing, cars, salaries of domestic servants, entertainment of guests, parties, donations and so on. It was easy to accept a little gift voluntarily offered by people who had benefited from one’s services. That is the way it all begins. From then on it is all a downhill spiral.
I could probably learn the tricks of the power game fairly quickly. But in that process I would have lost something I regarded as very valuable in myself. Not that I am scrupulously honest or anything like that. Yet I have no desire to be like many government officials in India, both high and low, who seem today to have no compunction about accepting bribes large and small from all and sundry.
I went home, prayed and reflected. I decided that this way of life was not for me. I carefully prepared a resignation letter and submitted it to the Emperor. I did not mention all my reasons. I simply stated that I would like to go back to India and start serving my people, ordinary people.
A few days later the Emperor called me to his office. He talked to me with great affection. He said he needed me and that it was difficult to find honest people to work for him. He talked to me about several new responsibilities he wanted me to take up. One was the Charitable Foundation (Baggo Adragot) which he had set up with his own personal money to serve the deserving poor people. The other was to advise the Ministry of Education. A third was to be Executive Secretary to the Ethiopian Government Committee for Relief Aid given by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Aid for victims of the last war. Honestly I did not have the heart to refuse. I expected that there would be some opportunity for real service to people in these new assignments. A few days later I got the orders appointing me as Advisor to the Ministry of Education, Advisor to the Haile Sellassie I Charitable Foundation, and Executive Secretary of the UNRRA Committee.
As time went on, I discovered that these jobs were largely decorative. I went to many committee meetings, studied many projects and proposals and gave advice on them. But very little of my advice was actually put into practice. I had no executive power in either the Ministry of Education or the Charitable Foundation. The Ethiopians in charge, Ato Kebbede Michael and Ato Tafari Sharo, resented my meddling, and while being polite to me, held me at bay from any real authority. The UNRRA job was routine, and was slowly winding up as UN Funds gradually dried up. Vested interests were regnant everywhere, and I am not the kind that would fight for my own power, or try to overthrow other people from power in order to establish my own. I could have fought with some hope of success, since the Emperor was on my side. But I avoided any major power struggle, since my mind was set on getting out of the power game.
I was popular in Ethiopia, knew all the important people, and had genuine affection and respect for the Emperor. Still I was terribly lonely, unhappy and spiritually restless. There was no friend with whom I could share my feelings and who would understand. As a layman, I got to know the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abuna Baselios, a pious monk of the old school, who was however very fond of me. With Abuna Theophilos, the powerful prelate who had scolded me and admonished me against leaving Ethiopia the first time, I was on very close and friendly terms. Though he spoke no English, he was very learned in the traditional lore of Ethiopia, and I learned much from him.
Among the Indians, I had few friends. I went to the home of Mr. John Barnabas for an occasional game of bridge. I visited Mr. Balachandran Nair, the Community Development Advisor, who was in Ethiopia on a short one-year assignment. There was Mr. Varghese, the Legal Advisor in the Ministry of Law, whose wife was a distant cousin of mine. I visited the homes of the Indian teachers, but only rarely. The important thing in all these families was that they all had young children, and I was always immensely fond of children. Children were a green spot in my life. Their company made me forget my woes, at least for the time being.
But I was unhappy, and did not share my unhappiness with anyone. I prayed about it. One particular occasion, I remember the dialogue with God was particularly meaningful. I kept saying to God, in my usual petulant manner:
“What have you done to me, my God? I was so spiritually aglow, happy and useful, in India. You have to admit that several people came to know you better because of my work. I did not want to go away from India. Why did you drag me away from such a useful ministry, to this drab spiritual desert, where I am wasting my time?”
Quite often, God engages me in a long silence, when I ask a stupid question like that. He usually wants me to answer my own question. He wants me to struggle with myself in silent meditation and come out with an answer. If the answer is not good, He draws me into another silence, till I come out with a better answer. This time the right answer came the very first time, and it came from Him this time, in a very gentle, slightly mocking, but friendly word: “Well, my son, do you think I could have been trying to make you see that I could perhaps not be totally helpless without your help there in India?”
That hit me. I understood. In India I was in danger of thinking too highly of myself and my spiritual achievements and of my indispensibility to God, that it could have led me into disastrous spiritual pride. Pride of every kind comes rather naturally to me, but spiritual pride is the worst, and most spiritually destructive. I have seen many of our Hindu and Christian holy men fall prey to spiritual pride, primarily because their spiritual attainments did not render them immune to addiction to praise and admiration for themselves. I thanked God for having rescued me from a great spiritual danger in India, and agreed not to question His judgment about what was good for me. Ethiopia was where He had brought me, and in Ethiopia I must stay until I get my next marching orders.