Tuesday 10 August 2021

Samika Pandey, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

A Little Dose of Crazy

I had been warned that this man was crazy. Exactly how crazy, I was soon to discover.

Quite unusually, I was really apprehensive. And that's saying something, because as a diplomat, I'm rather used to dealing with the crazy - it's practically my job!

An official map placed some disputed pieces of rock in the wrong country? Diplomats spend the next two months covering up! Some big-mouth politician called the Sultan of random-country-you-can't-even-pronounce an idiot? Diplomats find a way through the slip-up before we find ourselves in World War 3! Someone imposed a 0.02% tariff on your purple banana exports because their prime minister is a yellow-banana supremist? No problem; Diplomats! Well, alright, we haven't had to deal with that last one ~yet~ but you get the idea.

So you see, being a diplomat is a lot like being in charge of a bunch of preschoolers; you never know who's going to suddenly blow up in a fit next. Except, these babies are all in command of massive armies and a whole bunch of nukes, and could potentially destroy the whole world on a whim...

Not the most reassuring of thoughts, eh? Well, all just a day's work in geopolitics. We have crazy folks in charge of countries all the time.

But this was different. This was almost certainly the first time we had a supposedly crazy man in charge at the UN. The UN, which was perhaps the most peacefully, boringly, monotonously predictable place on the planet. A tiny utopia of sorts. The one place you'd look to find sanity amidst the geopolitical chaos. The one place... but at this juncture, my train of thoughts was interrupted by incessant honking and a rather quaint, expletive-laden request to, I quote, "move out of the bloody way!" - ah, that's the charming NYC traffic for you!

I took a deep breath and turned into the massive gates housing the UN headquarters. Parking my car, I moved into the amazingly huge - no, make that a-MAZE-ingly huge - HQ building.

As I waited in the Secretariat, I checked my notes for the time.

Delios Zelensky Romanovalov.

No wonder both liberals and conservatives in America were freaking out. You'd think the dude was Russian! The conspiracy theorists on Twitter did, at least. Actually, he was from the south east of Europe - you know, that part of Europe that you and I don't think of as Europe?

This man was reputed to be a maverick. He had evidently been marked out for his ambition by his predecessor.

And those were chiefly the reasons why Washington was wary of him. His Excellency had made no secret of the fact that he wanted the UN to assume a more proactive role in peacemaking processes world over. "Proactive", of course, translates as problematic for those of us already entrenched neck-deep in these conflicts. And if there's one thing you don't want as a superpower entrenched in an ongoing conflict, it's the addition of a new party to the conflict. Trust me.

Also, rumor had it that His Excellency wanted "solid, tangible and immediate action" on a "significant" reduction in nuclear arsenal. Oh boy, I sure hoped we weren't going down *that* rabbit hole!

Although American media had gone hammer and tongs after him - Fox pronounced him 'a raging liberal lunatic' while CNN termed him 'a potentially problematic Russian sympathizer' - the rest of the world media was going gaga over UN's youngest-ever general secretary. But beside the fact that he was 37 and had been under-secretary general for a decade, we knew precious little about the man himself.

"Mr. Green, His Excellency is ready to receive you."

The moment of truth was here.

"Well, Mr. Secretary-General, let's see what you've got!" I murmured under my breath.

When I entered, he was buried in paperwork right to the collar. And that's not even hyperbolically speaking! He was flitting through stashes and stashes of documents out of a pair of the deepest, most thoughtful blue eyes I've ever seen.

The corners of his mouth were twitched into a perpetual half-smile, as if amused at the very idea of existence.

He looked absurdly young for his surroundings, more like an intern than the leader of the entire organisation.

So this was the supposed Russian accomplice. He looked the part alright. But did my pre-conceived notions get a jolt when he spoke!

" Mr. Green, I apologize for having kept you waiting!" He said warmly, and to my mild astonishment, in a very pronounced British accent. This accent discrepancy caught me unawares. Stunned for a second, I slowly took the proffered hand, and went, "Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Roma... Romano ... Romanonovalovav".

Oh the ignominy! Never in my 40 years of diplomatic service had I messed up a name before! I suppose age does catch up with you after all, eh?

But Mr. Secretary-General simply appeared bemused at the slip-up.

"Just Delios is fine." He said good-humoredly.
"Do sit down, Mr. Green." He continued, with a drawl that would have done Margaret Thatcher proud.

" Thank you, Mr. Delios. As the United States permanent representative to the UN, I'd like to extend our congratulations to you upon your election as Secretary General. We look forward to working with you to strengthen the tenets of this great institution and to uphold the vision of the founders of the United Nations and the founding principles as encapsulated in the UN Charter and also the Bill of Rights of Man, which..."

"A truce on these formalities, Mr. Green! Can't we skip the jargon and get to the point? What is it that your mighty masters in Washington want?" He said languidly, perhaps a tad impatiently, but pleasantly still.

I was confounded. 'Getting straight to the point' is certainly not how welt politik usually works. It's generally more of here-we-go-beating- 'round-the-bush. My dignity was not a little bruised at such a breach of the protocols I held so dear to my diplomatic heart.

"Well.. ahem..um..Mr. Delios, my masters in Washington, as you so quaintly put it, want to convey to you that we are willing to cooperate with you on matters of international concern, but we would like for you to acknowledge and respect American sovereignty and America's right to protect its interests and those of its allies.

Also, as one of its founding members, we urge you to keep the UN out of the conflicts in the Middle East, Ukraine, Africa, Afghanistan and so on, where it has traditionally maintained a policy of non-intervention, perhaps for the better. It would certainly be for the best of all involved not to disrupt the delicate status quo." I recited somewhat pompously; because of a truth, it does feel rather grandiose to be the one dictating terms.

I looked at the man who had afforded me a silent hearing through my somewhat lengthy monologue. He had remained

impassive throughout, but those blue eyes were dancing with devilry. He wore a quiet suppressed smile, which made me feel as if *I* was the one uttering inanities.

But I felt encouraged and perhaps prematurely victorious when he gave me a silent go on gesture.

"Also, Washington is disturbed by reports of an enforced reduction in nuclear stockpiles - which, if true, would cause a serious revaluation of our relation with the organisation and our greater role within it. Thus, we would appreciate a categorical denial of these very reports." I continued.

"Oh, it's a threat, is it? A threat veiled in the eloquent niceties of diplomatic language. " He chuckled.

I flushed slightly. This was outright bizarre. I wasn't used to such plain-speaking. In our diplomatic circles, we are generally a little more…um...discreet.

"Well, if that's any comfort to you - no, those reports aren't true. Not in the literal sense of the word, anyway. My ambitions are not to reduce the world's nuclear stockpile.."

I heaved a sigh of visible relief, but there was mischief in his eyes still which unsettled me.

"That's reassuring." I said cautiously.

"Yes, as I was saying - I do not aim to merely reduce nuclear warheads. I intend to get rid of them completely." He said matter-of-factly, dropping the bombshell with a completely straight face.

I blew up.


In my indignation, I committed the greatest diplomatic faux pas ever. Before I could even stop them, the words were out of my mouth.

"You must be mad!" I cried in utter disbelief.

"Call me that if you will!" He shrugged lightly

"Stark, raving mad!!" I raved, almost deliriously at this point.

"Surely, SURELY you're joking, Mr. Delios?!" I almost begged rather than asked, shaking him by the shoulders - another grave diplomatic aberration, and my third of the day.

Now, if you are thinking that I was overreacting - which you probably are - you must at least partly absolve me of blame. Can you even imagine the NIGHTMARE of negotiations to follow?

My diplomatic sensibilities were hoping fervently that this was some cruel, sadistic prank after all.

But a look of steely determination had crept into those merry, blue eyes, and I knew all was lost.

"No. No, I'm not, Mr. Green. For too long now, the UN has had its hands tied by the dictates and fancies of the Big and Powerful.

For too long, we have been acquiescent bystanders, and the price has been paid in blood!

The buck stops here, and now. We can create a difference, I know we can! This organisation will not be silenced any longer. The world deserves better from us. Surely even you see the irony of a peace-keeping organisation being asked to keep out of peace processes?"

I could no longer complain of flippancy or nonchalance in his manner. His very voice reverberated with emotion as he spoke now. I would have found this speech stirring, had not my practical turn of mind immediately recognized it as idyllic impracticality.

"All that is very well, Mr. Delios. But let me tell you this unequivocally at this very junction - your plan is doomed from the conception. What more, your childish insistence will be the ruining of the entire UN as well as yourself. There is no way America or Russia or any of the modern power centers will ever take all these changes sitting down." I said, returning frankness for frankness.

"Then let them take it standing up!" He quipped. "Perhaps we could teach them a lesson or two in ending conflicts in under a decade!"

I'll admit I ended up giving him 'the look' at this. Another diplomatic faux pas - I'd had so many by this stage, it didn't even matter. But anyhow, it worked.

With much more becoming gravity, Delios said-

"Alright, I’ll admit that you're right. This is a threat to the very existence of this body. But honestly, I'd rather have the organisation perish in the attempt to do its job than to sit by watching shamefacedly as millions of human lives are ruined.

I'm willing to risk the wrath of the US and Russia and Israel and Arabia and Turkey and China and the EU, and all the rest of your power centers. They don't really care about peace or democracy or humanity - just their own interests!

We can create a world completely devoid of violence. A world where no child ever has to live through the sound of gunshots and bombings. A world where weapons are obsolete relics of the past. Heck, a world where no one even *knows* what this thing called war is!"

It was my turn to wear a suppressed smile now.

"You're smiling Mr. Green. You don't believe it possible then?"

"I'm afraid not, Mr. Delios. It's a lovely vision and all, but utopian. Absolutely detached from reality. And you are going to be disappointed." I said matter-of-factly.

"Oh, we'll see about that! A twelvemonth, Mr. Green, just twelve months! Give me twelve months, and you'll see that anything, just about anything is possible - you just have to begin, and never look back. "

Oh, the naïveté of youth! I truly pitied this man for his infectious optimism. But I also knew for a certainty that he would fail. Idealists always do. And then they crumble, as their ideas get devoured by the beast of cold, harsh reality. Mr. Secretary-General would soon find out that he had bitten off more than he could ever hope to chew.

The last six months of my service were fraught with intense negotiations and hectic parleys. The world was in a state of upheaval. Quite predictably, the UN's new, more assertive posturing caused an uproar across the globe.

And yet, much to my surprise, there was real change too. Real, positive change.

In Afghanistan and Syria, peace deals were reached, and they seemed to be working too!

UN peacekeeping troops had established a buffer zone in Crimea.

Press suppression was smoothed out in Belarus, Poland and Hungary.

Talks were on in Yemen, Iraq and many other places.

Former war zones were being rebuilt and populations reinstated.

The veto was abolished - much to the chagrin of the permanent membership lot - because apparently Delios thought it was unfair. I thought this change rather unnecessary, though, but well, whatever!

I had never seen anything like this before, not in my 40 years of service. In a short span of time, the UN had created such tremendous change. And all this, despite the backlash!

I admit without any shame, and with much joy that Delios had proved me wrong.

So very often talks are just that - mere talks, rarely translating to any concrete action on ground. But this seemed to be an enchanted time.

Truly, it's amazing how much can be accomplished if only one has a mind to actually do something!

And as for the man behind all these changes - Delios and I had developed a rare, rather unlikely friendship. Although he was grievously busy most of the time, what with all the unrelenting deadlocks; and although the harsh gap between vision and reality frustrated him, none of it ever seemed to break his spirit.

His entire team drew strength from their plucky leader. There was a renewed energy, an urgency of action, an exuberance, even through the most nerve-wracking of situations. Each time you entered this building, in the very air, you could smell determination: and freshly brewed coffee, because determination, of course, smells of coffee.

Though he never divulged any inside details - nor did I expect him to - he often confided his troubles in me.

"How's the big peace plan going, Mr. Ambitious?"

"Uggghh, don't ask!!"

"India's ready to denuclearize, provided China and Pakistan do; Pakistan's ready if India is. China won't until the US does first. The US and Russia each wants the other to denuclearize, and neither of them cares to be the first. Oh, and the rest still keep pretending they don't have nukes at all, like they have no earthly idea what the word even means! It's like one of those annoying logic puzzles - and only more so because it's for real!" And he threw his hands up despairingly, before breaking into characteristic peals of laughter.

This man's sense of humor always came to his rescue.

"Look at the bright side, Delios - France and Britain have agreed." I suggested, helpfully.

"And they would've probably done it even if I hadn't come along in the first place!" He remarked gloomily.

But the clouds never do stay long. Not about him, at least. In a moment, he was back to his upbeat self. "Well, if there really is a bright side, I'd say it was how well Russia and the US have been getting along! Only yesterday I saw the Russian and US presidents sitting together after the official meeting and cribbing about me like gossiping teenage girls - would you believe that, now? The Russian and American Presidents getting along famously like that! I've given them a common enemy, I suppose!" He said with a grin, leaning in confidentially.

Which was true, of course. But I'm not sure it's something I'd be too happy about.

If you think about it, the last time Russia and America were on the same side of an issue, it was World War 2... after which realization, you probably want to stop thinking about it.

" I daresay it's one of the newfound friends who had this quaint little token of love delivered to me today!" He quoth, dismissively waving a little piece of paper.

I instinctively snatched the menacing sheet and scanned its contents. It was a death threat, written somewhat hurriedly, in a barely-legible scrawl. Unsigned, of course, but it reeked of something beyond an empty threat. Hoax notes wouldn't make it past security, all the way to the Secretary-General office.

"You need to be careful, Delios. Don't take this lightly!" I admonished.

But he just shrugged in typical Devil-may-care fashion.

"La! You wouldn't have me give up on a lifetime's work for some anonymous chit of paper, would you?" He said lightly.

It was clear to me that he was running grave danger.

As with all change, there was pushback . All these changes had earned him no friends in the echelons of power. He had invited the irk of some of the most heartless on the planet. He had powerful enemies.

And yet, was it Churchill or was it Atlee who said it? It was a Brit, anyhow, who said - "You have enemies? Good. It means sometime, somewhere in your life, you stood up for something you believed in."

Delios certainly believed in this.

One thing I found remarkable about this man was how deeply he felt others' loss and pain. He could talk about the suffering of war victims so personally, as if he had been there, and lived through it with them.

The reason for this, he confided in me once.

"I.. I had lost someone I loved..."

He whispered, without elaborating further, and I didn't press him to either. That one sentence told me all I needed to know.

I know from experience that a dear one's memory has the power to propel you to do the unthinkable as well. It's a sort of hidden strength, bittersweet and painful, but very powerful.

Tedious as all the excess work was, I was almost sorry that my time in service was drawing to a close before I could see the full scale of difference created. All my former skeptical practicality had given way to rose-tinted optimism. And why not? I had seen the seemingly impossible being transcended and tamed into submission by the sheer force of grit and determination.

My last few days at the UN were full of lasts and farewells. Last envoy meeting, last press briefing, last session in the general assembly. I barely had time to see Delios, and, I presumed, neither did he.

And then, suddenly one day catastrophe struck out of nowhere.

I was merely walking along the long, winding corridors when I could just feel in my old bones that something was wrong. Something had happened.

I reached our US representative office to subdued murmurs all around. Hushed whispers of 'assassination' were floating in the winds by now. My heart sank . My greatest fears had been realized.

We switched on the news to the headlines screaming "UN secretary general ASSASSINATED!!". I could only stare at the screen blankly, as we saw Delios sprightly walk down the fateful aircraft stairs, when out of nowhere, a vial was flung at him. No one had any time to react.

The vial cracked, and its accursed contents did their job.

He collapsed on the spot.

An unearthly hush had descended upon the entire room. It all seemed like a bad dream.

They said it was a nerve agent. And in that infuriating way peculiar to news channels, they kept displaying that clip on repeat, but simply would NOT say whether he was still alive!

After what seemed like an eternity, we received intelligence that he was, thankfully, alive, but in a critical condition.

For an entire anxious week, his life was despaired of. But then, he pulled through.

My last meeting with him was in the hospital.

He had turned even the hospital room into an office of sorts! Neat stashes of documents jostled with bottles of medicine to claim their territory.

Even when I entered, he was busily rescheduling meetings.

From his demeanor, you'd scarcely think that this man had just regained consciousness after a week of being comatose!

He greeted me with a string of work-related worries.

"We've been set at least three weeks behind schedule with this stupid fiasco!" He complained grudgingly. "Two dozen meetings now need to be rescheduled - Two dozen, can you imagine! What, calm down? You want me to calm down?! How d'you expect me to rest when there's so much work to be done? Jez, hand me the original schedule for next week, please? Now, if we shift the South Africa summit here, and the New Zealand meeting there..."

Nothing I said could console him over the lost time.

"Have they found out who was behind this yet? Though, I daresay the nerve agent should surely signal Russian involvement." I said, internally relieved that my country had nothing to do with the ugly business.

"True that.. but it seems the agent for the job was an American. Oh, I wouldn't be surprised if this was a joint enterprise; after all, there's many that have much to gain from it!"

My former relief was clearly unjustified.

"Shouldn't you take this more seriously? They may try again, Delios." I warned.
"So they may. All the more the reason we should push ahead with the schedule with greater urgency!
Now, Jez, can you arrange with the EU office for Thursday? And on Friday, if we could get the High Commission..."

Oh, there was just no reasoning with this man! He was unfazed as ever, even in the face of death.

On my last day at the UN, I jokingly told my successor what I had been told before, " Be careful with this man, he's crazy!"

The last I saw of him was a man buried to the collar in files and paperwork - just as he had been when I had first seen him.

They had told me he was crazy. And they were right. He was. He was crazy. Crazy enough to dream, crazy enough to dare. But then, perhaps sometimes the world just needs a little dose of crazy. Someone crazy enough to change the world. Yes, it does take crazy to change the world.

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