On Saying No

As the story goes, a diplomat is a man who when he says “yes” means “maybe”, when says “maybe” means “no”, and if he says “no”, is no diplomat. I see no reason to disbelieve it considering the firmest refusal in diplomatic cut-and-thrust is the formulation “That may not be possible”, or further qualifying it: “That may not be entirely possible”. In the same strain, a celebrated humourist once speculated about a race of beings on a planet yet to be discovered by mankind where there is no definite and exact word for a refusal, and this is done, when required, by nodding your head and saying “I’ll get back to you.”

“No” is theoretically one of the easiest words to pronounce – a single syllable in length – but still we…okay, I can’t say it enough. In this, I feel lie the roots of some of the biggest problems I have inflicted on myself – the tendency to succumb to salami tactics, or hold firmly to the stand that this is as far as I can go/have gone and now nothing doing till you perform your side of the understanding…. a state of affairs I hold most deplorable in myself. I do believe there are others with the same “shortcoming” but I still have to meet someone of the clan. All I have had the chance to encounter are the ones who have no qualms in expressing refusal or denial, even if they have earlier expressed their willingness… There is a legal remedy for this, but it works on strong evidence, preferably written – a course not quite feasible in our daily social interactions. A pity.

However, what makes it more painful for me is that I have cause to regret this course of action despite having a pantheon of heroes and figures worthy of emulation, comprising among others, rather inflexible Prussian/German generals and Soviet diplomats – no shrinking violets when it came to adopting and remaining steadfast on the stand of maintaining their interests. From the latter class, take Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko, the Foreign Minister of the USSR for almost three decades, and earlier its first permanent representative to the United Nations when it came up. He became to be known Mr Nyet (Russian for No, my dear unlinguals) for his regular use of the veto in the Security Council in those early days of the Cold War

But it is the first category that is more fixed in my mind. If I may make a brief digression – in fact, I will. Lat month or so, I happened to read a book set in the then East Germany, in the tumultuous days of 1989, where somewhere in the beginning, the protagonist is being sent by the Stasi on a mission and requests permission to do something and is met with a curt “Not Possible.” This struck a chord in my brain and I began to frantically think where I had heard this statement. It took some time with my brain on full power (a state I sparingly resort to, in the days of dishonour, before it came to me….. the film chronicling that misguided attack intended to shorten World War II but becoming a costly affair for the Allies, a film that conveys all this by its very name “A Bridge Too Far”. It was in this splendid film that I did hear these words in a apt setting, in an unforgettable scene. Let me share it with you…..

As the scene unfolds, we see a British Red Beret (paratrooper, for you uninitiated ones) officer and a Dutch civilian, Dr Jan Spaander (Laurence Olivier, in a remarkable role) riding on a captured American jeep escorted by a German kubelwagen, through the streets of the devastated Armhem to the German headquarters to request a truce. The expressions of Dr Spander’s face (riding on the front seat) as he takes in the destruction – dogs nosing in the rubble, a couple of children standing with blank looks – are unforgettable. And suddenly in an ornate hall – facing the black-uniformed SS Brigadefuhrer Ludwig (a composite of Waffen SS generals Heinz Harmel – a highly decorated veteran who did not want his name to be used, and Walther Harzer, played by Hardy Kruger, whose quintessential Aryan looks, blong hair and blue eyes made him apt for such roles).

The positioning indicates the situation – Ludwig (to the centre-right of the frame)  is standing with his arms behind his back in the classical dominant stance, with two of his men at the requisite distance behind him, a nervous Dr Spaander in front of him, hands in front and his hat clutched in his hand, and the British officer rather listlessly behind the good doctor. The first words were:

Ludwig (politely but firmly): “Not possible”.

Well, that is the standard I should aspire to…


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