New US envoy comes with memories of Panipat visits, halwa-puri

“I was very moved as the plane was landing in Delhi because I have a lot of thoughts of my father… I was flooded with memories of my grandmother,” Keshap told The Sunday Express, in his first exclusive interview after coming to India.

Atul Keshap remembers travelling to his grandmother’s home in Panipat on summer vacations along with his father in the 1970s and early ’80s, on state road transport buses. She would dote on her grandson, who had come from overseas, and feed him halwa-puri.

On Friday night, Keshap, 50, was back in India. This time to take charge as the Chargé d’Affaires at the US Embassy.

“I was very moved as the plane was landing in Delhi because I have a lot of thoughts of my father… I was flooded with memories of my grandmother,” Keshap told The Sunday Express, in his first exclusive interview after coming to India.

Keshap’s father Keshap Chander Sen was a Partition-era refugee, who came from Lahore to Delhi. He graduated from the Delhi School of Economics in the late 1940s and joined the civil service in Punjab. After serving in Shimla for seven years, he went to London to pursue his PhD in economics, where he met Keshap’s mother Zoë Calvert.

Between 1958 and 1960, Calvert was posted in the US Embassy in Delhi as a diplomat, from where she moved to the US Embassy in London, where she met Sen in the early ’60s.

Keshap’s father would go on to serve at the International Labour Organisation and several other UN agencies.

Keshap remembers his mother talking about her time in Delhi as a diplomat. “Chanakyapuri (where the US Embassy is located) was at that time a construction site, with countries building their embassies there. There was no wall around the US Embassy, you just stepped over the hedge, walked across the street, stepped over another hedge, and you were at the Embassy. She said, at night, you could hear the jackals, because it was just a jungle.”

In December 1959, during the time she served at the Embassy, US President Dwight D Eisenhower visited India. It was the first visit by a US President to independent India.

Keshap was born in 1971 in Nigeria, when his father was posted there. He says they made frequent visits to India. “I have these vivid memories of summer times in north India. And I remember India of the mid-1970s, so different from the India of today. It’s amazing what India has achieved in the past 50 years,” he says.

Keshap’s father settled in Mysore in the last 15 years of his life, founding a charity institution called ‘Lost Cause-Mini Fund’, providing books, medicines and food to the needy. He passed away in 2008.

By then, Keshap, a career diplomat, was serving at the US Embassy in New Delhi as a political counsellor in his first stint there from 2005 to 2008. He was part of the team that worked on the Indo-US nuclear deal under then US Ambassador David Mulford.

Between 2013 and 2015, Keshap served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, working closely with Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal to coordinate US government policy towards India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Maldives and Bhutan. From 2015 to 2018, he was US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives.

Before coming to India, he was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and was one of the key officials working on the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

Back for his second stint at the US Embassy in Delhi, Keshap says the posting is “very meaningful for me”. “My family’s history with India goes a long way back… and I’ve added my own chapter to the family’s Book of Life in India… I want to do the best I can, and I’m glad to have the opportunity.”

Keshap is likely to hold fort till US President Joe Biden gets his nominations for ambassadorships approved by the Senate.

Talking of all that he likes about India, Keshap says top of his list are ‘Daal makhni and naan’ in food, Amir Khan and Three Idiots in Bollywood, and Delhi, Mysore and Shimla in places. “I hope that’s a diplomatic enough answer,” he laughs, during a Zoom interview on a Saturday afternoon, wearing a black T-shirt against a map of India as backdrop.

Having played a role in the first Quad leaders’ summit on February 18, Keshap says, “I was very fortunate to help organise and to join the ministerial meeting, which was barely two weeks after Tony Blinken was confirmed as the US Secretary of State… That to me signifies the commitment of the Biden administration to prioritising the Quad and relations with India.”

Keshap counts the vaccine initiative as among the ambitious goals of Quad. “We have a lot of faith that the four leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific can achieve great things together, that we have commonality of viewpoint and commonality of values, and that we work well together as governments and people, and that we want to see positive change in world affairs. The Quad vision is a very positive vision,” he says.

Before he left to take up his assignment in India, Keshap says, he went to meet his mother Zoë, who is settled in Charlottesville in Virginia. “I asked her for blessings. We exchanged lots of stories from the past… and then here I am.”

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