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December 11, 2010

At Peace In Mumbai

Text by Vinod Advani. Photographs by Ritam Banerjee

Comfortable sofas, bookshelves lined with a variety of reading matter, paintings by Indian and European artists and even a small kitchenette where Marijke van Drunen Little brews her own coffee. Verve meets the Dutch Consul General in her well-appointed apartment where she has hosted many wine and live classical soirées

  • Marijke van Drunen Little, Dutch Consul General
  • Marijke van Drunen Little, Dutch Consul General
    Marijke van Drunen Little: in a tranquil space
  • Marijke van Drunen Little, Dutch Consul General

Each time I have met Marijke (pronounced Marai-kay), I am struck by her degree of self-possession. She is always in control, the calm eye in the midst of a swirling storm, virtues amply reflected in her aesthetically furnished South Mumbai apartment where she is known to host wonderful wine and live classical music soirees. The word disarray, professional or emotional, will probably never find its way into any sentence that describes Marijke van Drunen Little, Consul General of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. In another life, she could have been the Queen of The Netherlands. “No, thank you very much, that’s a tough job to do,” she laughs, whilst stroking her dog called, wait for it, Shanti!

Her dogs have always been named Peace or Shanti or variations thereof. Why? “Because my aim of being in the Foreign Service is towards peace and helping mankind.” I am intrigued by this idea which seems to have both defined and informed her career. Most diplomats I have had the pleasure of knowing over the last 20 years usually say, “Because we want to explore the world.”

She had already done that, explored the world that is, as a child. She was born in Kuala Lumpur and then every three years, as her parents hop-scotched across the globe, Marijke schooled, made friends, became a teenager in different countries. Did she never get sad on always having to leave newly-formed friends? “I never had that feeling. Basically, I became so used to it. Life is one big adventure and even now I get itchy feet after three years. At age 12, I arrived in Amsterdam not speaking a word of Dutch and having to go to Dutch school, and then I was going to secondary schooling. Children are not always very kind.” That must have been tough. “It was!”

Karma is another word that crops up frequently in her conversations. Karma, she is convinced, guided her career as a diplomat and Karma brought her to India twice in a career that has seen 14 postings, not all of them in convivial countries. In the late ’90s, she was posted in Belgrade, when the former Yugoslavia spiralled towards tragic disintegration. Looking back, Marijke recounts the horrors she witnessed, dispassionately but was obviously affected. “I was in Belgrade for nine months and we evacuated three times – at least my staff evacuated three times. I stayed behind the second time. It seemed like three years. I was the one responsible for organising all the evacuations and things like that. From Belgrade I actually went via Macedonia where I was faced with the refugee camps. I went to Albania to coordinate the humanitarian and consular assistance my country was providing to the refugees from Kosovo. That was another six more months.”

She seems to enjoy the life of a diplomat in Mumbai. “My jurisdiction stretches from Gujarat right across to Hyderabad all the way down to Tamil Nadu. What I really like here is I never feel threatened. The only threatening thing is basically if there is a terrorist attack. But otherwise I walk out with the dogs late at night, everybody’s always smiling and everybody’s nice. I do have frustrations with the traffic; I have frustrations with the lack of respect for the environment that Indians show. The one thing that would make life much more liveable here is if everybody had a little more respect for their surroundings.”

Many years ago, Marijke made a conscious decision not to get married and to live life on her own terms. Along the way, there would be friends, lovers, whatever, but “I think it was basically more a necessity in the beginning, because joining the Foreign Service when I did, which is now 30 years ago, it was very conservative and there was a regulation that if women got married they had to leave the service. The men could stay of course but women basically were expected to resign.” Do you think if there are more women diplomats in the world than men, it would be a better place, I ask her. “I definitely agree with you. The best thing is that I have a balance. Men learn a lot from women how they approach things and we women learn from men. My approach is I try and plant a seed; it’s always easier to convince people that what they are doing is their idea.”

I discover myself returning to her obsession with peace. “Violence will always be there. But, you have to be able to contain it. Well, basically, I deal with anger by counting to 10. Anger is damaging. If I am really angry, frustrated, disappointed…I mean really so that it goes to my soul, then I will sit down and write. That’s fantastic therapy.”

It’s a calming place; where she writes out her private thoughts, her prose, her poetry, her therapy. It’s her private space on the first floor of her duplex apartment, where Shanti her four-legged friend lolls quietly, waiting for Marijke to smile at her once again, the day’s travails over. Comfortable sofas, a bookshelf lined with a variety of reading matter (some of which she has kept for the days when she has more time on her hands), paintings by Indian and European artists and even a small kitchenette where she brews her own coffee. This then is the world Marijke has so very kindly allowed us into. Her private space which I have described above. As well as her public space on the ground floor, replete with antique furniture and charming bric-a-brac, photographed exclusively for Verve. All we can say is Dank U, Marijke.

Sinterklaas Visits
It’s Sinterklaas and not Santa Claus in The Netherlands, explains Marijke van Drunen Little The tradition of St Nicholas is not synonymous with the role of Santa Claus. In The Netherlands, legend has it that every year Sinterklaas (Dutch name for St Nicholas) arrives by way of a steamboat from Spain two weeks before his traditional birthday, December 6th, along with his helpers, Zwarte Piets (Black Petes), who help disperse the gifts and candy to all the good children. Wearing traditional bishop’s robes, Sinterklaas rides into town on a white horse to be greeted by the mayor. A motorcade and a brass band begin a great parade which leads Sinterklaas and his Piets through the town. Nearly every city, town and village has its own Sinterklaas parade.

The Dutch celebrate Sinterklaas on December 5, St Nicholas Eve, with festive family parties when gifts are exchanged. As the Dutch like surprises, a small gift may be wrapped in a huge box, or it may be hidden and require clues to discover where it is.

A knock comes on the door and a black gloved hand appears to toss candies and pepernoten inside. A large burlap bag, de zak van Sinterklaas, also appears filled with gifts. At the table, decorated with speculaas and other sweets, guests may find their initial in a chocolate letter at their places. Food is apt to include hot chocolate, Bishop’s wine and a letter banket.

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