Season of Memoirs
Rejoice. Suddenly three memoirs (Abdul Kalam’s Turning Points, Arjun Singh’s A Grain of Sand and Kuldip Nayar’s Beyond the Lines) are upon us. While journalists like Kuldip Nayar and Khushwant Singh provide the first rough draft of history, prime ministers and presidents in our otherwise argumentative republic shy away from performing this fundamental task. If I am not mistaken, Abdul Kalam is the first president to have written an autobiography. With prime ministers, after Nehru, I.K. Gujral is the only one to have put pen to paper. Why this reticence? In the US and UK, among the first things a departing president or prime minister does is get down to memoir writing. Not only do they earn huge sums of money, they also provide crucial material for historians, scholars and ordinary folk to help understand the past.
In India, a great lacuna exists. The players’ version is missing while the observers’ account (like Kuldip Nayar’s) is available. Thus, what is left behind is incomplete. The responsibility of those holding high public office is not just to do their job but also to record for posterity their years in power. Naturally, there will be competing versions. Happily, that only adds to the richness of material in the public domain.
On more than one occasion, I asked K.R. Narayanan whether he was going to write about his time in Rashtrapati Bhavan. He told me he had his notes ready. So, what held him back? He said if he wrote his memoirs, he would upset some people, and he did not wish to cause offence.
A criticism often levelled at us as a nation is that we have no sense of history, no perspective on the past. How can we? When the people who could help the writing of history remain silent.
Ravages of Time
What is it about Time magazine which makes us go weak in the knees? The extraordinary wall-to-wall coverage in the Indian media of what is seen as the definitive judgement on Manmohan Singh is decidedly over the top. Could it be that we are so much in awe of what foreigners think of us—especially if those foreigners happen to be American—that we automatically assume every word printed in the magazine about our PM is written on stone? I am an admirer of Time. How can I not be when Outlook has “slavishly” followed its formula? Neither do I have any quarrel with the thrust and tone of ‘The Underachiever’ narrative. I am just uncomfortable with the underlying assumption that once Time has spoken, all other voices are superfluous, if not irrelevant.
For at least half a year, we local hacks have offered various versions of the Underachiever theme. Many of us have been considerably harsher in our critique—not merely ‘The Underachiever’ but ‘The Failure’. So, the question to ask is: does the verdict only gather resonance and credibility if it is delivered by the inheritors of Henry R. Luce?
I am half-way through the publishing sensation of the year. It has outsold the Potter books, Da Vinci Code, John Grisham... critics, booksellers, trend-spotters and analysts cannot figure out why rookie author E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, or ‘Mommy Porn’ as it is being commonly labelled , is such a rage. When I went to Bahri’s at Khan Market, they had just two copies left. Mommy Porn is flying off the shelves, with women being the chief consumers.
It’s a silly novel. The carnal activity between the two protagonists, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, is detailed and graphic but well short of explicit. Therefore, it certainly is not selling due to its erotic content. Then why? Ironically, the book turns conventional wisdom—women want equality in bed or better still, want to be on top—on its head. Women, according to James, yearn to be at the bottom, preferably tied up in chains and occasionally flogged. The principal female character in the novel signs a contract drafted by the man in which the woman is referred to as the ‘Submissive’ and the man ‘Dominant’. The document says: “The fundamental terms of this contract is to allow the Submissive to explore her sensuality according to the commands of the Dominant.”
Fifty Shades of Grey is anti-feminist and anti-equality, wherein lies the source of its appeal. Mummies in their mid-30s and early 40s are by all accounts lapping up this reactionary piece of literature. Of course, I am reading it in the interests of professional duty!
The great Irish journalist, Claud Cockburn, won a prize when he submitted for the most boring newspaper headline of the year: ‘Small earthquake in Chile, not many dead’. My candidate for the same prize would be, ‘Paes and Bhupathi break up’. Their soap opera is well past its sell-by date.
An old school chum, now in Canada, rang to ask if I was the same Vinod Mehta who was such a dunce in class
Vinod Mehta is editorial chairman, Outlook, and its founding editor-in-chief; E-mail your diarist: vmehta AT outlookindia.com
In his Delhi Diary (Jul 23), Vinod Mehta bemoans the absence of Indian prime ministers and presidents writing their memoirs, thus enabling the public, and historians, to understand their time better. I think in the world’s largest democracy everyone seems to enjoy the right to free speech except PMs and presidents.
M.H. Rao, Hyderabad
Do we have politicians who’d write an honest autobiography? Would the Indian public accept the truth? In India, an honest biography, like Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Gandhi, would attract needless opprobrium, and mostly by fools who might not even read it.
Paddy Singh, Salisbury, UK
I recall the first president to write his autobiography was Rajendra Prasad. Written in Hindi, its name escapes my often failing memory (I am 99-plus).
Vishwanath Tandon, on e-mail
The memoirs we see in modern times are written to ring the cash registers. Or, they are written to vilify others or glorify themselves. P.V. Narasimha Rao also wrote an autobiography, layering it generously with fiction, and branded it as a novel.
B.V. Gopal Rao, Warangal
Looking at the sensation ‘mommy porn’ has created, it’s time someone created comix with Dominatrix and Submissivix!
Srinivas Shastri, Bangalore
Sorry .... meant "The Queen and her poodles" (his was a freudian slip on the keyboard:-)).
Kya boss ..... just saw the Outlook ad for the revenge of the "emerging" superpower .... Obama "The Underachiever". Next is what "The Queen and his poodles".
Do we really have any politicians who would wrtite an honest autography? Would the Indian public ( the literates apart ) accept the truth therein? An honest autobiography by Gandhi's friend has been banned - I refer to Joseph Lelyveld's book that was banned by the government, by 'holier than thou' idiots who never even read it. Why? Gandhi never claimed that he was the perfect man, nor did he call for worship becoming of a God. Secondly, if an autobiography was written, would it be an honest one? No. Autogbiographies and are more in part to justify something, not really the truth in India. If Sonia were to write one, what would she have to say about Quatrochi? Either nothing or claim he was hounded. And biographies? Again most of them are written by sychophants.
"An old school chum, now in Canada, rang to ask if I was the same Vinod Mehta who was such a dunce in class". What did you say,Mr.Mehta? LOL.
"Everybody's life story is most interesting provided it is told with sincerity", I think it is said by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan..
But all those memoirs now we see in modern times are written to ring cash registers of the authors. If that were not the case, they are written to vilify others or to glorify themselves. P.V.Narasimha Rao also wrote his autobiography with layers of fiction and branding it himself as a novel , though making it obvious that it was his own story.
It is not our Indian tradition to write an epitaph on a tomb stone and also to write an autobiography narrating it with bunches of lies and making it very boring "fiction". A common mans' story when truthfully put down on paper would be as much interesting, readable and even influencing as much as any of sex deva, glamour star or politician’s life story.
TIME is under compulsion. Like a fox at boiling oil , American capitalists are waiting for India’s retail sector to open up to them. Since MM Singh is not dancing to their tune, TIME had to accomplish its job. That is it. Most seriously everything is business, journalism is not excluded and nobody expects journalism to exclude business.
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