They were two throbbing bundles of tangled nerves. Half an hour passed. Some high flown dialogue...some shrill music. Then on a sudden impulse Niranjan turned Sumitra's face towards himself and planted a long urgent uncontrolled kiss...on her lips...the very first of its kind in his life of thirty six years....The voice of Vikram Seth? Or is it some romantic angst from Amitav Ghosh? No, the prose of P.V. Narasimha Rao.
If you're a writer at heart, liberalising the national economy must be a bit of a bore. How tedious must seem those long hours explaining things to the Opposition, when one would much rather create Love on a lap-top. And this is exactly what Rao is doing. He is writing a novel. It is called The Other Half and is as yet unfinished. But close friends have been allowed to take a look at some of the chapters in order to provide informed criticism. He types at night on his lap-top computer and is looking for a potential publisher.
The novel appears to be semi-autobiographical. Written in rather old-fashioned English, it describes the life of a political worker from his days as an MLA to his rise to membership of the Lok Sabha. The plot may not seem very original but Rao is perhaps the only premier in recent times to choose writing a novel over jogging on the beach like Bill Clinton or knocking back too much Smirnoff like his counterpart in Russia. Of course, representatives of the people have written in the past, but their efforts have been restricted to memoirs or learned essays. Fiction writing for prime ministers is still relatively undiscovered territory.
The novel was begun over a decade ago. "Rao has been writing for years," says a friend. During a visit to America in 1990, Rao, then minister for external affairs, contacted an editorial consultant for his recommendations. The book was liked and he was advised to complete it.
However, the secret has been so well guarded that even his close associates are surprised. "I must say I haven't heard of his novel, or read it," says a senior Janata Dal leader from Andhra Pradesh. "I have only seen his translations, which have not impressed me very much. After all, one can't be a politician and great litterateur at the same time."
But posterity may yet remember Rao as India's only paperback writing PM. The book in many ways seems to be a chronicle of the prime minister's life. The protagonist, "Niranjan", is strikingly similar to Rao. A well-educated scion of an upper caste family, Niranjan is a man without ambition who finds himself "sucked into the political whirlpool willy nilly".
Hitherto unknown aspects of the prime ministerial soul are revealed. Such as Niranjan's relationship with "Sumitra", which is often described in intensely sexual terms; a relationship that is quite avant garde in its unrestrained physical intimacy outside traditional bonds. Indeed, Niranjan's equation with women, first with Sumitra then with Maya (the wife of an old frielid), is sharply ontrasted with the "fornicating sprees" of other politicians in the book.
Interestingly, a certain degree of contempt for politicians and politics in general is a dominant theme. There is Chaudhury, "a great believer in money and tactics"; Jeevan Prasad, for whom "sex was like itch" and "any female vaginal orifice" was satisfactory; and Ramchander, or "vakra buddhi" (crooked brain), a believer in ends above means. Phrases such as "dirty politics", "lobbying and whispering campaigns", "Delhi's political busy bodies and hangers on", "the ginger groups battening on Indira (Gandhi's) political largesse" are some of the phrases used to describe Niranjan's disillusionment with Nehru's legatees.
Perhaps The Other Half is an expression of Rao's vicarious life, a sort of cathartic exercise. It is only in the novel that the trusted lieutenant of The Dynasty makes his disapproval of Indira Gandhi's methods apparent. It is only through the vehicle of a quasi fictional account that Rao engages in great philosophical and moral debates with equally brilliant colleagues. And sadly, it is only in a story that "Niranjan" is able to rise to the summit of his chosen profession, with honour and reputation intact. In this allegorical tale there are no Harshad Mehtas turning up with suitcases to destabilise the creative equilibrium.
Yet, the book is also rich in the sleazier aspects of the Powers That Be. There are the sexual exploits of the landlords of Andhra Pradesh, the manner in which voters are wooed with liquor before the start of electoral campaigns and the machiavellian machinations for portfolios--chapters that are set forth almost like a personal expiation. "He has always been perceptive," says Rao's friend, "always had a literary bent of mind.
In fact, the novel is not the only work of fiction that the prime minister has written. There is also a short skit, called
The Reshuffle, which deals with the mounting anticipation and subsequent anti-climax of a cabinet reshuffle. Rao prides himself on writing his own speeches too. Friends speak of an incident when an economist was exiled to the Planning Commission when rumours began that the economist was drafting some of the prime minister's addresses. Opening up the economy is all very well but not when the chief executive's own intellectual property rights are concerned.
Further, he has not only translated several Telugu works of literature but has also written a number of articles. At the height of the Emergency, he wrote a series of critical articles in Mainstream magazine, under the byline, "A congress-man". In the 1990 annual issue of Mainstream, he wrote a signed piece on India. This is a land of so many contradictions, he said, that the only possible solution is one of "drift".
Indeed Rao's legendary indecisiveness is quite well explained in the novel when Niranjan as a minister debates whether or not to sentence an influential criminal to death. "But this decision had remained intact for a long long time...and the line-up of pros and cons made the decision seem crucial. It also seemed to have a ring of symbolism. Like a definite road from the plaza--sloping, rapid, irreversible...one thing could lead to another... eventually to loss of position."
It must be tough being the First Among Equals. One of the most difficult tasks is to find an honest opinion of one's talents. The manuscript has reportedly been sent to an eminent academic for her approval, without letting her know the identity of the author. "She liked it," says a Rao confidant. "He was very keen that someone non-political read the book to find out whether it will appeal to a larger audience."
So while colleagues connive and rivals plot his overthrow, Rao reads and writes. Many years ago when asked if he had read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In The Time Of Cholera, he replied that he had done so--in the original Spanish. Apart from English, Hindi and Telugu, he is fluent in Sanskrit, Urdu and French. He reportedly possesses a huge library consisting of as much fiction as biographies and essays. Narasimha Rao is the Aristotelian dream come true--a learned man of property discharging the duties of the 'polls'. Perhaps he lacks the killer instinct. But then so did Hamlet