February 29, 2020
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A Well-Spoken Book

Old wine in a new bottle? But, then, some vintage wines are so superb that one cannot tire of savouring them

A Well-Spoken Book
Jitender Gupta
A Well-Spoken Book
The Book I Won`t Be Writing And Other Essays
By H.Y. Sharada Prasad
Chronicle Books Rs 425; Pages: 330
What can one say about someone who resolutely refuses to write a book and yet wins instant acclaim with the appearance of the maiden collection of his newspaper writings teasingly titled The Book I Won’t be Writing and Other Essays? In H.Y. Sharada Prasad’s case, however, this has caused no surprise. One can only envy him.

Sharada spent long years of his working life first as a sarkari sampadak, to use his own description, and then as information advisor to two prime ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (with only a short stint in Morarji Desai’s service in 1977-78). As IA he "ghost-wrote" for his bosses tens of thousands of pages. But that alone cannot explain his resolve, on retirement, to "write no more". It is more likely that as a man of impeccable discretion who knows too much he deemed silence to be the best policy.

It is to M.J. Akbar’s credit that, as editor of The Asian Age, he persuaded Sharada to write a weekly column that has been a joy to read over the years and, as a publisher, has now brought out this delightful book.

Collections of old articles are often looked down upon as the proverbial old wine in a new bottle. But there are exceptions. Some vintage wines are so superb that one cannot tire of savouring them. Like Sham Lal’s A Hundred Encounters, a collection of his superlative pieces of literary criticism and studies in the pathology of globalisation as well as the collapse of communism. Sharada’s book is in the same class.

His style is elegant and his wit brightens it. The range of subjects he deals with is astonishingly wide: from diplomacy to British monarchy; science to Sanskrit; the glory of the Bangladesh War to the flaws of Indian bureaucracy; and as a chapter in itself, from ‘Gandhi’s dhoti to Gujral’s Safari Suit’.

The only part of the book not published earlier, the text of a lecture delivered in Bangalore, is in a class by itself. Its title, ‘One Family: three Prime Ministers’ speaks for itself. Sharada had edited selections of Nehru’s speeches, to the latter’s satisfaction and worked very closely with Indira Gandhi from her first day in office to the last. His association with Rajiv was not that long nor that close but it was long and close enough.

On all three, Sharada has written with both conviction and candour though he has left out much that needed to be said. For instance, everything he has written in praise of Indira Gandhi (there are five other chapters on her, besides the lecture) is accurate and broadly objective. On the negative side of her total dominance of the national scene for two decades, however, he has carried economy of words too far.

For instance, his oft-quoted remark on the Emergency—"She ensured that no future Prime Minister would be tempted to resort to it"—is totally unexceptionable. So is his reference to the "chill that hung in the room at 1, Akbar Road when the cabinet gave its approval to the proclamation". But is that all that needs to be said about that ghastly episode in the history of the world’s largest democracy?

One must admire Sharada for taking on all those for whom it is an open season on Nehru and who tirelessly depict him as the cause of all that is wrong with India. On the subject of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, he says, "Even the fact of the assassination of two among the three prime ministers of this dynasty has not assuaged the hostility towards them among academics, political activists and media luminaries. " No one outside the three categories mentioned would object to this remark.

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