December 15, 2019
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Unwritten Chapters

Why does India resist honest biographies? Because the idea of an overarching public space is absent.

Unwritten Chapters
Unwritten Chapters
"Autobiography," wrote Englishman Lord Altrincham, 40 years ago, "is now as common as adultery, and hardly less reprehensible." Reprehensible or not, putting private life on public show is an indulgence few Indians are guilty of. So deliberately do our leaders cultivate this reticence about their personal life that even biographers hardly dare to break through to the real person. Whether it's a hagiography like Gyanwati Darbar's sentimental account of her relationship with Rajendra Prasad, a commissioned biography like Dom Moraes' book on Indira Gandhi, a widow's reminiscences like Maneka Gandhi's tract on Sanjay Gandhi, a serialised confession like J. Jayalalitha's or even a candid autobiography like Khushwant Singh's indiscreet glimpses of the private lives of public leaders, they have invariably merited snubs, tears and court cases instead of the fame and huge advances that herald a new biography in the West.

The scandal that Katherine Frank created here with her revelations on Indira Gandhi had little to do with the revelations themselves, but with her temerity in putting what was common gossip into print.
S. Gopal "She's a foreigner so she can get away with it, but she wouldn't be able to take the same liberties if she were writing about an Englishwoman," India's most reputed historian-biographer Sarvepalli Gopal told Outlook. However, western readers, reared for half a century on soap-opera biographies focusing on their icons' deviant sex lives and rotten childhoods, have become far too inured to be affected by even the wildest surmises dished up by their huge biography industry.

Not unnaturally, biography is one genre of writing that Indian writers are reluctant to undertake, despite the talent which is fuelling a growing industry in Indian novels, now almost always tediously successful.

Says Khushwant Singh: "It's because of our prudishness." He points out that even business magnates, willing to pay huge advances to writers prepared to communicate their life stories, will cry off when it comes to sharing their private lives with readers. When, for example, Singh was commissioned to do a biography of Sir Sri Ram, the family passed on all his private papers, including his correspondence with several women. But when Singh insisted on including these "interesting" aspects of Sri Ram's life, the biography was quickly suppressed and replaced by an official version that blotted out these inconvenient personal details. Similarly with the Wadias, who paid Singh a huge advance to write a history of the original Bombay Dyeing owner. But when they discovered Singh had traced the family connection to Jinnah, whose only daughter married the Wadia heir, they preferred to leave the manuscript with Singh. By the time the Oberois approached him for a biography of the clerk-turned-hotelier, Singh was wiser: he refused to write unless freedom of expression was guaranteed. The project went to a more amenable writer who dished out one of the cliched rags-to-riches stories, erasing all personal traits.

A biography like Janet Morgan's on Edwina Mountbatten, for instance, is unthinkable in India. Unflinchingly tearing down a national English hero like Mountbatten to an egotistical simpleton, she dares to tread where few Indian writers would venture: into the bedroom, propped of course, by irrefutable quotes from the love letters with Nehru that Edwina handed over to Mountbatten on her deathbed. It's hard to see the traditional Indian biographer going into such issues with a national figure.
Stanley Wolpert However, Stanley Wolpert, the California-based controversial biographer of Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi, believes candour may have nothing to do with being Indian. "I think Indians are no better or worse than any other nation's authors at writing memoirs or biographies. Some authors are more brilliant than others, but that is hardly nation-related," he told Outlook. Penguin India chief David Davidar disagrees: "You can't have an honest biography until Indians are comfortable in their skin." According to him, even cultural icons like Raj Kapoor or M.S. Subbalakshmi are difficult propositions, with either the families or the subjects themselves refusing to divulge their private lives.

Says he: "Although there is a huge market for biographies, the airbrushed kind are the only ones that ever get done." A potential biography is littered with landmines: either the family stops cooperating, or the book is banned or stuck in litigation, or worse still, there is a threat to burn down the book.

With dead people—the conventional wisdom on biographies being that you need a death to get a life—the problem only gets worse.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam As Sanjay Subrahmanyam, author of a path- (and myth-) breaking biography of Vasco de Gama, explains: "We've a distaste for saying things about the dead which Westerners don't share. And when people are alive, we're afraid of their influence. Besides, a good number of biographies are commissioned and hence there's complicity between the subject (or heirs) and the biographer."

But that is, at best, a partial explanation. The genre of biography is closely knit with the modernity of the West, where the new conception of morality brought everything in the public domain. Modernity in India, on the other hand, was born out of colonialism's encounter with our pre-colonial past. Consequently, the private domain—a throwback to the country's deeply entrenched feudal morality—has coexisted with the public space. Therefore, it's only natural that biographies here will manifest this troubled encounter and always tend to suppress the 'personal' while addressing the 'public'.

So, it's not surprising to see that publishing houses are starved of honest memoirs, especially political ones. Penguin India even marketed former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's novel The Insider as his political memoir. "It's not my memoir," protests Rao, "It's fiction, a work of imagination. How many times must I shout from the rooftop that I wrote about a particular system and how it works, not about myself."

S. Radhakrishnan was similarly loath to pen his own memoirs, quoting Samuel Johnson to friends and publishers who pressurised him to write an autobiography: "Madam, of the exaltations and depressions of your mind you love to speak and I hate to hear." It was left to his son, S. Gopal, to break his "deliberate reticence in matters concerning himself", as he notes in the preface to his biography of his father. In sharp contrast to most Indian biographers who steer away from personal details, Gopal in his biography is frank about his father's infidelities and even attacks his philosophy as "bogus platitudes".

"I knew about my father's infidelities," says Gopal, "therefore I could write about it.But about others, how can you ever know for sure?" And unless a biographer knows for certain about his subject's sex life, feels Gopal, he has no business to write about it.

B.R. Nanda"Where is the proof? Where are the papers? Do you think even his own child knows about the father's affairs?" agrees another notable historian-biographer B.R. Nanda, author of five biographies on Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gokhale and Jamnalal Bajaj, besides seven other books on the freedom struggle. Says Nanda: "It's not prudishness on our part but the epoch itself, where everything was subsumed by the freedom movement. Nothing was hidden, everything was out in the open." Nanda is dismissive about the unusual warmth in the correspondence between Nehru and Padmaja Naidu. "He was equally warm with all women, that was part of his charm and he used it for the cause," insists Nanda, adding a little illogically: "Besides, I met Padmaja. She was very unattractive."

As for Gandhi, Nanda says: "All his sins were committed within the bonds of matrimony. For Gandhi, sex is not sex but a straying from brahmacharya. He believed only sublimation would give him power and he attributed all his political failures to any impure thoughts he may have had. He even believed the Partition was because of his impure thoughts. Every erotic thought and dream was examined, and was likely to find itself in Harijan the next day. But when people blow up all his experiments with naked girls and so on, they don't want to see the complexities of this man. Moreover, if I spent more space than the 10 pages I devoted to his sex life in my 550-page biography of Gandhi, I would be taking away space from some other important aspect."

The real strength of western biographers is their ability to bring in the personal life of a subject without jeopardising the biography's seriousness. Says Wolpert: "It's always a challenge to understand another person's heart and mind, whether Indian or English or Russian or American, and I believe that personal details are important, as long as they help illumine, rather than distort or obscure a subject's life and historic legacy." For the modern western biographer, the private is not something to be suppressed. It is mean to illuminate the public.

"It is now fashionable to tear down their heroes because of their deep-rooted dislike for all authority." That is novelist Amit Chaudhuri's take on the difference between the western biographer's culture and our reality. From Wolpert's wild surmise of cross-dressing Nehru's homosexual tendencies, including his attraction for "masculine" women like Edwina, to Frank's equally wild allusion to Feroze Gandhi's alleged affair with Kamala Nehru, some biographers from the West, both Nanda and Gopal believe, will stop at nothing for cheap popularity. "Their resentment against their parents' generation," points out Chaudhuri, "has descended into bad-tempered frivolity."

While we may be a long way from frivolity, bad-tempered or otherwise, younger writers like Mukul Kesavan and biographers like Ramachandra Guha and Subrahmanyam are beginning to question the "hero-worshipping" tendency of the older generation. Both Nanda and Gopal, they agree, are too overawed by the founding fathers to admit of any flaws in their heroes. "What motivates the Indian biographer is often a sort of hero worship," says Subrahmanyam. "Hero worship is inevitable in a postcolonial society like ours," avers Kesavan.

Hero worship, however, is not a trait of any one generation. "It's a weakness in Guha's biography of British anthropologist Verrier Elwin as well," points out Subrahmanyam. "Guha addresses his cricket through heroes, and Elwin becomes a sort of cricket hero by the end of the story. Or you have someone like Ashis Nandy, who often writes short biographical sketches in a sort of romantic-tragic mode."

Nor is it the province of any one nation. Singh remembers that when the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly brought out a commemorative issue on Jinnah, Pakistan ordered 10,000 copies. But the order was abruptly cancelled when one of the articles referred to the ham sandwiches and sherry that Jinnah liked to have for lunch. Wolpert's biography of the ham-eating Jinnah met an even unkinder fate in Pakistan. Even Subrahmanyam's Vasco, about the simultaneous production of a life and myth, had made him persona non grata in Portugal.

Some hagiography is inevitable, especially with the difficulties of accessing papers and documents. Says Subrahmanyam: "I think this problem is far more acute with modern subjects. The government of India has a nonsensical policy in terms of the release of papers. Many private individuals still control papers, and will only allow them to 'safe' biographers. This is the reason why it is difficult even today to address the lives of so many recent public figures in a meaningful way: there are too many gaps and deliberately cultivated silences."

On the other hand, points out Wolpert: "Some families everywhere are less forthcoming or open about private papers and letters than others, but again, I refuse to attribute such individual variations to any national character, only human anxiety or selfish motives that lead some people to hide or destroy precious archival papers."

All biographies need family support, agree Gopal and Nanda, mainly in order to access private papers and documents. "A commissioned biography makes no difference to its content for a reputed writer," says Nanda, "although a weaker person may succumb to the pressure to airbrush a personality." Nanda himself was fortunate that he was commissioned by Nehru to do his father's biography. Apart from providing him access to all his private papers, Nanda recalls, "he never interfered in any way, acting only as a facilitator for interviews and so on." Nor did he ask to see the manuscript. But when Nanda handed him a copy of the manuscript after it had been sent to the publisher, Nehru read it and returned it with three minor corrections: a spelling error, a typing error and an attempted joke.

If hagiography is undesirable, so is the other extreme. Says Subrahmanyam: "Do we really want the western genre of biographical assassination? Attacks appealing to personal considerations rather than to logic disguised as a biography, of which we've one notable practitioner already, Arun Shourie (on Ambedkar, for example). Between the two there is, of course, plenty of scope."

But with Indian publishing still unable to fund the years of research that a biography takes, it's left to the rarely passionate layman—Guha took 10 to 12 years of hard work, half-a-dozen trips to England at his own expense, besides trips to Pune and MP to produce his acclaimed biography on Elwin—or academics. And most academicians, as Subrahmanyam points out, "can't write for toffee", let alone possessing the social and psychological understanding a biographer need combine with a historian's rigour to produce a good biography.

Moreover, academicians, especially historians, are trapped not so much by prudery but as, Kesavan points out, by the Marxist preoccupation with historical trends rather than men. "Indian historians," agrees Subrahmanyam, "have been taught in the last 40 or 50 years that to write biography is to go back to the Carlyle-type 'great man' history".So little respect does biography elicit among academicians that even a biographer like Gopal unconsciously uses Nehru as a pretext for writing about history. Nanda, too, admits that his first love was political history until the day of Gandhi's assassination, when he became so fascinated with his personality that he decided to abandon history for biography. But even then Nanda too uses personalities to examine the epoch's history.

"Marxism and Hinduism are the two greatest enemies of biography," says Guha, explaining that while Marxism discounts the individual, Hinduism's focus on rebirth discounts the importance of biography.

The decline of the biography began with the decline of personal memoirs. Says Subrahmanyam: "Biography is closely linked to the first-person narrative, the diary, the memoir. Here, after the 18th century, India has been quite weak. It's hard to think of a 19th century memoir that matches Jehangir's, Ananda Ranga Pillai's or Mir Taqi Mir's. Without these lucid self-presentations, it's hard to move into biography." Michael Brecher, Nehru's first biographer, wrote: "Indians for the most part are reluctant to write memoirs." Half a century later, it's not hard to see why.
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