"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.
"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.