Why Indians produce terrible memoirs

Utpal Kumar
Utpal KumarFeb 01, 2016 | 10:19

Why Indians produce terrible memoirs

In the land where George Orwell was born, writes Jaspreet Singh in his 2013 book, Helium, "1984 was never imaginary. In India, it was real." And it was real in a most vicious and violent manner. For, the year saw 3,000 Sikhs being massacred in Delhi within three days just because the two assassins of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi happened to be their co-religionists.


Even more unfortunate was what unfolded thereafter. Despite setting up one commission of inquiry after another, not a single political leader was convicted and no one in the administration was held accountable. This was the carnage which no one committed. Probably Sikhs accidentally killed themselves. Or what President Pranab Mukherjee says in the second edition of his three-part memoir, The Turbulent Years: 1980-1996, They were killed by some "miscreants", who took advantage of the fact that the "government was just not ready for an eventuality such as Mrs Gandhi's assassination and the riots that followed."

Miscreants! This is a complete whitewash of the truth which probably every Dilliwala knows but may not want to speak. The inability of the president to identify the culprits is ironic, if not outright tragic, given the fact that even a novelist in Jaspreet Singh helps recognise a senior Congress leader who "is not very tall and wears black glasses". We all know who this man with black glasses was. Mukherjee may have been excused had he still been a Congress functionary, but not anymore as the president of India.

This brings us to the question: Why should a high-profile politician, more so a president, write a memoir if he can't really convey the truth, especially on events as momentous as 1984? We already know more about the anti-Sikh pogrom than what Mukherjee is willing to spill. But the bigger question is: Are we Indians, especially our political class, at all capable of writing truly tell-all memoirs of the scale of the one written by Patrick French?


Sir Vidia Naipaul, to his credit, not only gave French an unprecedented access for The World Is What It Is, an "authorised biography" of the Nobel laureate, but also asked for no changes when the final manuscript was shown to him just before it was being sent to publishers. The book had all the elements to tarnish Naipaul's personal reputation - from the Caribbean writer visiting prostitutes, to his cruelty to his first wife which probably hastened her death, and also his unseemly hurry to get the second wife!

Now compare this with what Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay had to go through while writing a book on Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat and the BJP's prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Mukhopadhyay recalls how he had "to negotiate (my) way through interviews in such a manner so that he (Modi) did not get annoyed and stop speaking to me. He eventually did so half way into the writing of the book but this was not due to any provocation from me." Mukhopadhyay still remains clueless on why Modi chose to speak to him in the first instance and later withdrew the access. "I suspect he must have learnt that some of the people I was interacting with were among his bitter critics and he did not appreciate this."


A biography, however, should not be expected to be a hagiography. Ironically, that's what a biography - or even an autobiography - has been reduced to in India. And anyone trying to be more "objective" - even if that objectivity is a subjective interpretation given the fact that for some commentators Modi is just the sum total of the 2002 Gujarat riots - is made to go through circles, as confessed by Javier Moro, the author of The Red Sari, based on the transformation of an Italian Sonia Maino into an all-powerful Gandhi. The Spanish author confessed to Mail Today in an interview last year that he wouldn't be writing a biography in the near future, thanks to his Red Sari experience.

But the best primer of how not to write a memoir is LK Advani's My Country, My Life. The book, at first glance, appeared what most Americans would call "legacy writing", aimed at either self-justification (as the likes of George W Bush and Dick Cheney did after being thrashed almost universally) or self-glorification (as Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary did with their respective memoirs).

But read closely, it was a sort of an election manifesto aimed at, as outlined by Right-wing commentator Kanchan Gupta in The Pioneer, demolishing "the myth about his being a Hindu hardliner", and thus a concerted attempt to give Advani a makeover mix of a Vajpayee-like liberal and a Patel-like administrator. Sadly, he fell between the two stools as the book pompously claimed that Advani had no role in the decision to swap passengers for terrorists in the 1999 IC-814 hijacking, when the evidences suggested otherwise!

It's no one's contention that Indian politicians should write like, say, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair who, in his memoirs, not only describes his relationship with chancellor Gordon Brown as being that of "a couple who loved each other, arguing over whose career should come first", but also calls him a "strange guy" with no emotional astuteness.

India, unlike Britain, has no real tradition of memoir writing. Even Jawaharlal Nehru, a prolific writer otherwise, did not write about his time as prime minister. Similarly, Narasimha Rao, for all his scholarly accomplishments, could only gather the courage to write a semi-fictional account of his time in office. As for Vajpayee, he confined himself to poetry and some occasional musings from the hills.

In this way, President Mukherjee should be applauded. But he should have known that he can't get away just the way others like ML Fotedar or Jairam Ramesh could. For, he is the president of India, and expectations from him would be a non-partisan, no-holds-barred memoir. Maybe the third installation of the series, dealing with his relations with Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, would be the real tell-all. If not, he should desist from writing. It's not worth his time and also the nation's attention.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: February 01, 2016 | 10:30
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