Monday, November 01, 2010

A season of autobiographies

It’s a season of autobiographies. Some weeks back – I had written about Fali Nariman’s memoirs (read here). If that was a gem - B G Verghese’ “First Draft” (Tranquebar) is a rare treat.

Reading the lives of the “good and the great” is always inspirational. But, I find the memoirs of contemporary stalwarts no less fascinating as long as they are not just exercises in self-glorification and intellectual narcissism.

Sure, their accounts are bound to be coloured by personal bias and they would no doubt apply their own filters (or else – why would they undertake the audacious journey of writing a book if they didn’t have something of their own to say). Yet, they offer the by-stander valuable insights and perspective on people and events that has shaped some of our contemporary reality.

Besides, there is always something instructive not only in the successes and achievements, but even in the failings of people, who have lived a full life in every sense – personally and professionally.

GnT loaded Voyeurism

It’s with similar expectations, I had picked up the much-hyped autobiography of Tony Blair– but couldn’t make much headway. May be I am not so interested in modern British political history, but more likely I didn’t take to his style of writing. Even the chapter on Lady Di made tedious reading and despite my self-professed inclination for vicarious voyeurism didn’t manage to reach the part where, I believe, he admits that he was quite “an animal in bed” after downing several GnTs.

Although there are no such salacious confessions in either Nariman’s or Verghese’ book, I like them because these 2 very distinguished gentleman - both doyens in their own field have recounted their experiences spanning over 5 or 6 decades – keeping themselves firmly on the backseat. Not an easy thing to do for people who have not only been there and seen that but done pretty much everything there was to do in their chosen arena.

the many genres of illiteracy

The sheer sweep of BGV’s book, the range of his interests, the span and depth of his knowledge across subjects is truly awesome. No wonder he is concerned that, ‘…many educated middle-aged Indians, including policy makers, are astonishingly ill-informed about the context and background of seminal topics such as Kashmir…, Siachen…’. He attributes this to the absence of books on the general history of post-independence India. A void he has tried to fill in some measure in his own way.

At another place – he laments how much of our high politics is conducted “in a state of cartographic illiteracy” with even elementary geography having been devalued educationally as a discipline. He dares to say, therefore, “few of our policy makers have ever looked at a map of India and its neighbours in 60 years”.

Reading his memoir, at one level, I feel how little we have moved on certain issues as a nation over the last 60 years – Kashmir for instance. Simply, “changing the names and dates… (would make) it appear totally contemporary” – as he writes in the foreword.

The irony though is, issues which agitated our public psyche in the 60s and 70s – such as corruption in public life, professional (and intellectual) integrity of the bureaucracy and attempts towards having a ‘committed’ judiciary – all seem so passé now.

the price of feudocracy

Today – the going ‘price’ of an MLA or MP is general knowledge; that bureaucrats will be hand-maidens of their political bosses is an accepted fact and there is not even a flutter when one of the senior most and highly respected lawyer of the country hands over in an open court sealed envelope to the Chief Justice of India containing names of previous CJIs who were ‘known’ to be corrupt. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that - the rot has also insidiously crept in to our armed forces - still one of the finest and most respected in the world.

The parts of the book (other than, of course, his account of the Emergency era) – which I found particularly riveting were the chapters on his tenure as the Press Officer of Indira Gandhi during her first term as PM and, thereafter, his stint as the Editor of the Hindustan Times.

a little left of self-interest

In the 2 Chapters “Enter Mrs. G: Madam Prime Minister, Sir” and “A Mandate for Change” he provides a invaluable peek into Indira Gandhi's formative years in office and early events that shaped her attitude - deeply suspicion of her advisors - trusting only her won instincts (like Joan of Arc listen to her ‘inner voice’, which – as they said – was only “a little left of self interest”) and her family. A trait that now appears to be deeply embedded in the genetic code of the dynasty.

‘The Editor’s Den’ read with what he has written in a later chapter (‘The professor will see you now’) as a footnote serves as a capsule commentary on the gradual ascent and the quick decline of the Indian media. (Journalists as activists and propagandists, editorializing in news columns, decline of editors lack of editorial control, deals struck with business houses and political interests, the spoils being shared all along the line). While, he admits, that “there are exceptions, of course, and some of the best writing and coverage is superior to what there was earlier….But the average is sorely disappointing.”

True the age of the 'larger-than-life' Editors has been long gone (and, not just in India) I can't help recalling here the quip of a proprietor-editor, one of the last of the Mohicans. Talking of a poster-boy of the current lot of celebrity-editors - he said in his inimitable style - "the chap may have gone to Oxford, but even his best friend would not accuse him of being educated".

But, the central story, of course, is that of his historic sacking from the position of the Editor of HT. He has reproduced the correspondence exchange preceding that between him and the owner of the paper (K K Birla) and the proceedings that followed in the Press Council and the High Court. This was– perhaps – the first big ‘acid test’ of Editorial independence in Indian media (barring, probably, the lesser known episode in The Statesman relating to Pran Chopra in the 60s).

Saints, SUVs and Sweat Equity

Though not comparable either in stature or circumstances - the recent tale of a young editor (co-incidentally a product of that very same stable on KG Marg) who suffered a similar fate at a fledgling TV news channel (To read click here: My Settlement with NewsX by Avirook Sen) will make the earlier generation of proprietors look like saints. (Avirook managed to get Rs 2 crores and keep his SUV by threatening to take them to court. Then he went on a sabbaticcal to write his just published travelogue "Looking for America", Harper Collins, India)

That brings me to another little anecdote. Post the Emergency, Verghese contested the election as an independent candidate from Kerala. Funding came from ‘friends, family and those who believed in press freedom’ (which was his electoral ‘platform’). He lost despite support of the CPIM.

Though he doesn’t talk about it himself, a professional compatriot of his has written about this in his review of the book for a magazine. It seems that, after the elections there was still some money left in the kitty. Verghese returned it to all the donors in proportion to their original contributions.

Contrast this with another illustrious Malayali - of his partner’s “sweat equity” fame - who fought and won in the last parliamentary elections from the same state and it would, more or less, complete the picture of our drifting value system.

Finally, Verghese’ prescription for staying young is to be ‘active and engaged’ (he says – he has been ever more active in retirement). He advises – “eat what you will in moderation and do not exercise too much - (as even) that too is an indulgence”. Wonder what does he say to his younger son Rahul who has taken to running Marathon for a living (Virtual Marathon - click here).