The Indian literary scene today resembles a nice little stampede at the Kumbh Mela (or the Haj).
Foreign service officers, aspiring prime ministers, retired bureaucrats, failed defence ministers, bloggers, editors, bored housewives, rich businessmen, barely-adult twerps are all falling over each other in the mad scramble to immortalise themselves between the covers of a book.
Whether they have a story to tell, whether anybody wants to hear it, it does not matter. The tome is the tale. But for one who had a ringside view of Indian public life over several decades, H.Y. Sharada Prasad stoutly resisted the temptation to let it all hang out and grab a few quick bucks.
Five years ago, he explained why with an amazing economy of words.
THE BOOK I WON’T BE WRITING
By H.Y. SHARADA PRASAD
My old friends won’t believe that I can live a week of seven Sundays. They think that having been a workaholic, I couldn’t have been cured.
When they meet me, the conversation starts with their asking: “So, what are you writing?” or “How far has the book gone?” When I reply that I am not writing anything except a stray article, and certainly not a book, they insist: “Surely you must be writing your memoirs?”
When I say no again, they think that it is an easily diagnosed case of that ailment called Author’s Secretiveness. How could a man who had spent 30 years in government service, 20 of them hovering around the head of government pen in hand, resist that last infirmity of the service mind?
One acquaintance tried to needle me saying: “Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbon?” But I can ape no Gibbon. I lack the power to delineate decline and fall.
Why do retired secretaries, ambassadors, generals and governors favour us with stories of their lives?
“Putting it down” is a substitute for the authority they once commanded by virtue of their position but now miss. They know that things did not always go right even in their heyday, but they want us to believe they would have, if only their counsel had been accepted by the political masters.
Erstwhile political masters also give us their own accounts of what they did. But rarely do historians take them as a reliable record of what happened and why. Barring a random autobiography like De Gaulle‘s, admired for its literary virtue as well as historical value, most books by retired statesmen are seen as the inadequate defence of an accused at the bar of history.
They probably feel that no one else will put up a defence on their behalf. That is why Richard Nixon wrote his version of his White House years. Nearer home Mr Jag Mohan has also given us a defence of himself, prompting wits to call it his frozen thunder-box.
And invariably memoirs are based on the dubious assumption that their writers are as interesting to others as they are to themselves. Else how could one explain why C.D. Deshmukh should so solemnly list the marks he had got in his various examinations?
Since I worked closely with Indira Gandhi, it is presumed that I must be writing a book on her. She was, and remains, an extraordinarily fascinating target for biographers. That accounts for so many attempts having been made on her life. It is my realisation that I lack the capacity to do justice to her complexity that prevents me from trying.
Nearer to his subject in space and time does give advantages to an author.
Swami M‘s record of the daily doings and sayings of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Pyarelal‘s of Mahatma Gandhi are valuable mines of information and illuminating anecdotes. That kind of biography is an act of homage on the part of a bhakta. To him the master is infallible.
A true biographer has to raise and answer the questions that others raise. He has to elucidate how a person became what he or she did, and how he or she affected the course of events and the flow of history. He must do more: he must also point out with candour and courage the shortcomings of character, the errors of judgement, the missed opportunities.
These are not always visible to contemporaries (except perhaps to omniscient columnists).
The heat of controversy might give exaggerated importance to some aspects. Prejudice may make one blind to essential virtue.
Most of Abraham Lincoln‘s contemporaries put him down as a wily, calculating politician who was incapable of any greater impulse than winning votes and staying in office. Even the gemlike brilliance of the Gettysburg speech was missed by most reporters covering the dedication; they merely reported that after Senator Everett‘s main oration the President made a few remarks. (The Senator himself was more perceptvie. He said he would gladly exchange his two hours’ address for the President’s two minutes’.) Lincoln had to die a violent death in order to become an immortal. He had to wait decades until Carl Sandburg to find a biographer equal to his mettle.
It has been remarked that if you keep a diary, the diary will keep you in your hour of need. But not everyone cares for cash nor for the lure of footnote fame.
One example of a person who resisted the temptation was Kathleen Hill, who was personal private secretary to Winston Churchill and then worked for six other British prime ministers from Clement Attlee to Harold Wilson. An obituary note on her in The Times [London] said: “Yet the woman who knew so much never kept a diary or tried to capitalise on her memories…. She divulged only the most trivial information.”
There is a case for such reticence and such self-abnegation.
Most books on the great are puffs written by admen passing off for authors. Their subjects are pictured as saints misunderstood. A few Judases there are like M.O. Mathai who want us to believe that the saints really had cloven hooves.
Hagiography or debunking, the motive seems to be profit, for books on star-names are potential big money in the market place of publishing. Serious studies sell less than dirty linen. It is the Kitty Kelleys who make it to the best-seller list, a sure index of public prurience.
Suppose you have no urge to project yourself or play the justifier of God’s ways to man or man’s way to other men.
Suppose you have no relish for being dismissed as a toady, and certainly not as a traitor to those who feel: “If the bell rings, why must I run?”
Suppose you feel that what you know might not be the whole truth in the Rashomon-like ambivalence of events.
Then you will come to the same conclusion as I have, and not write the book that friends expect. You will refrain from wanting to etch your name like a schoolboy on a small tree in the forest that is history.
(Excerpted from The Book I Won’t Be Writing and other essays, published by Chronicle Books, 2003)
Photograph: Private collection