Paranoid Fictions

Fortified on the Fifties

A Suitable Boy (1993)
Vikram Seth
Viking Press
1349 pp.

Ever heard something called grace under pressure? Well, Vikram Seth’s 1349-page novel may not subscribe to that exact notion, but gets as close to it as possible. Yes, there are long-winding passages, and also a cast that leaves War and Peace seem underwhelmingly underpopulated. But in contrast to any other tome of its length, Seth makes his work a humble, pleasant read. There is no rambling here, no Tolstoyan howling, no Proustian sentimental whining, no Randian lets-torture-the-human-race-with-some-extreme-capitalism pomposity. What’s more, no Wallacian or Pynchonian postmodern pyrotechnics/gimmickry. Here is a humble, quiet novel that canvases modern India (the entire novel is set in 1951-52) in simple, understated terms. His style derives from the tradition of nineteenth century novels – and is perhaps one of the few novels of its length in the twentieth century to feature no flashbacks or flashforwards.

With his subtle, witty and sly sentences, Vikram Seth pulls off much more than any of his ambitious, bombastic and logorrheic contemporaries (say, Salman Rushdie and V.S. Naipaul) could ever hope to achieve, notably by eschewing the former’s melodramatic magical realism and the latter’s frivolous judgmentalism. For once, the characters are real and not vehicles for some larger abstract philosophical pining – they echo day-to-day concerns and live their lives with a degree of intelligibility and humor, endearing them to us. They speak normal dialogue and don’t harbour any hardboiled Cormac McCarthyesque ambitions to make every spoken word sound like an AFI best of 100 years’ quotation. And they inhabit a very real world which is getting increasingly harder to find in Indian fiction. The fictitious world of Brahmpur is colorful without looking like a Bollywood junkyard (i.e., a Nasir Hussein film-set).

So why is the novel so long? Primarily because it is less of a novel than a series of short vignettes. Like many 20th century novels, it slows down to give us entertaining, somewhat encyclopaedic information on various matters. In the case of Pynchon, we get a ‘how to build a V-2 rocket’ guide, or in Thompson we get a ‘how to shoot heroin without dying’ guide; in Vikram Seth, we get slightly more useful advice. How is a shoe made? Seth takes you from the tanneries to the shops. How to get yourself elected into a legislative assembly? Seth takes you on the campaign trail. He indulges the reader with all kinds of information – exegeses of Mirza Ghalib and Rabindranath Tagore’s works, Indian classical music, animal psychology and behavioural patterns, gardening and hunting tricks, and more importantly, a window into the psyche of ’50s India.

A lot of liberals (present company included) have a fascination to Nehruvian India – a young free nation building itself on optimism and hope. Yes, probably that decade was the best decade in the history of the Republic of India, au contraire to America which was probably seeing its worst ten years at that time. After reading A Suitable Boy one sees the decade in a way more complex light than before. Seth’s quiet, reflective tragicomic opti-pessimism leaves a very uneasy mark on the reader. The fifties had a lot to look forward to – the birth of a new economy, the decline of the kings and end of royalty, land reforms. But it was also a decade mired by a rising (also dumbened, familial, conservative, Hindu) middle-class which chose to live above cities rather than in them; an era extreme poverty, crumbling caste relations and increasing Hindu-Muslim polarization. Vikram Seth, clearly a liberal, shows us all this and much more, and one of the most admirable feats of the novel is the distance he creates between his own politics and the objective one he describes.

Vikram Seth is a poet by profession, and his novel shows us the playfulness of his trade. The index and word of thanks take the structures of rhyming couplets, and the entire book is filled with them – some of them very silly too (especially those that satirize the bull-headed nationalistic genre of poetry – arguably the most torturous creation of post-Independence Indian literature). Seth doesn’t want to hide, his novel is not an exercise in good taste, nor is it a meet-the-author. It is a novel of characters, talking and coming to life.

‘A Suitable Boy’ is a labyrinthian plot-heavy novel, but the plot is secondary to the development of character. Above all, the novel is a study of people, their lives and the places they visit and belong to. It is told in a linear narrative, and takes place in a few theatres of action – by the end of the novel one can easily guide oneself in the lanes of Brahmpur, and parts of Kanpur and Calcutta as well. The strong imagery of Barsaat Mahal – the palace whose parapet was ‘the venue of a number of romantic suicides’, the mischievously named Tarbuz ka Bazaar – ‘the street of singing girls and prostitutes’, the cremation ghat at the Ganges after the Pul Mela stampede (based on the 1954 Kumbh Mela stampede) all linger on long after reading the novel.

The plot surrounds four families – the Mehras, Kapoors, Khans and Chatterjis. Lata Mehra is the protagonist of the novel, if we had to ascribe the role to someone. It is her marriage that remains Seth’s major preoccupation of the book, and it her mother’s (Mrs Rupa Mehra) search for the titular character (a suitable Khatri boy through an arranged marriage) that Seth uses as a framing device for the action of the novel. Mrs Rupa Mehra is a widowed woman of much emotional capital, and her ideas of life reflect the old, conservative India that all the other characters enjoy lampooning. She is superstitious, does religious fasts, enjoys discussing genealogy, detests modernity, westernization and people who have ‘a gala time’. She has four children. Arun, the eldest son, is an anglicized white-collar employee at a British conglomerate, who listens to Churchill’s speeches on the radio and murmurs, ‘Good old Winnie.’ Lata is a good-natured but weak-willed girl, whose indecision concerning her life, studies and three suitors provide much fodder for other characters to try dictating terms in her life. She is counterposed by her ultra-modern friend Malati who has affairs with strange old men in Simla. Savita, Lata’s sister, is married and pregnant, more or less content with life. Varun, the youngest child, is a renegade, spending his time drinking shamshu (described as some very strong alcohol), betting on races, and trying to study for his IAS exams. Dr Kishen Chand Seth, the grandfather of the four, fondly called Kishy by his trophy wife (a third of his age) enjoys and energetically weeps over melodramatic Dilip Kumar films.

Prem Nivas – the house of the Kapoors – is the center of much action. Mr Mahesh Kapoor, a left-wing liberal Congress politician, acts as the voice of reason in the family and the book; he’s a progressive man whose way of thinking closely resembles that of Nehru. His wife is the naive, religious Mrs Mahesh Kapoor – her existence is almost an obligation to her children and garden. Pran Kapoor, the eldest of the three children, is a lecturer and Elizabethan Drama enthusiast, who has a strong conviction convincing his superiors to replace James Elroy Flecker with James Joyce on the students’ syllabus. Their second son Maan is described as a good-looking young wastrel, whose tragic love for a Muslim courtesan/prostitute occupies large chunks of the novel. Veena Kapoor is married to Kedarnath Tandon, a man who had made a living in ‘of all the polluting, carcass-tainted things – the shoe trade,’; he also spouts economic wisdom to his wife who berates him for his spending: ‘Over-extension is over-extension, all great fortunes are based on debt.’ Their frog-like mathematician, child-prodigy son Bhaskar spends his time pontificating mathematics and language, and seeing numbers in everyday life.

The Chatterji family allows Seth to mock everything that is wrong with the Bengali middle-class, which is depicted as a frivolous, strong bastion of the bourgeoisie. He takes a dig at the intelligentsia that revere Tagore: ‘reading him is like trying to swim breast-stroke through treacle. We’ve heard enough about Shantiniketan and how idyllic it is. I know that if I had to live there I’d commit suicide every day.’ Seth seems to relish demolishing the Bengali psyche – ‘A combination that was by no means uncommon in Bengal: the mad deification of the patriot Subhas Bose who had fled to Germany and Japan and later established the Indian National Army to fight the British; the eulogization of Hitler and Fascism and violence; the denigration of all things British or tainted with ‘pseudo-British liberalism’; and resentment bordering on contempt for the sly milksop Gandhi who had dispossessed Bose of the presidentship of the Congress Party which he had won by election many years before.’ Back to the Chatterji family. Mr Justice Chatterji and his serious wife have five children. Amit is a poet (maybe based on Vikram Seth) who is busy writing a book on the Bengal Famine, while being pushed by his siblings to woo and write poems to Lata, which he does with some reluctance. Dipankar has ambitions of being a mystic, thrives on spirituality, talking of sanyasi, dualisms and monisms – a character remarks that arguing with him is ‘like battling a blancmange.’ Meenakshi is the promiscuous wife of Arun Mehra, who neglects her motherhood duties and ‘exposes more of her midriff than Brahmpur society was normally privileged to see.’ Kakoli makes trite two-liners which are known as Kakoli-couplets and plays Schubert; her love for Hans, a German pianist, makes an amusing subplot in the novel. The youngest child Tapan has just been sent to a boys’ boarding school, where he faces some serious hazing threats from the prefect.

The Khans are a royal zamindari family in the decline, with their vast palace and fort, large landholdings, cultured Urdu, etiquette and women in zenana and purdah (a world with a ‘halter on boldness or unorthodoxy’). The Nawab Sahib, father of three children, is a very erudite man given to depression and spending time in his silverfish-infested personal library, which is rapidly ‘running to seed.’ His world philosophy is interesting: ‘For people like me at least things are in decline, and I do not feel it worth my while consuming the rest of my life fighting politicians or tenants or silverfish or my son-in-law to preserve and maintain worlds that I find exhausting to preserve and maintain. Each of lives in a small domain and returns to nothing.’ His world is rapidly comes crumbling coming down, at one instance the Custodian of Evacuee Property comes to his palace to confiscate it on government orders. An era of land-reform and the end of zamindari would have been unthinkable twenty or thirty years before the era in which the novel is set. ‘I am not going to give up in half an hour what has belonged to our family for generations,’ the Nawab’s daughter says. But here they are, at the crossroads of a paradigm shift in history. A Muslim MP tries to give the Zamindari Bill a religious tinge, that the Hindus have used their ‘brute majority to force through amendments which are patently mala fide’ and merely made the zamindars a ‘scapegoat class’; she even invokes the threat of communism, but to no avail. With the end of the zamindari lords, also comes an end to the ‘managers, relatives, retainers, musicians, wrestlers, bullies, courtesans and wastrels’ who went along with them. Seth conjectures that perhaps if there was no partition, there would have perhaps been no land reform as well, for the united large class of landowners would have parlayed or lobbied their way into self-preservation, with their hunting, wine, women and opium. The royal apologists show little optimism to the reform, and they believe that the zamindari class would only be replaced by a babu class of ‘venal clerks and gluttonous Sub-Divisional Officers.’

Lastly, we come to the other two suitors of Lata (we have seen Amit before) – Kabir Durrani (probably based on cricketer Salim Durani) and Haresh. The former treats love like a wailing bluesman, and the ill-fated Hindu girl-Muslim boy love-story subplot serves well to highlight the hypocrisies of our secularism. The latter is a serious man who works for Praha (a Czech firm that is the fictionalized Bata) who does little except ponder about the insole of shoes, finding counters and toe-puffs of good quality, analyzing methods of de-hairing, de-liming, pickling, chrome-tanning, fat liquoring, samming, splitting, shaving, dyeing, drying, glazing, boarding, ironing, cutting, skiving, pasting, folding, trimming and hammering leather into shoes (yes, Vikram Seth describes them all) and in general ‘living by the awl.’ Lata is torn between loving the careerist Kabir and the practical Haresh, though she has an ‘atavistic revulsion’ for the latter’s profession.

Apart from having a well-constructed plot, ‘A Suitable Boy’ has great satire, and entire sections of the book can be read isolated for their biting Huxleyan wit. Seth shows us the crassness of career politicians and takes digs at the prudishness and idiosyncrasies of the times – pandits and Sanskrit prayers, ‘dry states’ and alcohol as taboo, the fear of having ‘black children’ and the obsessive love for white complexion, the super-sensitivity of families concerning marriage and sex, the tear-jerking Bollywood films of patriotism and immoral familialism. The list could go on. You also have biting satire reminiscent of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron: ‘If you have a number of outrageous things to do [then] do them simultaneously. People will scatter their complaints, not concentrate them. When the dust settles, at least two or three out of five battles will be yours. And the public has a short memory. As for the firing in the Chowk, and those dead rioters, it will all be stale news in a week,’ says a clever politician. Religion too isn’t spared: a religious man on a boat in the Ganga tells a character, ‘I bathe here every day – five, six times a day. Mother Ganga washes all your sins away.’ ‘You must sin a lot,’ is the reply he gets.

Some of the most brilliant passages of the book are the ones where Seth decides to go beyond the usual satire and actually make some powerful social commentary (of course, the poet is too clever to deal in didacticism and agit-prop methods – his combination of subtlety and research work well for him). He takes us into a chamar/jatav colony and right into the tanneries as well – he spares no details. He takes a realistic view of their strike as well, not pumping it with Marx and Engels jargon, but looking at the practical, economic hardships of the jatavs instead. The passages of life, ignorance and brutality in rural India also show some very meticulous research – Seth has clearly been to places, and doesn’t rely on arm-chair generalities or country-life clichés. He has seen the ‘caste-ridden, poverty-stricken, unrelievedly back-breaking, hopeless life’ of the rural hinterlands, and manages to sketch it in very vivid terms. Seth’s village of Debaria is one of slow entropy, small-talk, local thugs and oppressed peasantry. He doesn’t even see the village wanting to change, to adopt to the new India. ‘How can one argue with ignorance? People know nothing and want to know nothing.’ His research takes him into various subcultures and technicaities – entire sub-chapters are dedicated to the making of shoes, the different varieties of paan, horticulture, knowledge of birds and beasts, architecture, classical Indian music (which nearly operates like a caste system with its rigidities and hierarchies – sarangi being a low-caste instrument; being born into the kalawant-caste being almost a sine qua non to be a respectable musician), Ramachandra Guha-styled dissections of cricket, speculations on the feasibility of clauses of the Criminal Procedure Code and even the evolution of medicine.

The wide range of characters and events all enhance the cultural richness of the novel. Vikram Seth is incredibly well-read and this shows in his wide quotation from history and literature – Nehru’s Letters to Chief Ministers, the Koran, Bhagavad Gita and Sri Ramcharitmanas, poems of Sukumar Ray, Rabindranath Tagore, Mir Babar Ali Anis and Mirza Ghalib. Modern literature too is discussed, some writers appraised (W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and Joyce), some rubbished (Thomas Mann being ‘unutterably dull’). Seth dedicates a wonderful passage to obliterating Alfred Tennyson, a nineteenth-century redneck who wrote jingoistic trite like ‘The Relief of Lucknow’ but nevertheless remains a much canonized poet.

For a novel of this size, it has a surprisingly less amount of sex in it. Again, this must be Seth keeping things real in fifties-style – no one had sex, if at all they did, it was between sheets, or in Seth’s case, between chapters. We are only shown pre or post-coital reflections and conversations. There are a few homoerotic overtones, but not many. Seth more than compensates for this commercial risk with his linguistic ability. Apart from being able to tackle long plots with great dexterity, he also has the unique ability of being a crafty phrase-maker. He manages to extract humor from very slight turns of paraphrasing, and from simple but original metaphors as well. ‘It was pleasant to think of shattered hearts on a cloudless morning.’ Or ‘His pleasure was akin to that of a stamp-collector who finds the two missing values in an incomplete series suddenly supplied to him by a total stranger.’ Or ‘Now he was at the mercy of indifferent cooks and their institutional cooking; there was a limit even to asceticism.’ It is sentences like these that help cement the book as being as much of a literary achievement as a scholarly one.

Politics is never too far from the social satire and subtexts of the novel. In fact, we have many sections of the novel just dedicated to political commentary, and many of the characters themselves are directly involved in politics. Mahesh Kapoor is moulded very much like Nehru, the State Chief Minister of Purva Pradesh bears many similarities (including a limp) with Govind Ballabh Pant and Nehru himself makes an appearance at one point. Kapoor’s preoccupations with getting the Zamindari Abolition Bill passed in the State Legislative Assembly are described in great detail. However, Seth is aware that he must not overtly politicize his novel, and shows the redundancy of politicking as well: ‘You know, for a supposedly gentle, spiritual people, we seem to delight in rubbing other people’s noses in dog-shit, don’t you think?’

Nevertheless, parliamentary and judiciary proceedings both make a significant part of the book. They give him the ability to be neutral in discussing politics from above, allowing characters from both, the left and right, the Hindu and the Muslim – to voice their opinions in the debates (in the Legislative Assembly and High Court). It is interesting to see how the Courts operated in their first few years, having no precedents to rely on. Most of the time, the lawyers actually use American or European court rulings in order to justify their cases. The Courts grew in importance after the Constitution and Seth explains to us the dramatic consequences of this on society – in one of the Court scenes, a royal is ejected from the Court room on grounds of contempt.

Seth shows us that there was a lot of disillusionment in the early ’50s concerning the direction in which India was headed. The Congress was no longer the national movement fighting for independence, but a political party, fighting for votes and computing caste combinations and election strategies. Nehru’s placation of minorities didn’t go too well the Hindutva lot. ‘Nehru indulges them too much, he only talks to Azad and Kidwai, does he think he’s the Prime Minister of Pakistan?’ one character quips. Even his sympathizers find him indecisive: ‘In the Congress Party, where Tandon and his cronies are just pushing him to the wall, what does he do? He just goes along with it.’ Seth’s reply comes as the answer, ‘he’s not a dictator.’

The Congress which Seth represents is one of vulnerability, fighting and in-fighting in a nascent democracy in turmoil. Congress’ secularism hadn’t made its way to praxis, with leaders trying to ban cow slaughter, and President Rajendra Prasad unabashedly visiting the Somnath Temple. The judiciary was being cleansed off of Muslims and the English. A rightist Congress lobby was trying to make a Sanskritized Hindi the national language, and the language for the IAS examinations. Zamindars were hiding behind Article 362 of the Constitution. In theory, sharecroppers of more than five years were to be given the ownership of the land they tilled, but in reality the local patwaris were fudging records to show them as having rotated from field to field, and never having a tilled a single piece of land for five years. Sugar was scarce, and there was a black-market for it. The middle-class had already emerged with its Austins, 78-rpm records and its ability to look straight through the beggars that accosted their car windows. Seth portrays young India as a country that was clearly not fit for democracy or Nehruvian idealism.

The Congress was struggling to find its own political identity, with Nehru’s leftism on one hand, and Sardar Patel/Rajendra Prasad/Tandon on the other. Meanwhile the old Congress vanguard was rapidly disintegrating – a long-standing Nehru-aide, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai was elected to the Executive Committee of the KMPP in 1951 (after having campaigned hard against the Tandon faction – which narrowly lost the presidency of the Congress Party in 1948 but narrowly won in 1950 – Kidwai had turned into something of a renegade), though he stood on a Congress ticket for the election. Tandon’s power had grown considerably by 1950, and he had managed to exclude both Kidwai and J.B. Kripalani (Gandhi’s left-hand man, who had even been in the race for Prime Ministership in 1947) from the Working Committee, effectively controlling the personnel of the party and the selection of candidates for the upcoming election (1951-52). Tandon’s line grew stronger by the day – he was a covert proponent for war with Pakistan, and overt opponent for Nehru’s policy of allowing refugees that were pouring into India from East and West Pakistan and integrating them into Indian society. One could directly contrast Nehru’s inclusionist policies (the inclusion of Muslims and minorities led to the near-complete wipe-out of the Muslim League in India) to the exclusionist ones of the Patel/Prasad/Tandon (which was rapidly alienating leaders into forming their own parties – Kripalani quit to form the KMPP in 1951 and merged it with the Praja Socialist Party in 1952, Ambedkar resigned in 1951 following the failure of the Hindu Code Bills and ended up in political wilderness). It was in light of all this that Nehru fought back, standing for Congress presidency elections (what he had previously considered to be a conflict of power, resigning the presidency in 1946 to become Prime Minister) and being elected in 1951. He held that post till 1954. After a lot of in-fighting, threatening of resignations, Nehru managed to re-constitute the Working Committee to his favor, as well as become Party president. As Vikram Seth puts it, ‘it was in effect a coup; and Nehru had won. Apparently’ (probably Seth thought of it as pyrrhic victory, that Nehru needed to compromised on his principles to beat the right-wing). As Seth points out, some read it as a tactical move, some as a dictatorship; but even Nehru’s worst critics knew that he didn’t care for personality cults.

The glimpse of Nehru that we get in the later sections of the book are those of a tired, weary leader. Even one of his most ambitious projects like the Zamindari Bill after ‘two hundred clauses, two hundred ulcers’ was struck down as unconstitutional by the Bihar High Court (setting what Seth calls a ‘psychological precedent’ to other High Courts). In fact, as Seth demonstrates, it was the structure of democracy itself that hounded him. To add to all this, Nehru’s contemporaries/rivals were more crowd-friendly and charismatic in the eyes of their voters. One of the characters even mimics the ‘mumbling incomplete cadence’ of Nehru’s speeches, that abruptly ended with ‘Brothers and sisters – Jai Hind!’ Nevertheless, Seth clearly acknowledges the revolutionary impact of Independence and Nehruvian thinking. Peasants were no longer submitting to their lords and ‘underneath their pleas [of non-payment] was the sense that the political equations of ownership and dependence were inexorably shifting.’ In fact Seth sees the disillusionment against the Congress not as the result of some of the Congress’ failings, but the inherent nature of disobedience that had been inculcated into the youth in the days of the freedom struggle. He has a rather wry take on it: ‘Students had learned how to cause trouble under the British, and there was no reason why hard-earned corporate skills, passed on from batch to batch, should be wasted merely because of the change in dispensation in Delhi.’ Another justification that a character provides is that India’s ‘problems are very simple, you know. In fact, they all boil down to two things: lack of food and lack of morality.’ After such a long era of authoritarian rule, most people could not come to terms with the fact that no single person held complete power – they say Nehru’s tolerance as weakness. They felt he was too detached or too idealistic to be a man of politics. A local wiseguy in the book remarks, ‘Panditji means well. He meant well when he gave away Pakistan. He meant well when he gave away half of Kashmir. [He] has built up his career by meaning well. And the poor, stupid people love him because he means well. And those well-meaning letters he writes every month to the Chief Ministers. Do you know what the contain? Long homilies about Korea and the dismissal of General MacArthur. What is General MacArthur to us? He [does not] understand our society and our scriptures, yet he wants to overturn our family life and our family morals through his wonderful Hindu Code Bill.’ Nevertheless the final triumph of Nehru in late 1951 against the other party factions managed to silence his critics.

In capturing the zeitgeist of a political scene, Seth attempts to compress all the possible strands of Indian polity in his novel. He follows the trajectories of many political lives and shows us the ones which succeeded (and why they did) and the ones that didn’t (and why they didn’t). Waris, a dummy candidate and erstwhile extortionist for the nawab, is shown as a character that succeeded in easily adapted to the new post-independent polity – mastering the muckraking, heckling and slander that one needed in politics. Urdu teacher and anti-zamindari firebrand, Abdur Rasheed clearly didn’t succeed, his idealist student socialism didn’t work in the muck that college student politics is, and his politics ended in suicide. And there is space for loonies too, such as the Raja of Marh, an oafish ex-king who ‘thought with his crotch rather than his brain’ and spoke in ‘guttural grunts’ – his non-libidinous ambitions being centered on constructing a Shiva temple (through a Linga Rakshak Samiti) on the rubble of a Babri-esque mosque. He doesn’t succeed, and ends with an accident that costs many lives and much disillusionment. Seth correctly portrays the proto-Hindutva organizations and leaders as a bunch of religious dunces.

When it comes religion, Seth echoes the famous Marxist one-liner about the opium. It’s surprising that no right-wing Hindutva organization tried to ban this book in India (a usual practice by now). The scars of the Partition are mentioned on many instances and there are two riot scenes, a stampede and an unnatural disaster – all of them caused either by religious instigating or religious foolhardiness. In a scene resembling the 1954 Kumbh Mela, a group of angry ascetics brandish spears and trishuls and begin a stampede. In another scene, when a Muslim tazia runs into a Hindu ramlila it results in a riot. Because even local ministers inflict a religious tinge in ‘managing’ riots, they get even more out of control. As one character observes that even ‘in British days law and order was not such a problem.’ Seth critiques the religious politics of the new Hindu parties, but that doesn’t mean that he endorses or glorifies Congress’ secularism. He is aware of its limitations. ‘Even Gandhi, for all his reforming concern had believed that people should continue in their hereditarily ordained professions.’ For Dr. Ambedkar it was different: ‘he had been born a Hindu, but he would not die a Hindu.’

To conclude, what we have here is a very bold novel – one that chooses a very small span of time (1951-52) and just a few cities (and a village) as a setting, for so vast a project. Its ambition in tackling so many themes and so much politics (but so little politicking) coupled with its sheer realism make it one of the most powerful English novels to come out from India. Its simplicity and almost Zen-styled descriptions show us that clarity and sincerity can achieve much more than dramatic, pompous hyperreal prose. When one is tired of fiction, one can begin Vikram Seth. This book is the perfect antidote for literary fatigue.


Noises From Nagpur

The Saffron Tide: The Rise of the BJP (2014)
Kingshuk Nag
Rupa Publications


Kingshuk Nag, apart from being one of the most respected editors in the country, has also grown into a prolific writer in recent times. He has become a historical genre in himself, with his slickly edited, slim, topical volumes that explain major and minor historical and economical forces in our country – all with remarkable simplicity and ease. His literary roots are in the school of journalism, and he doesn’t forget that: the aim of the journalist is to clarify, unlike the historian, whose aim is to complicate (sometimes, obfuscate). His style is that of a zen artist – unattached and above the subject matter: take that as a flaw or strength. Here is his fourth book in a span of less than five years – the subject of this one encompassing a much wider canvas (his history of the Hindutva right-wing starts with Independence, and finishes right into present times – a scope much larger than what the title reveals), a period that has evoked tons of historical writing, scholarship and emotional reaction. To his credit, Nag doesn’t compromise his zen, relaxed tone, even while discussing a topic as hot as this one. Unfortunately, Nag offers none of the critical insights that his made his previous works so read-worthy, and gives us not much more than dry reportage here.

However, unlike his other books, The Saffron Tide is a book that evokes little response, getting mired by its own redundancy and failure to elicit approval (which it tries so hard to get) from both, saffron-baiters and saffron-fanatics. To begin with, this volume reads like Christophe Jaffrelot lite, when compared to the disturbingly erudite and thoroughly comprehensive volume on the same subject matter: The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics (1996). What the latter book does is present the same information as the Nag volume (and additionally, a lot more information) and grounds into an overarching narrative theme, running the data and facts along with a social and political commentary, something which is completely missing in this rather insipid volume of facts and figures.

This is not to discredit Nag, a writer from whom I had much higher expectations, but just to point out that in the tons of volumes of historiography on the subject, Nag’s volume doesn’t hold a candle in comparison to the writings of Bipan Chandra, Irfan Habib or Jaffrelot – all of whom have written extensively on communalism, the far-right and the Hindutva movement.

The books opens well, with a whirlwind tour of the last sixty years, documenting what Nag aptly calls ‘the battle for Hindu votes,’ a chapter that offers interesting insights, and pulling out some back-pages that we might have forgotten: that Congress did encompass many leaders with suspiciously saffron credentials – rehabilitation minister Mehr Chand Khanna, and food and agricultural minister Kanaiyalal Munshi (to say nothing of blatant saffronites Purushottam Das Tandon, Rajendra Prasad and Vallabhbhai Patel). Nag slyly tells us that Modi wasn’t the first Prime Minister to reach his post after riots in Godhra; that there was a 1927 bout of ‘Godhra riots’ that had deputy collector Morarji Desai’s negligence written all over it. Nag even progresses to make bolder and insightful claims: ’till date, the BJP relies on the lack of performance of the Congress party in its election showing.’ Also, ‘Narasimha Rao had the reputation of being a soft Hindu.’ If only there was more of this in his book.

Nag tells us of how, under Vallabhbhai Patel’s influence, there was talk of Congress opening its doors to RSS members and allowing them to be in the political mainstream, but how that this never succeeded in the liberalism-heated atmosphere in the wake of Gandhi’s assassination. He gives us portraits of early RSS and Sangh leaders – Hedgewar, Golwalkar and Balraj Madhok – men who have ideas and events in our minds, but rarely personalities. Nag fills them out for us.

Nag documents of how Syama Prasad Mookerjee left the Nehru cabinet to establish the Jana Sangh in 1951, only to die the next year and have his party capsized by RSS men, who deputed Deen Dayal Upadhyay to run the party according to their dictates. The RSS old guard did not want to have a party that contested elections, but the more ambitious leaders pushed the party out of its political inhibitions. He portrays the ’50s Sangh as a failing mesh of mistakes, going for issues such as cow slaughter, Article 370 and Hindi as a national language (in 1967, they actually said that Sanskrit should be the national language) – none of which could give the party/movement the universality or political capital that it needed to break out as an alternative to Nehruvian secularism. The ’60s Sangh didn’t change much, and the ‘Decade of Deen Dayal’ amounted to little more than a flight to nowhere, with the SVD governments collapsing with much infighting and the Aya Ram, Gaya Ram variety of problems. Given that their agenda which was too risqué for liberal, pseudo-secular India, Jana Sangh were justifiably ‘political untouchables.’

Nag rightly sees the rise of the right in the ’70s to be more of a product of Indira’s shortcomings rather than their own strengths, though his interpretation of why Indira called off the Emergency tends to be rather facile – that her lackeys told her that the people were impressed and hence she (quite gullibly) went straight into the elections. The most credible interpretation I’ve read is that during the months leading to the election, Indira had enough reason to believe that her opposition lay in tatters (with similar in-fighting as 1967; or worse, in jail), and the time was ripe to take advantage of the disarray (call it information asymmetry if you’re pro-Indira; exploitation and capitalizing of a situation, if you’re her detractor).

The chapter on the ’80s makes you wonder whether Nag could actually see through the Vajpayee façade of BJP being a Gandhian socialist party or whether he actually believes it all. He does make perceptive statements concerning the rise of the VHP during this period, and the influence it (along with RSS) would play in structuring the policies that would lead to the radicalization of 1989-92. Nag uses the backdrop of the ’80s politics from Operation to Blue Star through Shah Bano and Bofors to foreground his narrative of the rise of the BJP, which he manages to do with convincing effect. The summary of Ayodhya from 1528-1991 is commendable as well, done with brevity and clarity, all with chilling details, including the work of Chandrakant Sompura, an architect whose grandfather had modelled the Somnath Temple, who was brought in to draw the blueprints for the new Lord Ram temple; and that the shilanyas ceremony would have a Dalit laying a foundation stone – both important details that speak volumes of the psyche of the Indian far-right.

When it comes to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I’m at a loss to understand Nag’s point of view. His borderline sycophancy and undying admiration towards the BJP prime minister seems uncalled for.

‘Vajpayee pushed the nationalistic agenda of the BJP by detonating a nuclear device that demonstrated the strength of the country while on the other hand pushing for peace with Pakistan. To a vast number of countrymen it seemed that Vajpayee was following on the footsteps of the liberal Nehru. At the same time, Vajpayee did not relent on the economic agenda and pursued the liberalization process that had been started in the time of Narasimha Rao. This helped him cultivate an alternate support base that was more interested in economic growth and believed that this was both desirable and achievable. Vajpayee had a virtually pristine track record until the Gujarat riots of 2002.’

Hardly. Statements like these make me wonder what Nag was up to during the first BJP stint of 1998-99 that he got such a rosy picture of Vajpayee. The late nineties BJP government in my memory was one of jingoistic nationalism, intentional war escalation and constitutional violations. So much for peace processes, we had a Defence Minister who was openly proclaiming China to be India’s ‘enemy number one.’ We had a war being escalated so as to make political capital the next year with fresh elections. He had a governor being made expendable so that the government could accommodate Kalyan Singh’s haphazard coalition of defectors and criminals. We had eight secretary-level bureaucrats, including the Home Secretary being transferred, so as infiltrate the bureaucracy with RSS men.

To give him his due, Nag does reconcile – he mentions how Vajpayee and the PMO abandoned the non-alignment line for overt support of USA and Israel. He adds a crucial statistic that it not too widely reported by the media – that India’s defence budgets shot up nearly two-fold during the Vajpayee regime, from 35,277 crore in 1997-98 to 65,300 in 2003-04. Nag also writes about all the major controversies of the era, ranging from the Kandahar flight IC 814 hostage crisis to Tehelka’s sting operation on Bangaru Laxman.

The core of the book, the most significant part of the book in my opinion are the chapters (11-13) on BJP developments in states. In these three chapters, Nag takes on a state by state tour, condensing caste complexities and data tables into a sum of facts and figures that give us a neat, handy picture of each state in a few pages. He writes about the major role that the Arya Samaj had in the initial phase of mobilization and organization in the north. Sometimes though, he misses the bigger picture in his caste and vote equation summaries. For example, he rather naively attributes the recent BJP landslide in UP (73 out of 80 seats) to Modi’s ‘OBC origins’ in capturing the imagination of the OBC vote. Only cursory mention (that too in the epilogue) is given to the polarization caused by the Muzaffarnagar riots, the same can be said of the role Amit Shah in upping the communal ante in the state. Nag’s writing off of BSP as a party that collapsed in the wake of BJP Hindu consolidation is also another statement that needs cross-examining, giving that he is writing off the third largest party by vote share in the country – a party that polled 19.6% of votes in UP this year.

His reading of Gujarat post-2002 also tends to be rather facile. According to him, Modi was not sacked because the party wanted to give him a chance to test his popularity with the masses (given that they are firm believers in democracy), and hence they decided to call early elections in the state. Not once does he mention the top-down pressure that the RSS would have put on the BJP to keep their beloved man in place. Neither does he mention that pre-poning the elections was more to do with taking advantage of the nascent polarization than being a mere test of popular mandate that the BJP gave Modi (as some sort of conciliatory gift). I’m not saying Nag is unaware of this (after all he wrote a very erudite book on Modi last year), but he just doesn’t convey the information that would be necessary to complete a section with satisfactory answers. I don’t see why he would do that, probably the publishers had him hard-pressed for space. However, Nag does take aim at the covert villains of the piece: he shows us that NDA allies, Chandrababu Naidu and Nitish Kumar were silent conspirators to the 2002 riots, that they didn’t even bat an eyelid afterwards, far from removing support from the very government that orchestrated the event.

Nag gives us a very coherent picture of the disarray that the BJP was in early 2000s, with infighting within the RSS, within the BJP, and between the two organizations, before they got their shtick together under Mohan Bhagwat, who consolidated control over the party through RSS agents and of course, his childhood friend, Narendra Modi. He tells us that for a while, RSS even toyed around with Murli Manohar Joshi (!) being the prime ministerial candidate. He describes the power politics that led to the rise of Sushma Swaraj and Modi, the rise and fall of leaders, like Rajnath Singh, Sudarshan, Nitin Gadkari and the fall and fall of Advani.

The epilogue of the book paints a bleak picture of contemporary India, which downright it is. It also concedes to the post-election sensationalism BJP indulged in, including a statement that the opposition requires a minimum of 10% of seats in the Lok Sabha to be acknowledged as a Leader of Opposition – a misleading rumor that seems to have no constitutional basis. He ends the book with ominous words that leave the reader nonplussed: ‘The first Republic that was crafted by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1950s is making way for the second Republic that will be based on a completely different paradigm.’ Do I hear Marx’s howling lurking in the shadows?

To summarize, Nag manages to pull off a fairly average book on the Indian far-right, giving us a quick rundown on the biographies of the important people involved, and a coffee-table styled summary over the electoral numbers that went behind some of the major structural changes in India’s polity over the last sixty years. It provides an amiably light read on some very heavy matters.


The Manchurian Candidate (1959)
Richard Condon
McGraw-Hill Book Company


Thrillers should be like this. The Manchurian Candidate is one of those rare thrillers which manage to portray their incredibly dark and threatening visions of the world with so much humor and parody. The book is literally crammed with jokes, from the mildly offensive to zany and outrageous, none of which compromise its literary ambitions and political angst. Condon is relentless, his book has no heroes, it spares no one. All the characters are highly flawed, most of them evil beyond redemption. Forget Sin City. This is film noir times hundred. As for his politics, they can rival Orwell. The fact that such a novel doesn’t feature in the usual twentieth-century literary canons is a larger reflection on those lists (yes, Harold Bloom, this criticism is directed at you).

Condon’s adrenaline-pumped representation of fifties America maybe ridiculous and farcical, but what gives his novel credibility is that it is that the times he wrote about, were pretty farcical themselves. Well, this was fifties America. The rise and rise of J.Edgar, Nixon’s denunciation of Alger Hiss and the workings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the Red Scare, the impending fear of communism in the nascent Cold War. The fifties might have been the worst decade in American history.

Condon’s novel has a hilarious plot, and he manages to take off from there with even more hilarity. It begins with an Intelligence and Reconnaissance patrol being kidnapped by the communists during the Korean War. In a long, dramatic scene, they are brainwashed in Manchuria by a bunch of evil scientists led by Dr. Yen Lo in the presence of the top brass of Russian and Chinese military. The platoon is released, and they return to America believing that Sergeant Raymond Shaw saved their lives by single-handedly wiping out a full battalion of enemy infantry.

What follows after Raymond’s return to USA as a decorated war hero, is that he is unwittingly turned into a sleeper agent at the hands of Dr. Yen Lo, who could prolong ‘posthypnotic amnesia into eternity.’ On being shown the Queen of Diamonds card, Raymond would be triggered into assassinating someone on the orders of the caricatured evil doctor, after which he would have no recollection of the event. Yen Lo’s experiment is described in chilling terms:

‘His meaningful goal was to implant in the subject’s mind the predominant motive, which was that of submitting to the operator’s commands; to construct behavior which would at all times strive to put the operator’s exact intentions into execution as if the subject were playing a game or acting a part; and to cause a redirection of his movements by remote control through second parties, or third or fiftieth parties, twelve thousand miles removed from the original commands if necessary. The first thing a human being is loyal to, Yen Lo observed, is his own conditioned nervous system…At the instant he killed, Raymond would forget forever that he had killed…This eliminated altogether the danger of internal psychological friction resulting from feelings of guilt or from the fear of capture by authorities, and the external danger existent in any police interrogation, no matter how severe…Their brains had not merely been washed, they had been dry-cleaned.’

Raymond, the protagonist, is portrayed as an extremely obnoxious man who takes much pleasure and hostility in jeering his contemporaries. ‘The shell of armor that encased Raymond, by the horrid tracery of its design, presented him as one of the least likeable men of his century.’ After his mother ditched his father and the latter committed suicide, and a brief romance which came to no avail (for his domineering mother whose new husband, Senator Iselin, was a GOP hardliner, didn’t get along well with the girl’s father, who was a ‘dangerously unhealthy liberal’), Raymond wound up as a loner, socially and sexually timid, attuned to hating every people he met.

Raymond’s mother is a character that we rarely come across in fiction. Imagine J. Edgar, Joseph McCarthy, General MacArthur and George Kennan rolled into one. She gives Kissinger’s famous quip that ‘power is the ultimate aphrodisiac’ a whole new dimension altogether. Her lustful drive for power doesn’t blind her, she pragmatically advances her approach, and does all she can to get her husband to become the President of the United States. She plans her life right from scratch, and manufactures her husband’s from the time she marries him. She married Johnny Iselin when she was sixteen ‘after two ecstatic frictions on an automobile seat,’ and conceived Raymond.

Senator Johnny Iselin on the other hand, has none of the ambition that his domineering wife has for him. Only his daily boozing seems to inspire him, but he ambles along with his wife’s plans, being ‘a registered masochist.’ He is an archetypal Tea Party kind of noisy character, ‘forsaking silence awake and asleep; belching, bawling, braying, blaspheming; snoring or shouting; talking, always, always, never stopping talking…[he] had noise and muscle on his side in anything he ever decided to do. He won the election…Johnny always kept the gift for merchandising justice. Records indicated that in several of these cases, one of the principals, or their attorneys, or both, were active in supporting Johnny’s political pretensions, sometimes with cash.’ With his wife’s help, he is transformed/manufactured into the ideal American politician with all the correct ingredients thrown in: a military record, decorations, a family man, country judge, law backgrounds, Fourth of July patriotism, flag-waving, morally upright, God-fearing, distaste of power, jovial and good humored.

The plot largely revolves around these three characters in the family. Raymond takes a job at a newspaper, growing in the ranks with the help of his mother, and then becoming editor after killing the previous one (naturally, without ‘knowing’ it). Meanwhile, Senator Iselin changes from being a silent member of the Senate to a vocal critic of communists, producing a list of 207 card-holding communists working in the Defence Department, (though later fluctuating the number anywhere between 207 to 58 and finally settling on 1, a clear parody of the real-life McCarthy, who had claimed a similar list, comprising of 57 communists in the State Department, and fumbled with the figure later). Aided by a controlled television network and print media, Iselin is propped as the new rising angry Republican star. In another hilarious scene, Iselin’s wife tells her husband to never leave the Committee (which was investigating communism) room when  he needed to go to the toilet, but to walk out every time making a statement for the press to record his frustration with the Committee’s handling. Needless to say, Iselin goes to the john a number of times. Meanwhile, two other members of the ex-I&R regiment begin having ‘horrible dreams’ and hallucinations of the actual brainwashing. As Raymond Shaw’s murders pile up (the final count rests at eight by the end of the novel), one of the hallucinators, Marco, gets suspicious and begins a thorough backdoor investigation of Raymond with the collective help of the FBI, CIA and Army. Soviet agents proliferate in and around Raymond’s life, from his cook to ‘handler’ and pretty much everybody else. The plot thickens after Iselin reveals his plans to run for vice-presidency in the 1960 elections. There are a number of turns and twists in the plot that follow, and this being a thriller after all, further elaborations would only hamper the joy of reading the novel.

Condon’s text is fast and racy. He fleshes out his sentences with sharp, dynamic prose (probably too sharp, for his critics tend to dismiss it as some variant of hard-boiled hack writing) with a sense of dramatic irony and exaggeration. His descriptions of characters make Sherwood Anderson’s grotesques pale in comparison. Here’s his introduction of Raymond:

‘The vertical halves of his face pouted together sullenly, projecting the effluvia of self-pity. His skin was immoderately white, which made the prominent veins of his arms and legs seem like blue neon tubing. His cropped hair was light blond and it grew down low and in a round shape over his forehead in a style affected by many American businessmen of a juvenile or eunuchoid turn.’

Condon takes great pleasure in narrating macabre and risqué details in his subplots. One of the most iconic (and bizarre) passages of the novel concerns Senator Iselin’s ‘war-injury’ during WWII when he was posted in Greenland. I wouldn’t spoil it with a lengthy quotation, but let it suffice that it concerns a poontang hunt in a stinking igloo which culminates in a confrontation with an emotionally overwrought Nazi. The novel is filled with people with bizarre sexual interests and a few orgies too. Some of the sections read like a harbinger to the impending sixties sexual revolution, (yes, even Lady Chatterley’s ban wasn’t lifted when this book was published) with brassieres being littered on the ground and characters making statements like ‘a gentleman by act of Congress.’ Incidentally, none of these are reflected in the film version, a rather tame Hays Code product (and since when did one have great expectations from a Frank Sinatra film, even if that was his best one?) that does no justice to the work at hand.

What makes Condon’s style even more endearing is his brevity of expression. He manages to package a remarkable amount of philosophy and ideas for such a plot-driven novel (yes, the French ‘novels of ideas’ have a lot to learn from such American hacks, that philosophy and social critique need not be mutually exclusive with a heavy plot and a coherent narrative). A sufficient part of the first half develops his thesis on brainwashing. Condon complements his paranoia with research, as is evident from his large quotation of scientists and psychologists that go far beyond the usual Pavlovian standard that Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Zamyatin’s We (1924). Thus, in The Manchurian Candidate, you also find Krasnogorski, Andrew Salter, Fredrick Wertham among others.

His theory of brainwashing is expounded via Dr. Yen Lo, who gives a ‘serious’ speech to the Russian and Chinese militia, while demonstrating the total control he has over Raymond. Unlike Ayn Rand’s tedium, Condon knows how to condense theory with aphoristic humor: ‘The conception of people acting against their own best interests should not startle us. We see it occasionally in sleepwalking and in politics, every day.’ Or even better, his explanation for choosing the world-hating Raymond to become the would-be assassin: ‘Although paranoiacs make the great leaders, it is the resenters who make their best instruments because the resenters, these men with cancer of the psyche, make the greatest assassins.’ Brainwashing remains an important theme throughout the novel – Yen Lo brainwashes Raymond, his mother brainwashes him and her father as well, Senator Iselin brainwashes the American masses. They all repeat their lie until it grips their audiences completely. The Russian political czars got rid of their biggest enemies by accusing them as Trotskyites and Revisionists. The Americans were no less, with the common charge being ‘card-holding communist,’ the way the thinly disguised version of Senator McCarthy, Senator Iselin does in this novel.

The Manchurian Candidate also gives us some very refreshing passages that take us into the heart of America and the death of the American Dream. Take for example this passage on a much romanticized part of New York that literature and film have done to death with nostalgia and longing:

‘It was a strip of city too dishonest to admit it was a slum, or rather, in all of the vastness of the five boroughs of metropolis there was a strip of city, very tiny, which was not a slum, and this was the thin strip that was photographed and its pictures sent out across the world until all the world and the minuscule few who lived in that sliver of city thought that was New York, and neither knew or cared about the remainder of the six hundred square miles of flesh and brick…The west side of the island was rich in façades not unlike the possibilities of a fairy princess with syphilis…Broadway, the bawling, flash street, the fleshy, pig-eyed part of the city that wore lesions of neon and incandescent scabs, pustules of lights and color in suggestively luetic lycopods, illuminating littered streets, filth-clogged streets that could never be cleansed because when one thousand hands cleaned, one million hands threw dirt upon the streets again…All together, the avenues and streets proved by their decay that the time of the city was long past, if it had ever existed, and the tall buildings, end upon end upon end, were so many extended fingers beckoning the Bomb.’

In essence, what Condon gives you in this novel is a complete American package. His satire covers the entire broad spectrum of America and Americanness, lampooning everybody and everything. His pen pierces just as much as the pens of the screenwriters of Dr. Strangelove, but Condon’s fishnet encompasses a way larger host of people and places, making the satire broader and more universal. You have it all in this novel: a drunk, careless politician making his way to the top by faking sympathy and press conferences, manufacturing news and politics, wirepulling and nepotism, incest, hysteria, repressed sexuality, jilted lovers, hypnotized assassins, expendable masses and massive corruption.

With the hype over both the film versions of the novel, interest in the novel has dramatically decreased, and its reputation has become that of a hack novel. The truth couldn’t be farther. Greil Marcus (since when did he know anything about literature anyway?) called it a ‘cheaply paranoid fantasy,’ a dismissal echoed by many critics. In fact, I find the whole idea of classifying literature with elaborate taxonomies of ‘literary’ and ‘pulp’ to a misnomer in the first place. Why should Raymond Chandler and Richard Condon be considered pulp lit, when one considers John Irving and Ian McEwan to be literary fiction? These are politics that should be best left out while objectively critiquing literature.

Here is a novel that the Oliver Stones and Noam Chomskys and Marshall McLuhans of the world would love. The Manchurian Candidate stands right up there with Orwell and Huxley in his portrayal of powerful totalitarian (whether right or left) establishments. His work also happens to be one of the funniest and most entertaining political products that America’s liberal-left literature has given us in the twentieth century.

In Medias Res

Lucknow Boy (2011)
Vinod Mehta
Viking Press

Vinod Mehta says that his basic quest in his life was decency. I suppose Debonair wasn’t exactly the best place to start such a quest. In any case, Mehta ended up as a fairly decent human being, in his own way, battling his sometimes indecent and inglorious enemies, be it Sanjay Gandhi or Niira Radia. Mehta says that he tries to restrain himself from ‘doing a Niall Ferguson’ (i.e., exacting literary revenge on an enemy in his texts) – however given his inherent nature of being vicious, he does exactly that – attacks and mocks a number of his contemporaries, but all within limits now, something which a lifetime of apprenticeship has taught the Lucknow lad.

Lucknow Boy has very little to do with Lucknow, and is much more than a mere autobiography of the writer. It is a portrait of what can be called the golden age of Indian journalism. In many ways Vinod Mehta is the most apt candidate for telling this tale, having an unmatchably successful career trajectory in his trade – having been an integral figure in the working of the history of the period. Mehta pioneered and edited some of the best newspapers and magazines in the ’80s and ’90s and set for us journalistic standards that were completely missing in the old school of Indian journalism. Mehta’s readings of political situations are acute, often witty in a deadpan way. And his luck in managing to be the right place (or right controversy) at the right time, just makes his book an even more interesting read.

Vinod Mehta’s humble beginnings itself make him an iconoclast in the media establishment. His CV doesn’t boast of any Doon Schools, St. Stephens or Ivy Leagues. Neither does his lineage boast of the who’s who in the corridors of money and power. He belonged to an average middle-class family growing up amidst simple difficulties with women and friends who cracked scatological jokes. The opening chapter ‘Hometown’ depicts Lucknow with a lot of fond nostalgia, reeling and revelling in its low culture, lost traditions and romanticisms, colonial legacy and parochiality. He cheerfully takes a dig at the Hindutva variety as he explains the Lucknow milieu:

‘My notorious pseudo-secularism – which I wear as a badge of honour – springs directly from the experience and ambience of my formative years…For me Muslims meant korma, Christians meant cake and pastries, Sikhs meant hot halwa, Anglo-Indians meant mutton cutlets, Parsees meant dhansak… I breathed the secularism they talk of, the composite culture flows in my veins, the syncretic tradition is something I observed daily as I rode my bicycle from Firangi Mahal to Sanyal Club.’

Just the way the RSS made secular sound like a bad word in recent times, Mehta does the reverse, snubbing the far-right by wilfully adopting pseudo-secularism as a virtue. Lucknow, he believes, was always his identity. However, Mehta’s biggest influence on his life was not Lucknow, but London. Mehta landed at Heathrow in 1962 with little in his pockets and a little to lose. He worked odd-jobs and pursued a nondescript degree, while quietly pursuing a different order of education that was all around him. He found this in the morning papers, journals and TV shows that he read and watched – Guardian, New Statesmen, David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was, Alistair Cooke’s broadcasts, Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson reviews. He chronicles the turbulent decade of Christine Keeler and the Profumo Affair, of Harold Macmillan’s resignation, the rise of the working-class politician, the Angry Young Men plays, British New Wave films, Mary Quant’s miniskirt, Beatlemania. He quite enjoyed the Swinging London scene: ‘the word promiscuous entered the lexicon…I didn’t complain too much about the sleeping around since I was a beneficiary.’

He arrived in England as a village bumpkin, unaware of Karl Marx (who ‘seemed to pop up everywhere – in film reviews, interviews with intellectuals and artists, discussions with student leaders; politicians of all persuasions, even stand-up comics used him for material’), unable to hold simple conversations with the Brits (they questioned him about India’s reaction to the Colombo Plan, an unsuccessful Marshall Plan-like policy in the Subcontinent; Mehta had no clue what it was back then). The world of his youth was crumbling down – he realized that his ideals, Somerset Maugham, Jawaharlal Nehru weren’t as canonical in the West as they seemed back home; that William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ was more than a nursery rhyme, and Gulliver’s Travels was more than a ‘jokey kid’s story.’

He came back to India as a much evolved man, and like any aspirant for better things to come, left the old Hazratganj air, making his way for Bombay, a city that he was so awed by, that he wrote a book on it (now out of print, but Ramachandra Guha managed to procure a copy on the Bombay streets):

‘Bombay in the ’70s was a dream city. It belonged to nobody and everybody. The Shiv Sena had just been formed and not yet spread its poison. On Warden Road, we had Bombellis with a band, where the movers and shakers and I.S. Johar and Shashi Kapoor met for coffee. Gordon and Co. in Churchgate served delicious roast lamb in an eatery where space was ample…I managed to acquaint myself with the Parsis, and their pigeon-stained statues, I followed my natural bent, surveying Bombay’s low life.’

Mehta followed up his semi-hack Bombay: A Private View (1971) with his Norman Mailer-styled biography Meena Kumari (1972), in which he used to embarrassingly refer to his tragic nymphomaniac as ‘my heroine’. Luck came his way when Susheel Somani allowed him to edit the fledging Indian version of Playboy, Debonair. The magazine had been launched with much expectation and advertisement, but winded up as a disappointment with declining sales. With Mehta at the helm, the often grotesque and dismal centrefolds continued, but a wealth of talent (under the art direction of M.G. Moinuddin, who went on to design some of the finest papers in the country with Mehta, and writers Ruskin Bond, Anil Dharker, Abu Abraham, Iqbal Masud and K.A. Abbas), the magazines fortunes turned, and Debonair went on to become a happening cultural and literary event. During the Emergency, it carried on a somewhat muted dissent, with columnist Kuldip Nair writing under the byline Hindwasi. With the end of the Emergency, Mehta produced his third book, a not-too-erudite attack on Sanjay Gandhi, The Sanjay Story (1978), one of the usual run-of-the-mill accounts of the excesses conducted during that period. This was a time when everyone was throwing stones at the Emergency’s villains, and Mehta threw his own one too. Hundreds of such books proliferated.

By the ’80s, Mehta seriously acknowledged the limitations of editing the men’s magazine. As Atal Bihari Vajpayee put it in an interview to Debonair, ‘your magazine is very good, but I have to keep it under the pillow.’ Mehta moved on to what would become the most productive decade, rife with innovations in journalism and a loaded content of political fire. Mehta’s second editorial venture, the Sunday Observer became India’s first Sunday paper was launched in 1981. Unabashed about content, the paper took on the likes of J.R.D Tata and Arun Shourie. In a major scoop, they even managed to get hold of documents which revealed that Dhirubhai Ambani gifted 3000 Reliance debentures to Girilal Jain, editor of Times of India, and thus made their media-industrial nexus known.

Industrialist and media proprietor Vijaypat Singhania gave Mehta his next big break, to be the editor of Indian Post in 1987. Mehta introduced a political diary on the op-ed page, and added a daily arts page, while also redesigning the paper with his old hand Moinuddin. Their big scoop was a confession from the Indian high commissioner in Colombo J.N. Dixit, who claimed that the Indian government paid LTTE £200,000 and gave £43 million in economic aid to get the Tigers to agree to the peace accord. Indian Post also exposed bigger targets in their corruption wheeler-dealing, including Rajiv Gandhi pal and Rajya Sabha member, Satish Sharma, and Sharma crony, Lalit Suri. In 1989, Mehta received a letter from his boss Singhania listing eight people who should not be attacked in the Post, given that he was under pressure and didn’t want to jettison Raymond Woollen Mills’ (his textile brand) interests, whose proposals worth Rs. 546 crore were under government consideration. This was the during the heights of the license raj era. The list is a who’s who of the politico-industrial nexus of the ’80s – Rajiv Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan, Satish Sharma, Lalit Suri, Dhirubhai Ambani, V.P. Singh, Murli Deora and Sharad Pawar.

These were dark days. The late ’80s introduced some of the major themes that have become both rampant and granted in today’s times – industrial and political pressures on the media, the firing of editors, buying and selling of MPs. Mehta’s account of this era serves as a grim reminder to us as to when it all began. Mehta resigned the same year (1989) and soon found himself editing a Times group newspaper Independent, much to the aversion of Dileep Padgaonkar, editor of Times of India, Pritish Nandy and Govind Talwalkar. In just 29 days, after a major controversy, Mehta resigned and the entire reputation that he had built for himself was washed down in a matter of days.

The case is somewhat complex. In 1971, New York Times reported that a minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet betrayed India’s military secrets to the CIA. It sounded ridiculous back then, but then Henry Kissinger gave further legitimacy to the tale, saying that the CIA had a bagged the ‘impressive asset’ for $20,000 per year. American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh wrote in The Price of Power:Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983) that the mole who sold India’s ‘war objectives’ to the CIA was Morarji Desai. Gujarati NRIs filed a $50 million libel suit in Chicago on Morarji’s behalf. In 1989 the libel suit was dismissed with the jury holding that Hersh had not made his charge ‘with reckless disregard to the truth.’ A report from the Forum for the Restoration of Civil Liberties in the RAW, coupled with IB reports, a press conference from Subramanian Swamy and statements from Rusi Karanjia of Blitz gave legitimacy to a new theory, that ex-Chief Minister of Maharashtra and Home Minister (1966-70) Y.B. Chavan was the spy. The Independent reported this, to much backlash from within the ToI by Dileep Padgaonkar, Sharad Pawar who mobilized Mathadi (Congress labor force) workers, Bal Thackeray, Murli Deora, Chagan Bhujbal, Sushil Kumar Shinde and a number of others. The Marathi sensitive chord had been struck. After a lot of vilification and character assassination, Mehta was made to leave. As for the conclusion of the story, Hersh told Mehta much later that the spy was indeed Morarji Desai, and that his son Kanti Desai was paid by the CIA with full knowledge of the father.

Do I believe it was Desai? It is possible; as after all Desai was capable of anything. An early saffronite, Desai was even involved in riots in Godhra as early as 1927. And after not becoming the PM twice (1964 and 1966), the grumpy old man was ready to shed blood for power. The least said about a man who consumed his own micturition the better. As for the Mehta case, sample this (my own hypothesizing, with no veracity over the rumination at hand): Times of India launched a second English daily for apparently no reason. This was in an era when the concept of ‘second papers’ didn’t even exist, so much so that each paper was a local monopoly in their region. Clearly there was a larger aim at hand. Also there were enough people within and outside the government that felt that Mehta had grown too big for his boots. It may be probable (again, my conjecturing) that Mehta was set up (by very, very high authorities) right from the beginning, with the RAW and IB reports being planted for Mehta’s discovery. The negative reaction to the article didn’t begin immediately, it took a while, and probably that’s why Dileep Padgaonkar was brought in (whose jealousy towards the new Times vehicle – which was probably another setup – could make his emotions easier to fuel), to catalyze the violence and drama which only began to escalate much after the article was published. Mehta’s career would have been effectively finished by this move. Given the extent of conspiracies that were prevalent at the time, ranging from Bofors to Fairfax, perhaps this wasn’t all too impossible in the heightened atmosphere of that era.

In any case, Mehta was unemployed for a while, and after a failed stint at setting up a publishing company, he became the editor of industrialist Lalit Mohan Thapar’s daily Pioneer in 1991. With another brilliant design (by Moinuddin again) and a fresh team of journalists (Raminder Singh, Ajoy Bose, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Sumir Lal), Pioneer became the liberal voice of the media, proving Mehta’s unmatchable track record as editor (the biggest one was yet to come), attacking Narasimha Rao for inaction. Given his proprietor’s inclination for rightist stories and his right-wing friends and family (which included ‘crackpots who were a slightly more sophisticated version of Pravin Togadia’), Mehta soon quit, which led him to muse that his tombstone would read: ‘Here lies the most sacked editor of India.’ Unsurprisingly, Pioneer was sold to BJP MP Chandan Mitra.

Finally, in 1995 Vinod Mehta found stability in his life after starting Outlook, a weekly magazine that broke the erstwhile monopoly of India Today. He was aided by his proprietor Rajan Raheja, who this book is dedicated to. The magazine launched itself with an impressive list of journalists (Tarun Tejpal, Sandipan Deb, Sagarika Ghose, Aniruddha Bahal) and an impressive run of stories (the first opinion poll in J&K, the secret quasi-autobiographical sex-filled novel of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao – the latter was probably the efforts of the PM’s PR machinery to reinvigorate life into a ‘dull PM’). In another issue, they extricated money links between underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and Sharad Pawar via hawala operator Mool Chand Choksi. Further acclaim and readership came when they revealed that the holy game of cricket had a dark underside (namely, match-fixing) and names were named for the first time. Today, naturally these things are of routine nature and one barely bats an eyelid when a new case of match-fixing is revealed. In an unusual case of liberal reporting, Outlook was among the few papers to condemn the Pokhran-II tests of 1998 and not give in to the nationalistic jingoism of the rest of the press.

Mehta literally waged war with the PMO over a number of articles where he condemned the misuse of powers by PMO-insiders and fixers, especially Brajesh Mishra, N.K. Singh and Ranjan Bhattacharya. Outlook reported the heavy hand that both the Ambanis and the Hindujas had in the PMO and BJP government (the former was given a counter-guarantee for a Rs 20,000 crore Reliance power project in Orissa, giving huge assured returns to Reliance). The politician-industrialist mafia grew stronger in these times – Birla, Reliance, Tata and Essar owed Rs. 3179 crore to the Telecom Ministry; with adequate lobbying in the PMO, they got an extension on the payment deadlines. Vajpayee, who had been a vocal critic during the Emergency, resorted to the same tactics and began tax raids and harassments against Raheja, in order to silence Outlook. The magazine’s condemnation of the Godhra riots and Modi’s handling has led to the latter filing three court cases against the former that are still being fought. Mehta’s portrait of the ’90s and ’00s paint a grim picture of society today, with extreme right-wing sections on the rise and power of industrialists within the media spiralling out of control. Mehta and his magazine remained the largest bastion of centre-left politics during the era. Mehta’s reading of the 2004 elections is characteristic of the lifelong liberalism that he has stood for:

‘The BJP showed no remorse. They got ready to oust the foreigner who was scheduled to sell state secrets to the Pope. The foreigner, in an inspired move, checkmated them. In an outflanking manoeuvre, part idealism, part pragmatism, she declined the throne. From Indira Gandhi to Morarji Desai to Chandra Shekhar to Vajpayee, blood (metaphorically speaking) has been spilt to seize the coveted chair. Here was an Italian immigrant spurning it.’

This is vintage Vinod Mehta. Crisp, clear, dramatic sentences, pungent with sarcasm – all ready to deliver the fatal blow of a punchline. Much of Mehta’s journalistic success comes from his ability to render a political situation alive and bright with controversy, to deliver ideology with panache. While being strictly anti-saffron, Mehta didn’t shy away from critiquing the UPA governments too. He was instrument in the scoop which discovered the fallout between the Malayalee mafia in the PMO under M.K. Narayanan, special adviser (internal security) to the PM and the National Security Adviser J.N. Mani Dixit.

It is interesting to note that Mehta devotes a considerable section to the recent 2G scam, which was still relatively fresh news when the book was published. He quotes at length from the transcripts, which Open and Outlook broke concurrently. However, he doesn’t tell us any more than what we already knew, except that he had got hold of the tapes from an interest lobby as early in February 2010 (but he chose to withhold the tapes, doubting their veracity, and also contemplating (with admirable frankness) the monetary losses in waging war against the Tatas). Over two batches, Outlook received 140 and 800 conversation tapes (from whom? we aren’t told) and a few of these made it to the internet. What about the remaining 5,851 tapes that the CBI has? We aren’t told. Many questions remain unanswered. How did Prashant Bhushan come to know about whose phones were worthy of taping? Why did the CBI and Court oblige? How did Arun Jaitley know about the tapes in February 2010? Why did Mehta hold back releasing the tapes for eight months and then suddenly let the transcripts out in October? We are told sparse details – that Stalin does whatever Maran wants him to and that the Congress is happy doing business with them (then why were there frantic efforts to ensure A. Raja retains the telecom portfolio and not Dayanidhi Maran?); that Radia could offer Kanimozhi tourism and health ministries, but not the environmental one. As for the exact involvement of Tarun Das, Kamal Nath, N.K. Singh, Murli Deora aren’t exactly clear either. And why was Barkha Dutt given the carrot and Vir Sanghvi given the stick? In all the muddle, some humor and clarity does permeate. At some point, Mukesh Ambani makes the statement (as per Ranjan Bhattacharya), ‘Haan yaar, Ranjan, Congress to ab apni dukaan hai’ (Yes, Ranjan, the Congress is now our own shop).

The last two sections of the book serve as pure window dressing. ‘Sweeper’s Wisdom’ contains some advice to cub reporters, largely rehashing the Orwell, Hemingway variety of literary advice with some inputs from his own career. ‘Some People’ contains portraits of his dog Editor (made famous by the Delhiwalla), communist intellectual and renegade Mohit Sen, Mehta’s grandfather (a Bollywoodized, or shall we say romanticized Raj-era portrait), writer and misanthrope V.S. Naipaul (who is just as much of an ass-hole in real life as he is in literary life), Salman Rushdie (a minor anecdote here), Shobhaa Dé (who is shown as someone less obnoxious than she actually is) and Sonia Gandhi (with some intelligent insights into her underrated character and psyche). It is interesting to note that as early in 2011, both Sonia and Mehta were aware what a menace Sanjaya Baru was in the PMO (way before Baru published The Accidental Prime Minister (2014). Sonia’s own theory was that Manmohan had three daughters, and no sons. Therefore, Baru was the surrogate son.

In conclusion, here is a highly recommended memoir of a man who has lived a thorough twentieth-century life, described with precise details, from the Swinging London scene to the decline of politics and journalism in the eighties and nineties. Vinod Mehta’s book manages to combine uncommonly witty insights with a perceptive historical exegesis and commentary. It is the triumph of journalistic, non-academic historians over university-oriented academic ones.