IK Gujral’s autobiography is good fodder for historians but restrains from divulging his personal story, says Ashok Malik
HISTORY WILL remember IK Gujral as an indifferent if not accidental prime minister. Grant him this, his autobiography is better than his prime ministry merited. Matters of Discretion is a sober book; Gujral obviously sees things from his point of view — all writers do — but doesn’t pretend he had a glorious stint at 7, Race Course Road. A largely factual narrative lends the book a certain credibility, especially as source material for historians.
Gujral is the consummate Delhi insider. That explains his survival, his smooth transition from Indira Gandhi’s Emergency-era ambassador in Moscow to retaining the job under Morarji Desai’s Janata government. By the 1980s, Gujral writes, he had moved away sufficiently from Indira, primarily due to her mischief in Punjab.
He joined the opposition concourse, becoming minister in many Janata Dal governments. However, as the book describes, he continued to retain an admiration for Mrs G. He sought to model his prime ministry on hers — whether in keeping Sundays sacrosanct or trying to sideline a difficult Cabinet colleague (then civil aviation minister CM Ibrahim) by appointing a politically savvy minister of state under him (Jayanthi Natarajan, as it happened), and then having the secretary report to the minister of state.
Gujral makes frequent references to his non-confrontational approach. To a large degree this represented his lack of political heft, especially in bizarre “third front” governments packed with warlords. Gujral was the oddball: the token urban, English-speaking voice who was interested in the Ministry of External Affairs, the man who became prime minister because all other potential candidates cancelled out each other.
In 1997, when Gujral did become “the first servant of the nation”, as he chooses to term it, he was presumed to have had the backing of HKS Surjeet, then general secretary of the CPI(M) and an old Punjabi associate of Gujral’s. Surprisingly, Gujral discounts this. He suggests Surjeet and the CPI(M) were batting for Mulayam Singh Yadav and saw him as a distant second choice. This suspicion also influenced his warning to Sonia Gandhi in April 1999, when the first NDA government fell, that the CPI(M) was leading the Congress up the garden path.
He admired Mrs G and tried to model his prime ministry on hers — keeping Sundays sacrosanct and sidelining difficult colleagues
DIPLOMACY WAS Gujral’s USP in the Janata Dal, but also his Achilles’ heel. He was foreign minister during the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91 and while he mentions his compulsions — NRIs in the Gulf region, a ballooning oil bill — he does not quite accept India completely misjudged the first major post-Cold War crisis and finished without anybody trusting it.
Neither does he admit to the lack of realpolitik in his Gujral doctrine, a series of concessions that gave Pakistan medium-term tactical advantage. Indeed, on page 373, he admits to advising HD Deve Gowda, then prime minister, to “keep a tight leash” on Research and Analysis Wing, following American complaints that “Indian agencies [had] stepped up terrorist activity in Pakistan”. There’s a book waiting to be written there, but it’s not this one.
This anthology shows what films can do to good writers, finds Baradwaj Rangan
AT ONE point in his essay, My Life as a Cabaret Dancer, Manil Suri is stricken by an existential conundrum that — I think it’s safe to say — isn’t likely to visit your average professor of mathematics who moonlights as a successful novelist: “By what stretch of imagination did I think it advisable to strip down to a bra in the middle of Brooklyn?” But that’s what movies do to writers, reducing them from solemn high priests of the printed page to debauched devotees of the silver screen. Amitava Kumar, a selfconfessed “citizen of the world created by Bollywood”, knows a thing or two about debauched devotion. Why else would he have resolved never to marry anyone who did not understand the song Tu Hi Re, of which he writes in Writing My Own Satya?
The Popcorn Essayists is a compilation of essays by established authors who do not write about movies professionally. Editor Jai Arjun Singh hopes that “reading this book will bring you pleasure comparable to that of watching a really good film”. That, it does — if a handful of great scenes is what it takes to make a good film. There isn’t a really bad essay, but a few are tonally off. The anecdotal nature of Super Days or Terminal Case (where Sidin Vadukut contends that Terminal Velocity is the greatest movie ever) does not work well when placed with Going Kaurismäki (about Anjum Hasan’s discovery of Finland through Kaurismäki) and Kamila Shamsie’s Two Languages in Conversation. These latter essays open an intensely personal window to film through the eyes of an empathetic artist working in another medium. I suppose that in the spirit of the comedy track of our 1970s potboilers, these lighter essays are sips of water between the heavy cud-chewing.
The book works best when it sticks to its agenda of describing what movies do to writers (as opposed to what writers think of movies). They render Rajorshi Chakraborti a waking dreamer. With high-toned allusions (the Hamlet inspired title Perchance to Dream, Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses) rubbing shoulders with an awe for films often dismissed as lowbrow Bollywood, this essay reminds you why the artist’s eye is singularly precious, especially when it opts for careful consideration over swooping judgement. I, for one, won’t be able to watch Hindi masala cinema again without recalling the phrase “masterpiece of surrealist juxtaposition.”
Rangan is Film Critic and Deputy Editor, The Hindu
By Yamini Deenadayalan
A book that means a lot to you?
I have been working on my father’s (Gandhian LC Jain) memoirs titled Civil Disobedience: Two Freedom Struggles, One Life. I’m also a fan of Ian McEwan. I liked Atonement and The Innocent.
Your favourite genre?
There is no particular genre but crime fiction is something I have been reading a lot of late.
Your favourite character?
I like the character of the English patient in the book by the same title by Michael Ondaatje. His body was charred in a plane crash and it is not clear if he is a spy. He cannot remember his name. There is this element of ambiguity and mystery about his character that is fascinating.
An underrated book? And why?
I think Jim Crace is a brilliant writer. I liked Quarantine and The Gift of Stones. Why? I don’t know. Reading is such an eclectic thing today, very few people do it.
A book you wish you had written?
Maximum City by Suketu Mehta.
A book about journalism that you really like?
I don’t think I can point to one book but I keenly followed the careers of MJ Akbar and Shekhar Gupta while growing up.
Last book you read?
I read James Lee Burke’s A Stained White Radiance. Set in the deep south in Louisiana, it is richly detailed and intensely lyrical writing. It is like crime fiction but it is criminal to slot Burke.