Book Review

Book Review: M. Hamid Ansari's "By Many a Happy Accident" is more than just an autobiography

Print edition : August 13, 2021
Former Vice President M. Hamid Ansari’s autobiography is more than just memoirs: it consists of reflections of a multifaceted personality and records that will serve as source material for historians.

It is more than an autobiography. It is an autobiography plus reflections of a multifaceted personality, reflections of interest and benefit not only to his generation but also to the younger generation, and to posterity. We live in an age where history is either set aside or rewritten by pseudo-historians who have an axe to grind.

It has been said that life is lived forward, but written backwards. Many people find it rather difficult to recall the past with reasonable accuracy. Our author is exceptionally gifted in this regard, and hindsight plays little role in his narration, or assessment, of events that happened over five or six decades ago, events of importance to India and to the world at large.

He is far from egocentric and can almost effortlessly see the big picture. The only effort he puts in is his vast, almost omnivorous, reading on themes of his choice.

In his Foreword, former President Pranab Mukherjee says that the book “is an interesting account by a close observer of aspects of our public and parliamentary life”.

The style is a study in lucidity. The very title By Many a Happy Accident is a brilliant choice. M. Hamid Ansari was keen to follow an academic career. His father insisted that he should the write the civil services examinations. Hamid Ansari did not agree. Finally, his father asked Professor Mohammed Habib to talk to his young student and it worked.

By then Hamid Ansari had got a fellowship from the University Grants Commission. He was asked to teach undergraduates in a women’s college for a few weeks. There he had his ‘first encounter’ with Salma Kazmi, his future wife.

Fate had intervened even earlier. Hamid Ansari was attracted to a girl a year his senior while studying at Aligarh University. As he did not get a chance to talk to her, he wrote a letter with a quotation from Aristotle. There was no response and Hamid Ansari says that his fancy “seemed to vanish quickly!” That he could not get a chance to talk to her might surprise the young reader. And his quoting Aristotle even more.

Foreign service career

Hamid Ansari was appointed to the Indian Administrative Service in 1961. He was to report to the National Academy of Administration on June 1, 1961. A few days before leaving Delhi to Mussoorie he was told that there was a slot free in the Indian Foreign Service as a selected officer wanted a change. He took the slot. “This incidental happening decided the course of my life for the next 37 years.” The reader might ask: Why only 37 years?

Hamid Ansari’s first posting was to Algeria. There was delay owing to technical reasons that had nothing to do with him. His posting was diverted to Baghdad where a kindly fate wanted him to meet Salma Kazmi, who, unknown to herself, was waiting for him.

We conclude that the title is historically most appropriate.

Hamid Ansari was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on April 1, 1937. His father, Mohammed Abdul Aziz Ansari, was resident director of an insurance company. While studying at Aligarh, Hamid Ansari’s father went on a medical mission to the Ottoman Turkey during the Balkan Wars (1912-13).

Hamid Ansari quotes from an internal government report of 1925 on how the government of the day saw the Khilafat movement. This is the merit of this book. It gives slices of history, valuable to all readers, even more so for the younger ones.

The author takes us to his various postings. Iraq, Morocco and Saudi Arabia were followed by a posting back to the headquarters as Deputy Secretary in the WANA (West Asia and North Africa Division). The next posting was Brussels. Hamid Ansari, the bibliophile, decided to store books in two big steel trunks in the basement of the South Block. He promptly got a receipt, only to discover later that the basement was susceptible to flooding in the rainy season. He recovered only “a pile of soiled paper!”

Also read: Hamid Ansari exhorts Muslims ‘to struggle for our rights’, ‘focus on education and business, and not respond to any provocation’

In Afghanistan a ‘happy accident’ occurred. On March 6, 1989, 10 minutes after Hamid Ansari left his residence for the office, a bomb landed in the garden “and its impact blew away the façade and the first floor of the house”.

The book has evocative photographs, starting from a family photograph in Shimla (1947-48). The damaged study at the residence where Hamid Ansari might have been when the bomb fell is also among the photographs. They add much value to the book.

Hamid Ansari, 39, was posted as Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. A friendly Indian telephone supervisor alerted him one morning in November 1979 about an ‘unusual’ telephone blackout in Saudi Arabia. Hamid Ansari informed Secretary Romesh Bhandari in the Ministry. That was the first indication of the occupation of the Grand Mosque by Islamic students. The reader gets an idea of how a good Ambassador collects crucial information.

There are more stories about Hamid Ansari as Chief of Protocol, and as Head of Mission to Australia, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations. This reviewer does not wish to spoil the joy of discovery by the reader.

Academic career

The first four chapters take us to the end of the foreign service career. Hamid Ansari gets back to his first love, the academic career. He taught at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), wrote articles for scholarly journals, and also served as Vice Chancellor of the university where he studied.

Another window opened—the author might consider it as ‘a happy accident’ though he does not say it in so many words—when Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), asked him to become Chairman of the National Commission for Minorities. This was in 2006.

A year later, when Hamid Ansari was at the India International Centre he got a call from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who said that he was with Sonia Gandhi. They wanted him to be the UPA’s vice presidential candidate.

Chapters 6 and 7 deal with his two terms as Vice President. There is a lot in these two chapters that will serve as source material for historians.

In July 2010, two newspapers carried a story about a right-wing organisation’s plot to assassinate the Vice President of India. Hamid Ansari got no official communication even as the report was not denied.

As Vice President

President Barack Obama was the chief guest at the 2015 Republic Day. When the military parade began, President Pranab Mukherjee took the salute by raising his right hand. The Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, perhaps not properly briefed, also raised their hands in salute. A section of the media faulted Hamid Ansari for disrespecting the national flag. They did not know that as per protocol the President alone takes the salute on such an occasion.

International Yoga Day was celebrated on June 21, 2015, with the Prime Minister personally participating. Hamid Ansari, not invited, was absent. In any case, if the Prime Minister is the chief guest at a function anyone above him in protocol will not be invited. However, a ranking member of the ruling party faulted Hamid Ansari for his absence.

Obviously, as a posting, the 10 years as Vice President was the longest. Hamid Ansari visited many countries, including the ones where he was posted.

Also read: Ansari & Modi

The eighth chapter is meaningfully titled “Away from Routine” and the last, the ninth, is about the family.

The reader will feel enriched as she finishes the book.

This reviewer has a request in the interest of historiography and posterity. Hamid Ansari made speeches on a variety of subjects of enduring importance after retiring from the foreign service, especially during the 10 years as the Vice President, and even after he ceased to hold that office. The book does refer to these speeches. They should be organisd theme-wise and published.

Hamid Ansari loves poetry. The book is rich in quotes.

This reviewer takes the liberty of quoting only two, one at the beginning and the other at the end.

Manzoor hai guzaarish-e-ahwal-e-

waaqaee

Apna bayan husn-e-tabiat nahin mujhe

(True expression of experience is what I really seek

I do not care to display my skill at speech)

The chapter 8 “Away from Routine” starts with the lines:

Freedom has a thousand charms to show

That slaves, however contended, never know.

This reviewer cannot resist adding a quote from a famous writer intimately linked to India:

“If you can walk with the crowd and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings nor lose the common touch; If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run, Yours is the earth and everything that's in it….”

We have a right to expect more books from this singularly gifted author.

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