Restrained accounts

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

The Book I Won't Be Writing and Other Essays by H.Y. Sharada Prasad; Chronicle Books; pages 330; price Rs.425.

IT is easy enough to guess why Sharada Prasad will not be writing the one book expected of him. It goes against the grain of the man who, through the two decades that he was adviser in the personal office of three Prime Ministers, consistently kept a low profile, bringing to his role a scholarly dignity that was more implicit than stated. It would not be like him at all to be telling us all about the prime ministerial goings on he was privy to all those years. The reasons he himself cites in his introductory self-exculpation have more to do with a self-abnegatory modesty. He feels inadequate, he says, to the task of capturing the complex personality of Indira Gandhi. In any case, he adds cryptically, "so many attempts have been made on her life". The biographic landscape is for him a minefield littered with fatuous hagiographies on the one hand and gross muck-raking of the M.O. Mathai variety on the other. It is best to keep off. He finds a model of such abstinence in Kathleen Hill, who was personal private secretary to Winston Churchill and six other British Prime Ministers and kept all that she saw and heard on the job precisely that - personal and private.

It is tempting, however, to second-guess the kind of book that would have emerged should Sharada Prasad have taken the biographic or autobiographic plunge. The motley reminiscences, musings, observations and reflections that constitute the Other Essays part of the title (that is, all of the book except the cited first essay) give us occasional, if fairly leading, clues about where his abiding loyalties lie. Abiding, because they are not just an occupational commitment, but arise from his deep faith in the one family and the three Prime Ministers in the cause of the nation. Of the three, the Indira Gandhi period must be the asparagus of his memory; he had never actually worked with Jawaharlal Nehru and by the time Rajiv Gandhi was in his prime ministerial prime, a yuppie set of advisers was already hogging the limelight. There were, in between, the few months spent with Morarji Desai, for whom he has not one unkind or mischievous word. Even if he holds the years spent in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) generally close to his chest, we catch stray glimpses now and then of what went on in the inner sanctum. We learn what Indira Gandhi thought of Margaret Thatcher after their first meeting, we learn that she was already shifting her political preference to Rajiv Gandhi from Sanjay Gandhi towards her last years, that she doodled all over her notes (a Cleopatra profile being her favourite), that she once had telepathic communication with the Kanchi Sankaracharya, that she differed with Nehru over Kerala and that she felt she could "reach out to the people over the head of the press".

His approach to the Emergency rule invoked by Indira Gandhi is somewhat circumspect. While it does seem to have left a bad taste, he prefers to fast-forward to the happy ending, when the people forgave Indira Gandhi and re-elected her. On dynastic rule he is less ambivalent, devoting an entire article to listing genealogical succession in various spheres of life - film, music, cricket, law, medicine - and asking why politics should be an exception. This is not the only instance in the book where he is impatient with Nehru dynasty baiters, although he does point out that while Motilal Nehru and Gandhi did pave the way for Jawaharlal Nehru's succession, Nehru himself could not have groomed Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister because he could not possibly have had foreknowledge that Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was his decided successor, would only have a short stint. Interestingly, in another essay where he is mulling over Rajmohan Gandhi's The Good Boatman, which deals with how Gandhi managed to steer the boat safely to independent nationhood, much of the discussion is, again, on the question of who will be Gandhi's anointed successor. Here, significantly, C. Rajagopalachari (who, Rajmohan Gandhi recounts, was also in the race along with Sardar Patel) was automatically out of the reckoning once his daughter married Gandhi's son. While Sharada Prasad seems in agreement with the end result that saw Nehru donning the role, had Gandhi been genealogically inclined, surely things might have been quite different.

Sharada Prasad believes that the Prime Minister, in our parliamentary democracy and Cabinet system, is far more than primus inter pares or first among equals. He or she is the undisputed boss who calls all the shots. His description of the alienation and isolation that sets in and erodes that absolute power has the feel of having almost shared the experience up-close, even if at second remove. In what also reads like a fascinating account of the process of hubris, he narrates how the leader "becomes more inaccessible and unforthcoming, forgets his obligations to colleagues, often hurts and humiliates them, grows more and more suspicious, loses touch with grassroots workers in the party, hears only what he wants to hear, is carried away by media praise of his decisiveness and astuteness, gets trammelled by administration to the neglect of policies, and forms an exaggerated picture of his indispensability. And misleaders (in the party, in the civil services, in intelligence) keep assuring him of his popularity. All this leads to defeat, either in the party or at the hustings".

The anecdote about how, at the instance of Indira Gandhi, he finds himself in Anand Bhavan in Allahabad one summer making an inventory of personal items long stowed away in a locked almirah of Jawaharlal Nehru gives us an idea of the contrasting sensibilities of father and daughter. The prize discovery in the almirah was urns containing the ashes of Motilal Nehru, Swarup Rani Nehru and Kamala Nehru. Sharada Prasad's excitement over Jawaharlal's umbilical nostalgia is, however, dampened by Indira Gandhi who quickly and quietly has the urns immersed in the Sangam. "Indira Gandhi made fewer concessions to sentiment than her father," is his resigned comment.

ON subjects removed from the corridors of power we see the author visibly relax and become more felicitous. There is engaging variety not only in what he chooses to address (each week, because the bulk of these essays appeared as weekly columns in The Asian Age), but also in his tone, tenor and narrative style. There is the self-reflexive counsellor introspecting on advice and advisers, on bureaucracy and diplomacy. There is the informed and concerned citizen mulling over our education system, our scientific temper, the status of our children, gender discrimination, the VIP menace and the Bill Gates hype; the laid-back, vintage ranconteur telling us, tongue-in cheek, how he heard Prince Philip call Queen Elizabeth "sausage", or quoting a "not only erudite but challenging" (and unintelligible, there lies the dig) theory about Time by a professor-scientist from Madras (now Chennai). There is, too, the scribe-turned-sour who has a mouthful to say about contemporary journalistic practices: "The journalist thinks he knows all there is to know about things that happen. He also thinks that others are interested in what he thinks"; or, again, "Looking back over the last forty years, I would say that our journalists do not go very well prepared to press conferences. Many do not even know how to put a question pointedly but with courtesy and concern for grammar and logic... Just when a correspondent seems to be getting somewhere, another cuts in to ask something wholly unconnected. There are too many casual artists, too many with known loyalties to parties and links with individual politicians. Then there are Hindi journalists with a deep deprivation complex. Others want to show off their punditry and ask questions with numerous clauses and sub-clauses... " He has mixed feelings about television ("I am crotchety in my approach to TV"). He credits Indira Gandhi with heralding the television age in India, albeit reminding us of the pun of the times that "Nehru was a visionary, Shastri a revisionary, and Indira Gandhi a televisionary". He himself prefers radio for his news (in addition to newspapers) and music, but admits that the idiot box has him sitting up engrossed in cricket and football matches and wandering around the house bleary eyed for the effort.

The most delightful three pages of the book are a take on the spate of apologies (assumably for past war crimes and misdemeanours) that marked the turn of the century. This rambunctious little piece called `The Apology Epidemic' is Sharada Prasad at his puckish best, or, to put it in parlance matching the performance, Sharada Prasad unplugged. He has all creatures and creators, great and small, on their knees begging forgiveness for every act of omission or commission in the collective memory of mankind. Among them, "various Old Testament characters apologised to various women whom they had known in the style of latter day American Presidents". While much of his writing is peppered with his wry wit, nothing prepares us for this kind of hilarity from one whose general image and demeanour hardly suggests such gay abandon. But then, why should we have expected any different, or less? As he himself observes elsewhere in the book, pointing to the perils of physiognomy, "The face does not necessarily give us a clue to a person's innermost thoughts or tell us much about his tastes and sense of values". And sense of humour, he might add.

The mellower reminiscences of those whose friendships he made and values are as moving as they are engaging. They are no more than thumbnail sketches, but like the few deft strokes of the consummate artist, they suffice to evoke the essential traits of the persona. These are evolved and fulsome relationships and their accounts are distilled and restrained, never effusive. Living or dead, all of them inhabit a world of old world charm and repose. Their lives constitute the touchstone on which the fluctuating values of changing generations could be tested. Like in a surreal dance, Sharada Prasad weaves his way through that pantheon - A.K Ramanujan, Sadasivam and M.S. Subbulakshmi, Shivaram Karanth, R.K.Narayan, Mallikarjun Mansur, Raghubir Singh, K.K. Hebbar, R.K. Laxman, D.G. Tendulkar and the relatively less famous Santokhba, the prodigious scroll painter of epics.

All in all, it is an invaluable read. Where he is deliberately politically obtuse, he seems to suggest that you read between the lines. Through it all, if there is one thing he would like the reader to bear in mind, it is that he writes as an essayist (the "buried-in-the-issue variety"), rather than as a chronicler or a fleet-footed journalist. As he writes at will, occasionally dipping into his stock of quotations, he would rather not be hurried, for, "if the bell rings, why must I run?" It is a meditative reverie that seeks to be left alone.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment