An actor, a mystic, a director, a Silicon Valley giant and a scientist. And over 3,000 pages that encapsulate their lives. A biographer’s task, one is bound to believe after reading five biographies, one after the other, is supremely difficult. A mass of haphazard material—based on real-life facts—to be translated into a portrait of a life. A biographer has very little creative licence, yet the best biographies are as much about the subject as about the writer. Like all art, the value of a biography largely rests on the writer’s craft and imagination.
The other aspect is the process itself, which some of these biographers talk about in the books.
Amrita Shah, in her introductory note to Vikram Sarabhai: A Life, states that contrary to what people believe, writing a biography can be an independent enterprise, undertaken for the merit of the story, and not because it is commissioned or funded by an interested party. We dig that spirit.
On the other hand, historian Brian Sibley spent five years with his subject, film-maker Peter Jackson, and by the end of the five years, had a hard time qualifying the book—with Jackson’s voice omnipresent in the narrative, was it a biography at all?
Hema Malini, The Authorized Biography by Bhawana Somaaya
Lyricist Gulzar pens a few telling observations about Hema Malini—who acted in his film, Kinara—in his foreword to this authorized biography by veteran film journalist Bhawana Somaaya. “There are no doubts that in the history of Hindi cinema, Hema Malini has had the longest reign as a number one star…The media projects her as a traditional woman, but her choices in life prove that she is more liberal than most of the slogan-shouting feminists we know about.”
Much of Somaaya’s book dwells on this aspect of Hema Malini’s life, unfortunately only through the actor’s words. With years of experience writing about the film industry, Somaaya’s ability to chart Hema Malini’s trajectory as an actor and public figure is unquestionable. And it shows, in the numerous anecdotes surrounding the actor and the many characters that impacted her life at different points in her life. Either Somaaya has stored all her notes or she has a phenomenal memory.
Where she stops short is in delving into the larger canvas where Hema Malini’s life as a filmstar played out. The workings of the Hindi film industry and how it evolved through the 1970s, is a hazy background in this book.
Roli Books, 218 pages, Rs495
Vikram Sarabhai: A Life by Amrita Shah
Those of us who have witnessed India’s march to the world economic map, think of Vikram Sarabhai as an idealist, a visionary when it was tough being one—the post-independence era. Amrita Shah’s biography reinforces that belief with a well-rounded portrait of Sarabhai.
Shah perhaps starts out with the handicap of not having the expertise in the specific areas of physics that Sarabhai was passionate about, but her chronicle of Sarabhai’s contribution to space research in India is meticulous. She devotes a large part of the book to it and these pages make up the heart of the biography. The book explains the differences between India’s space research programme and the atomic energy programme under Homi Bhabha. Although both the scientists were comrades, they were intrinsically different in their views of progress. In the chapter titled ‘Launching into Space’, Shah writes, “…So Vikram’s aim was clear. It was to establish, step-by-step, a space programme that would advance scientific research as well as offer applications of great social and economic relevance…it is astonishing that Vikram was able to maintain a strict focus on peaceful ends.” What emerges out of this riveting chapter is a portrait of a man who truly extended the spirit of science to a view of the world that he wanted to see executed during his lifetime.
In her introductory note, the author admits, how in her childhood, Sarabhai occupied a fuzzy space in her head— “an idea of a progressive and romantic figure”. The purpose of her biography is to validate that admiration, which she does by making Sarabhai accessible, endearing and more human than we’ve ever known him. His personal life is less known and Shah meets his wife, danseuse Mrinalini Sarabhai, daughter Mallika Sarabhai and Kamla Chowdhary, his associate at IIM, Ahmedabad (of which he was the first director), with whom he shared an intimate relationship. But here, Shah holds back. Perhaps that was intentional, but it is also the only dent in an otherwise fleshed-out, engaging portrait.
Penguin, 248 pages, Rs425
Dalai Lama: Man, Monk, Mystic by Mayank Chhaya
It’s puzzling why the Dalai Lama agreed to an authorized biography after his widely-read autobiography, Freedom in Exile, which came out 17 years ago. The book was a chronological self-portrait from the time he was whisked away from his home in 1939 to his escape from Tibet in 1959 and his winning the Nobel Prize in 1989. Chhaya, a Chicago-based journalist, doesn’t achieve much more in revealing details of the monk’s life.
Where perhaps he scores is examining the monk’s non-violent crusade for Tibet’s freedom in the recent geopolitical context of the world—the rise of China and India, the superficial thaw in their bilateral relations and America’s new military imperialism in Iraq and other parts of the world.
Even here, the biographer gets distracted because, as the title suggests, he sets out to explore three aspects of the man’s persona. Although some of the conversations with his subject are enjoyable, albeit hardly ever illuminating, Chhaya would have been better off focusing on the Dalai Lama’s political significance in the world today.
Among the lighter bits, sample this: The author asks whether a woman had ever made a pass at him. “If they did, I did not know,” Dalai Lama says. We also get to know that he loves gardening and watching BBC travel shows.
Mapin, 342 pages, Rs595
Andy Grove: The Life and Times of an American by Richard S. Tedlow
When was the first time you bought a PC that had a sticker on it saying ‘Intel Inside’? In India, perhaps in the late 1990s. But Andy Grove, Intel’s founding CEO, adopted this kind of direct-to-consumer marketing strategy long before that—when he was on the verge of his staggering rise in Silicon Valley.
And it would have been a pity if he didn’t put those stickers there, because his journey from Hungary during the Holocaust through the Soviet invasion to arriving in New York as an immigrant in the mid 1950s, and then making it to the top in Silicon Valley, is stuff tailor-made for a modern-day fairy tale. Richard S. Tedlow, historian at the Harvard Business School, has turned it into a gripping biography.
Grove has been an advisor to presidents, been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year (in 1997) and is known as the godfather of the PC. Tedlow goes beyond the superficial titles and recreates Grove’s struggles from the time he emigrated to America to his early years at Intel.
Many pages are devoted to analysing Intel’s growth through detailed figures and graphs, which can bog down the reader, but his anecdotes are sharp and colourful. The book is finally not just about Grove and the history of Intel, but about a young Silicon Valley full of promise.
Penguin, 568 pages, Rs695
Peter Jackson, A Film-maker’s Journey by Brian Sibley
On 25 November 2003, a lot of people in Wellington, New Zealand, were looking for Peter Jackson, director of The Lord of the Rings. It was the premiere of The Return of the King, the final part of the trilogy, in his hometown. Hundreds had gathered. Jackson was away, watching another film, the 1933 release, King Kong.
BBC broadcaster and J.R.R. Tolkien (author of Lord of the Rings)-enthusiast Brian Sibley starts his 560-page biography of director Peter Jackson with this anecdote. It is, again, an authorized biography, the subject’s thoughts often running into pages. Sibley has earlier dramatised The Lord of The Rings for BBC Radio and is also the author of The Lord of The Rings Official Movie Guide. Illustrated with never-before-seen photographs from Jackson’s growing up years in a coastal town off Wellington to his diaries written during the shooting of The Lord of the Rings, this biography is a treat for fans.
Sibley has access to Jackson’s colleagues, friends, family and of course, the man himself who finally convinces us of one of the biggest success stories in Hollywood—that of an outsider who came with nothing but his vision for cinema, and went on to make the most successful trilogy in the history of Hollywood.
HarperCollins, 578 pages, Rs1,100
This autobiography isn’t about a remarkable life, but Seth’s easy candour makes up for it
Before its release, Leila Seth’s autobiography, ‘On Balance’, was worth looking forward to because of its foreword. Vikram Seth writing on his mother’s life was a good enough reason to buy it. But the son takes up just about a page. The rest of the book is, as it should be, the meat of the story.
Seth was the first woman judge of the Delhi high court. That a woman rose to the top of the judiciary in the 1950s is itself an amazing story. But Seth chooses not to dwell much on her profession. Her journey as a wife and mother gets equal, if not more, importance. In the three parts of the book—‘My Early Years’, ‘From Bar to Bench’ and ‘A Sense of Freedom’—she speaks with the candour of a seasoned raconteur. For 474 pages, it is not really a remarkable life, but the author’s unpretentious voice is refreshing.
In her childhood, Seth was perennially ill and was forced to study at home. Later, she and her widowed mother had to take shelter in the house of her mother’s friend in Darjeeling.
Her marriage to ‘Premo’ (Prem Seth), a struggling businessman, was a turning point, as she later moved with him to London and completed her law degree.
Seth also devotes pages to painful details—her husband’s long illness, accepting her son Vikram’s bisexuality and the death of her fourth child, Ira. Through all this, she maintains the forthright, at times naive voice. Talking of her son’s sexual leanings, she says, “It is only now that I realize that many creative persons share this propensity and that it gives them a special nurturing and emotional dimension.”