Memoirs are most readable when they transcend the lives of their protagonists to give a sense of their times.
Two men—a Gandhian and a geologist—accomplished that with help from their journalist sons. Civil Disobedience by Lakshmi Chand Jain, who died in November, is based on the interviews he gave to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library’s video/oral history project and to his son Sreenivasan Jain, managing editor of NDTV Profit. Dream Chasing by Shiva Balak Misra is an as-told-to autobiography written by his son Neelesh Misra, a former deputy executive editor of Hindustan Times and now a Mumbai-based scriptwriter.
Civil Disobedience: The Book Review Literary Trust, 266 pages, Rs 395.
Both books are miles apart in the way their authors put themselves in their stories. Civil Disobedience, careful about hagiography accusations, underplays the individuality of its memoirist with the subtitle Two Freedom Struggles, One Life. “For my father, the idea of the collective is a deeply embedded personal and public philosophy,” says Sreenivasan. “So there wasn’t this constant sense of ‘me’ in the interviews, which form the basis of the book.”
Dream Chasing is more personal with the subtitle: One Man’s Remarkable, True Life Story. Explaining why his father’s life should interest more people than just his sons, Neelesh says: “His is a universal story, which starts in grass-roots India, travels to North America and then returns to its origins. The idea of dreaming big and still remaining rooted is what new India is all about.”
The two books are set in different Indias. When read in succession, they show the country’s stark dissimilarities, and how that shapes the lives of its people. Jain was born to a family of jewellers in Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Misra was born to a family of farmers in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Jain’s father was a political activist who procured the first revolver for revolutionary freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad. Misra’s father raised cattle, cultivated the land and made laddoos (sweets) for a living.
In 1942 when the Quit India Movement was launched against the British, Jain, an idealistic college student, immersed himself in the freedom movement. Misra was a toddler, born three years earlier in 1939 when “an old midwife raised an iron sickle to cut the umbilical cord that attached me to my mother”. After independence in 1947, when Partition refugees arrived in Delhi, Jain, a voracious George Bernard Shaw reader, was given charge of one of the three areas of Kingsway Camp, the Capital’s biggest refugee camp. Around the same time, Misra would walk barefoot daily to a makeshift village school, which had dry grass for the roof, jute mats for students and a charpoy for the teacher. The village had never seen electric bulbs.
In Jain’s memoir the various phases of his life chronicle India’s political, cultural and economic evolution: work among the Partition refugees, his role in the All India Handicrafts Board headed by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, involvement in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan land-reform movement, and life in the turbulence of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency from 1975-77. Jain became a member of the Planning Commission in the V.P. Singh government in 1989. In 1997, he succeeded Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson as the high commissioner to South Africa.
Stalwarts: Shiva Balak Misra visiting his school in Itaunja, UP. Neelesh Misra
Jain’s generation had come of age in a newly free India and had plunged passionately into public service. “In the book one comes across several such characters—Sudhir Ghosh, Kamaladevi, Sucheta Kripalani—who have received little attention,” says Sreenivasan, “and who were behind some very remarkable experiments—Faridabad, Super Bazar, Cottage Industries, and so on.”
Misra’s memoir has no famous names, but it is dramatic. A village boy who once walked 24km daily to his school wins a scholarship to study geology in Canada. There, on a June afternoon, while eating sandwiches, he discovers 565-million-year-old fossils, the oldest records of multi-cellular life on earth. The young geologist could have furthered his career in the West. Instead, he returns to his village to set up a school for the area’s children.
This in itself is an inspiring story. A twist makes it more emotional. Years after Misra returned to India, he discovers that the credit for finding the fossils has been usurped by other scholars. Redemption follows. In 2007, 40 years after the discovery, a fossil category is named Fractofusus misrai. That same year Misra is invited to address a Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) conference in Delhi. “At the last moment they changed the format and my father was not allowed to speak,” says Neelesh. “I was furious, and I decided that his story would not be restricted to a conference and that everyone would read about my father’s struggles in the form of a book.”
Dream Chasing: Roli Books, 200 pages, Rs 250.
There was a different motivation for Jain’s son. “My father had written three books but none of them came even close to capturing his extraordinary personal journey,” says Sreenivasan. “I decided to have a go at it and I discovered so much—about my parent, his family, and about that extraordinary period in our history. It was like a sort of archaeological exercise in one’s own past. It was one of the best years of my life.” Neelesh says: “Working on the book was like journeying into an era that shaped the lives of my parents and which I knew so little about. Although my father did not consider his life worthwhile enough to be talked about, I believed it mirrored the struggles of many ordinary Indians.”
The epilogues of these two life stories are a study in contrast. Misra starts his book with a description of his visit to the Uttar Pradesh Raj Bhawan in Lucknow, where the “honourable governor” presents him with a bouquet and press photographers click his pictures with the VIP. Finally, the recognition of his life’s achievements has become official.
In Jain’s life, the official honour was turned down. That episode is not in the memoir. Last month, when Jain was chosen posthumously for the Padma Vibhushan, the nation’s second highest civilian award, his family refused to accept it. “We were honoured but father was never comfortable with these state awards,” says Sreenivasan. “And so we decided to return it.”