Mrs Mallowan? For the less informed, that’s none other than Agatha Christie, the fourth most translated fiction writer in the world. And, did you know that she visited India thrice? Did you also know that in October 1958, India played host, the only time actually, to the esoteric gatherings of the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank?
If you fancy similar vignettes, turn to Candid Conversations by K.P. Bhanumathy. The 70-something (she preferred not to discuss her age) writer, a long time denizen of Delhi, can best be described as an accidental journalist, who then went on to interview some global legends during the 1950s and 1960s.
Barely a fortnight into its launch, the book has already had its brush with controversy. The publishers chose to drop references to Feroze Gandhi, the late husband of Indira Gandhi. The author, understandably miffed, however refused to be drawn into a debate on the subject, saying, “I am dealing with it.”
Bhanumathy started out with a column—Around the Capital’—for The Indian Express, with Frank Moraes as the editor. She moved on to join the news division of All India Radio, and has done stints with The Times of India and India Today. It was during her 10-year stint at AIR that she got the opportunity to interview several global dignitaries. Access to the Nehru family no doubt helped, especially since most of the interviews were conducted at Teen Murti, then the residence of the Prime Minister.
Bhanumathy has trawled through her archives and revived 60 interviews. She has sought to make them contemporary by adding context, which frankly takes away the pleasure of coursing through archival material. This may have been prompted by the fact that she has no access to the original interviews, which AIR has erased so that the tapes could be reused. Like any good freelancer, she has reproduced the full version of the interviews, of which only three minutes were used.
What hurts more is the production value of the 245-page book, published by the National Book Trust. While typos can be overlooked, what a reader will find difficult to absorb is not just the lack of imagination in displaying the pictures—many, of historical value—but the fact that they have been reduced to passport size.
The interviews themselves are not very revealing. But what it lacks in substance, the book makes up in little anecdotes. An interview with Che Guevara would be an apt example. The author recalled how she gatecrashed to get her time with the legendary revolutionary who was staying at Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi. “Today, I would have been conscious about (cold) calling. But then I was young and full of energy. He was a young man in army fatigues with a goaty beard and a cigar. Very good-looking,” she said.