The two books rocking the headlines are, by sheer coincidence, memoirs. The first has been making headlines even before its launch. The World Is What It Is, is Patrick French’s biography of Nobel Prize winning writer V.S. Naipaul.
The other is L.K. Advani’s 986-page life story My Country, My Life, only recently launched and a headliner for otherreasons.
The two lives intersect, if only briefly. Naipaul was a Hindutva poster boy through the 1990s. In 1993 he told Times of India editor Dileep Padgaonkar, in an interview that finds mention in Advani’s book, that he reacted to the Ayodhya incident “not as badly as the others did”.
French’s book is remarkable for several reasons (disclosure: he is related to this columnist by marriage). The fact that he was given unprecedented access to a writer who has single-handedly popularized the word “curmudgeon” is, in itself, a minor miracle. The way French tells it, he was approached to write the biography (“I was hesitant; I was finishing another book”). He agreed on one condition — interviews with Naipaul and access to his archives along with permission to quote from them. Astonishingly, Naipaul agreed.
When the “authorized” biography was written, French offered to show it to Naipaul but — here’s the other remarkable bit — Naipaul asked for no change despite this being a book that could potentially destroy what’s left of his personal reputation. There’s the bit about visiting prostitutes; Naipaul’s admission that his cruelty to his first wife probably hastened her death; and the unseemly hurry with which he acquired wife No. 2 — none of which is likely to win him new admirers.
This is not to imply that the book is just about the women. Outlook excerpted bits about Naipaul’s relationship with India, while The Telegraph (UK) carried a longish excerpt on Naipaul’s “falling out” with fellow writer Paul Theroux. French, it seems, wants to bring into perspective all the factors that made and influenced Naipaul — the writer. “He believed that a less than candid biography would be pointless, and his willingness to allow such a book to be published in his lifetime was at once an act of narcissism and humility,” writes French.
Contrast this with Advani’s memoir. The book has created a minor political flutter barely a week after its launch over the role (or lack of it) Advani played in the decision to swap passengers for terrorists in the 1999 hijacking of IC-814.
Advani’s spin doctors have been trying to project the former deputy prime minister as a man who is hard on terror. And within the BJP, it is reported that there is some anguish at Advani’s attempt to present a squeaky clean image at the cost of other leaders, most notably Jaswant Singh and A.B. Vajpayee. Adding to the fire, George Fernandes, who was the defence minister at the time, has rubbished Advani’s claim, saying he was indeed aware of the trade-off.
Writing in the Hindustan Times, Vir Sanghvi remarks that the book is significant not for what it says, but for what it doesn’t. “We can only guess at the truth by what is left unsaid,” he writes. What compels an 80-year-old putative prime minister, a man who is still in active politics, to write his memoirs? Is it the coming election?
“The purpose is to demolish the myth about his being a ‘Hindu hardliner’ and present a man who is more than the sum total of what people and mentors in the RSS have to say,” says Kanchan Gupta in The Pioneer. Clearly, a lesser hardliner is more acceptable to allies.
But Advani also has history in mind; he wants to set his record straight. “My devotion, sincerity and commitment to my own cause and ideals have been tested many times, especially when I have faced any adversity in my life. I can say, with both humility and contentment, that I have not been found wanting in the eyes of my conscience,” he writes.
So, Advani’s conscience is clear. Naipaul’s is not (or perhaps it is). The biography of one stands out for what it says; the life story of the other for what it doesn’t. Yet, both men have an eye on posterity, aware of their role in contemporary affairs.
To bet that both will make it to the best-seller list is easy. From a reader’s perspective, the lives of others remain inherently fascinating (biographies and memoirs account for the largest collection of titles at Amazon, followed by history). Neither book will fundamentally alter the way we look at their subjects.
Naipaul’s position as a writer will not be dented because we now know he treated his wife poorly. And after the initial storm over the Advani book blows over, he will remain his party’s chosen shadow prime minister.
But I’m willing to bet that Advani’s book will, in the years to come, be remembered as a political rendering, lining the bookshelves of party faithfuls and those committed to its ideology. The Naipaul book will be a treasured possession of people who are fascinated by words and those who use them well.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org