The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 16, 2002

USSR through Sheila Gujral’s eyes
Darshan Singh Maini

My Years in the USSR
by Sheila Gujral. Macmillan, New Delhi, 2002, pp.179, hardcover,
Rs 395

My Years in the USSRAS a book-reviewer for over 50 years now, I have tried to work out an ethic of writing which answers to the requirements of my imagination in labour. However, when a book by a friend is the question, a certain degree of ambivalence is likely to get structured into the argument. My close relations with I.K. Gujral since our school days in Jhelum thus become a bait to test my evolved perceptions in this regard. I trust, I’ll not have to stretch my conscience.

The factors that led to the appointment of I.K. Gujral as our Ambassador in Moscow (1977) are fairly well known. He was eased out of the Cabinet by Mrs Indira Gandhi following his reluctance to accept Sanjay’s ‘overlordship’ and goondagardi! I’ve his word for it, for I had a chat with him at the reception hosted by the Punjab Government in his honour here in Chandigarh. I’m not surprised, therefore, when I find his wife, Sheila Gujral’s memoirs, My Years in the USSR, beginning her graphic and insightful narrative with a chapter entitled "Exile". For, there’s no doubt, the media treated Gujral’s new assignment as "a political exile". A suggestive and succinct "Foreword" by our scholarly President, Mr K.R. Narayanan, helps see things and happenings of those tempestuous days in perspective.


It’s a well-known quip that an ambassador is sent abroad "to lie for his country". This, of course, is only a part of the truth for certain individuals holding that high charge can still retain the integrity of their vision and values. They can, even under pressure from home demonstrate their authenticity. As Lionel Trilling’s critic, Irving Howe maintains apropos of Sincerity and Authenticity (Harvard, 1970). "It takes two to be sincere; one to be authentic. Having known Gujral so closely, I could safely vouch for his unimpeachable authenticity.

Now, while an embassy happens to be as large and important as the one in Moscow, the ambassador’s routine meetings, greetings, receptions etc. keep him too occupied to notice the smaller things around. And there his spouse, if she’s as educated, as well-read and as sensitive to the cross-currents of history as Sheila is, the Embassy’s over-all duties become that much onsier. And then Sheila Gujral happens to be a substantive poet (I have a couple of her signed volumes in English — a present from her during my visit with my wife to 7 Race Course in 1997, when Gujral had the honour of being India’s Prime Minister). No wonder, her feminine intuitions and her poetic sensibility lend the memoirs an air of elegance.

Since the volume under review is based on her daily diary, all manner of details — her duties as housewife, as a fond mother of two grown-up sons, as a loving daughter-in-law, as an office-holder of many a social organisation, as a hostess with Indian guest-friends in squads — get told, often in lucid, flexible, expressive prose. She notices everything around during her travels to the far-flung republics of the Soviet Union, with a keen observer eye. It’s a pity, though she stops short of making large formulations. For the USSR of the post-Stalinist era was still obsessed with "the cold war" dialectics. No comment is made on the Russian dissidents exiled to Siberia, no comment on the moral, inner erosion of the Marxist Empire. I spoke earlier of Sheila Gujral’s poetic past. Even in this volume, she cannot resist the temptation of breaking into lyrical songs when the moment warrants it. For instance, staying as a state guest at Yalta for treatment and rest, she notices one day a strange stir in her spirit and a familiar buzz in her ears. And she sums up that epiphanic experience thus:

"The Black Sea seemed to have seeped into me.

The vibration of Om encircled me."

I wish the editors had added an index to facilitate the reader. Also, I wish the editorial eye had been a little more meticulous where the niceties and nuances of the English language are concerned.