A very likeable oddball
Randeep Wadehra

Sunday Sentiments
by Karan Thapar
Wisdom Tree, N. Delhi.
Pages: ix + 232. Rs. 395

How wrong can one be while judging people, especially, when one hasn’t met them in person. After that televised interrogation of the sports icon, Kapil Dev, I’d developed a strong dislike for Karan Thapar. When I read a couple of his pieces in the Hindustan Times, I labelled him as an Anglophile and hence unpatriotic. Therefore, it was patriotic to ignore his writings. The loss, I concluded after reading this volume, has been entirely mine.

At the very outset he describes himself as an "oddball"; he confesses that his arguments are "rarely profound" and that he’s "not an original thinker"; worse, that his sense of humour "might take a little getting used to". Don’t believe him. If you do you’re going to miss reading this delightfully eclectic collection of insightful articles taking you through kaleidoscopic experiences. The prose is lucid and the style chatty.

In these short pieces he brings out the essence of his subject—be it a politician, sportsperson or a film personality. We all know that Advani is considered a hardliner vis-`E0-vis Muslims in general and Pakistan in particular. Yet, a day after the terrorist attack on our Parliament he and his wife went out of their way to greet the then High Commissioner of Pakistan, Ashraf Qazi, in a party. In another piece he reveals Qazi’s liking for Ram dhun—Gandhiji’s favourite hymn; and still another article tells us of a Pakistani lady diplomat, Tasnim Aslam, singing Ram bhajan in a party.

Thapar’s eye for detail comes through in his description of things that have gone wrong in the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s d`E9cor. Similar perceptiveness is evident in his observation on Madhuri Dixit’s penchant for sending contradictory messages through her eyes and speech; in his ability to see through Zia-ul-Haq’s elaborate graciousness; in the manner in which he portrays Bangladesh’s dictator Gen. Ershad’s attitude towards his wife; and in the discovery of Musharraf’s proclivity for wit. He’s equally sharp while portraying feminine traits of the three strong women of our subcontinent, viz., Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Thapar is disarmingly honest when he reveals his ignorance of the history of Delhi or the niceties of the game of cricket. In another piece, on probity in public life, he becomes introspective and wonders whether he would’ve been able to resist the temptation of pocketing a proffered hush-money if he knew he could get away with it; after all, everyone has a price, or does one?

In a lighter vein, yet with brutal frankness, he describes how he walked off with a dressed chicken, costing `A3 7, from a London store without paying for it. His ruminations on morality and journalistic ethics are both pertinent and weighty.

His pieces on Afghanistan are nostalgic. He had spent a part of his childhood in Kabul. His chance encounter with a salesman of a London store who turned out to be a former Afghan diplomat belonging to the deposed royal family is poignant.

One didn’t know he had a sense of humour. His ability to laugh at himself is a revelation. When someone asked him at a party if he was Karan Thapar, he replied in the affirmative–ignoring his wife’s advice. "How odd. On screen you look tall and handsome but actually you’re short and ugly," his prospective "fan" observed. On more than one occasion Thapar has tried to demolish his, what he describes as, rakshas image.

Of course, Karan Thapar is no Tim Sebastian (of BBC’s Hard Talk fame) who believed in taking apart the interviewee with a lethal mix of polite fa`E7ade and pitiless interrogation. But he’s in a class of his own. The most enduring image one has is of Kapil Dev breaking down on the sets of Face to Face, courtesy Thapar’s relentless, almost brutal, questioning on the match-fixing issue. He certainly looks a "stern interrogator" on the small screen. Seldom saw him smile; and if at all he did it resembled a grimace. Yet, the pages of this book crackle with varied hues of humour.

His interviews with the two Laxmans, VVS and RK, introduce us to the typical South Indian brand of jest—biting satire articulated with a deadpan expression enforced with philosophical inflexion. Then you’ve the more robust Punjabi wit accompanied with backslapping bonhomie, as illustrated by an ex-diplomat’s observation on media’s status in Pakistan, viz., it’s not freedom of speech which is the issue there but freedom after speech.

The fact that he hasn’t written a word on the Kapil Dev episode shows that the man is truly of heightened sensitivity. From now on I’m not going to miss a single word written or uttered by Karan Thapar.