Books Ď07

Focus on tinseltown

Women seem to have written more interesting books this year as compared to men, writes
M. Rajivlochan while surveying the non-fiction scene of 2007

DarlingjiThe Mumbai film world was present in a big way among non-fiction books. Amitabh Bachchan got a book to his name. Manna Deyís autobiography became available in English and the Dutt family became the subject of two major books. Kishwar Desaiís story of the extraordinary Nargis and her beau Sunil in the quaintly-titled Darlingji brings to life the peculiarly unorthodox way in which the Duttís made a place for themselves in the history of our country and their interpersonal dynamic.

Nargis was the granddaughter of a Brahmin widow who eloped with a Muslim sarangi player. If her grandmother had defied society to live with the one she loved, so did Nargis. At the height of her popularity, she decided to get married to a relative non-entity but one whom she liked as much as he liked her. With Sunil Dutt, she entered the world of public life, which involved service of the people. That Nargis and Sunil won the confidence of those whom they served was clear when he was repeatedly chosen by the same constituency to be their Member of Parliament right until his death. India RememberedTheir children, Namrata and Priya, have brought out a book on their parents which adds a personal touch to the gaps that are left behind in Desaiís book. Memoirs of our Parents is a well-balanced recollection, based onUgliness of the Indian Male personal archives, of how the children looked upon their parents. Both books have carefully chosen pictures from the Dutt family album, including the one in which young Sanjay is shown with his pants down, literally. A similar book of remembrance reconstructing an important period of contemporary history is by Pamela Mountbatten and India Hicks.

In India Remembered too family archives provide the main source of information for the mother-daughter duo who delves into the troubled days of Partition to provide a personalised account of the events. Talbotís version of the Partition days as An American Witness to Indiaís Partition is more in line with informing his own people, the Americanís, of how to make sense of the tumultuous demise of the British Empire in the East. Indians, their lives and concerns feature in a big way in these reports.

An American Witness to Indiaís PartitionTalbotís reports, begun when he was just 23, could fruitfully be read to provide insights into the American way of thinking which led them to remain the dominant world power throughout the 20th century: focus on the people and not just the shenanigans of those in power; winning over minds is just as important as winning wars. The much-deserved lotus award that the government of India gave him in 2002 and many other Indian honours indicate that even at personal level, Talbot was highly successful in winning over minds.

Women seem to have written many more interesting books this year than men. The one by Myra MacDonald takes a close womanly look at the history of the Indo-Pak confrontation in Siachen and simply calls all that macho pomposity to be the Heights of Madness. As she trudges across the white heights, she observes the military logic of sending young men to die in the cold so that their leaders can claim to have protected national honour. She comments on bureaucratic pig-headedness in not allowing the soldiers adequate logistic support. She reconstructs individual acts of bravery such as that of Bana Singh who in 1987 won the only victory in this war which has been going on since 1984. She is no peacenik but does insist that neither the individual field commander nor the national leaders should lose sight of commonsense while executing a war that claims a heavy human toll in terms of the physical and mental well-being of the soldiers.

Contested LandsSumantra Bose inquires into the matter of contestations over land across the globe to examine the possibility of bringing peace in areas as diverse as Bosnia, Cyprus, Jaffna, Jerusalem and Kashmir. His Contested Lands focuses on the importance of self-determination and regional cooperation. Once the conflict begins to go out of hand, he argues, one constructive way of resolving it would be to involve outsiders in mediating a resolution. Even while he means well not many in India will agree with his prescriptions.

Mukul Kesvan, for one, pokes fun at the European way of self-determination when he argues that this does not work in multi-cultural societies. His Ugliness of the Indian Male provides us a cock-eyed look at the foibles of the Anglophonic Indian who has an opinion on everything that is important from Hindi films to Hindu bashing, Indian nationalism to Indian secularism and even has a small poem with the title Tonguing Mother. An absence did jar in this book of interesting essays: there is no comment either on farmersí suicide or on globalisation.

Confessions of a Swadeshi ReformerIndia after GandhiAmong the books directly concerned with the country, the most important this year was Ramachandra Guhaís general history of India after Gandhi. Without doubt this remains the most readable and comprehensive general history of India since Independence. Yahswant Sinhaís Confessions of a Swadeshi Reformer recounts his role in engendering the current streak of economic prosperity that India is witnessing. He was the one who had mortgaged Indiaís gold to the Bank of England to pay for imports. Later, he played an important role in pushing forward the business-friendly reforms that had been initiated in the 1980s. The more important nuggets in his story concern politics. For example, he tells us of the Chief Election Commissioner T. N. Sheshan being an emissary between Chandrashekhar and Rajiv Gandhi during the general elections of 1991. Did that high-profile CEC thereby violate his oath of office? Sinha has nothing to say on such anti-constitutional actions.

Websterís Social History of Christianity is very Punjab specific. After going into the details of caste, community and religion in north-western India during colonial times, Webster says that Christianity in this region had Indian roots and was not something imposed by colonialism. This is something for us to ponder given the burgeoning conflicts between various deras and Sikhs.