Book Title: Memoirs of a Maverick: The First Fifty Years (1941–1991)
Author: Mani Shankar Aiyar
Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘Memoirs of a Maverick’ covers the first 50 years of his rewarding and fulfilling life. It is an account of his childhood, youth, his years in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), which he joined in 1963. It also covers his entry into politics in 1989 and his victory in the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. The last four years of his official career were spent as an officer in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) where he also became Rajiv Gandhi’s speech writer and an enduring, though not a complete, Rajiv bhakt. As he puts it: “…the PM and I stuck an immediate rapport… I amused him and he enjoyed laughing at my quips.” Aiyar also states that his ties with Rajiv “turned out to be the most decisive relationship of my career”.
Aiyar is writing another book which will deal with his years in politics in detail, including the controversies that emerged during Rajiv Gandhi’s period in office. He advises Rajiv’s critics to “have the patience to await the companion volume before opening up their guns”. This caution should also apply to reviewers of Aiyar’s current work.
He devotes the first 73 pages of his memoirs to his childhood, youth and education. The next 187 pages deal with his years in the IFS. The last 101 pages are dedicated to his service in the PMO as an IFS officer on deputation, his decision to leave the service to join active politics and his winning a Lok Sabha seat in the 1991 election. In each of these ‘sections’, Aiyar writes fluently but with an excessive fondness for words. Also, as I read the book, I felt that he is happiest when he is dropping ‘a quip, quip here and a quip, quip there…’, even when it is inappropriate, as is his atrocious snide remarks on then PM Morarji Desai.
Aiyar’s mother Bhagyalakshmi was a remarkable lady who courageously went through life’s vicissitudes. Amidst trying circumstances, she ensured that her sons were educated at The Doon School. That set the foundation of Aiyar’s college education at St Stephen’s in Delhi and later at Cambridge, England. Aiyar devotes a large part of the 73 pages to his education, his friends and teachers and how his secular values were shaped. Much of this gives valuable insights into his personality. A greater focus on his mother and how she navigated her own and her children’s lives would have added texture to this portion of the book. It is noteworthy that Aiyar’s activities at the Cambridge Union helped hone his extraordinary, if voluble, mastery of the spoken word.
In Cambridge, Aiyar realised that he had been “brought up” to become “a coconut Englishman, brown on the outside and white within”. This would only confirm the present prejudice about ‘Macaulay putras’. He may have felt that he was a “coconut Englishman” but the vast majority of Indians who received education in the English medium remained authentic Indians. They did not have to discover their Indianness. Aiyar needs to reflect deeper on this aspect.
Aiyar cleared the civil service examination but the negativity of India’s intelligence service ruled against his joining any government service. His mother opened the civil service door through her acquaintance with President Radhakrishnan. Later, a dogged bureaucratic and political endeavour in his favour saw the flimsy intelligence service objections, based on reports of the British Information Service(!), overruled eventually by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. What conclusion can be drawn from the competence of the then IB? No wonder its failures contributed to India’s China debacle in 1962!
Aiyar served in Indian Missions in Brussels (twice), Hanoi, Baghdad and Karachi, apart from the Ministry of External Affairs. Much of the 187 pages he has penned down on his diplomatic career makes for good and often entertaining reading, but is largely ephemeral in nature. This is partly because the world he worked in disappeared with the Cold War’s end.
Most diplomats have a posting more significant than others. For Aiyar, this was Karachi (1978-82). He was a successful Consul General in Karachi largely because he generously and innovatively gave visas to Mohajirs. While doing so, did Aiyar wonder how much Mohajirs really mattered in Pakistan? He also became a lion of Karachi society, welcomed in the homes of the elite. But perspectives gained at the Sind Club bar are not the best guide on understanding those who actually control Pakistan’s destiny — the men in khaki. And, how much can “emotional breakthroughs” really contribute to inter-state relations?
Aiyar’s observations on the NAM and CHOGM summits, Operation Bluestar and the anti-Sikh riots are revealing and insightful. He also gives a valuable account of how Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO functioned. He does not hesitate to comment on the characteristics of the men and women who worked there and there is nothing anodyne about his comments. He praises and condemns not only them, but also those whom he interacted with in his youth and his diplomatic career. He particularly lacerates two of his diplomatic bosses. Obviously, age has not mellowed his rage against them.
If truthfully recorded, memoirs give the measure of an author, his life and work — both the noble and the petty and even crass. These never paint a pretty picture. It is to Aiyar’s credit that he has tried to be truthful. That makes this memoir a significant contribution to Indian autobiographical literature. It is certainly worth a read.