Not Quite Beyond The Lines
I have a problem with the cover of Beyond the Lines by Kuldip Nayar. It says “An Autobiography” but it barely reads like one. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the preface. In it, Mr Nayar wishes he could have said more about himself and less about the events “that were engulfing him”. He writes that he was, “willy-nilly, writing a contemporary history of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – countries (he) had seen and experienced from the time they came into existence”. He justifies his approach with a desire “to minimize the personal pronoun in order to avoid accusations of projecting (himself) and propagating punditry”.
I’m sorry to have to say that Mr Nayar has failed in all his objectives – to write a history book, to “minimize the personal pronoun” and to “avoid punditry”.
There’s nothing like good, old-fashioned evidence to prove a point. Here are some bits from page 13 of the book (the first 70 pages were a tough read). I haven’t reproduced all of it – just some key sentences to reflect Mr Nayar’s thought process.
“Delhi was in the throes of rioting when I reached the city on 15 September 1947. As Muslims were not safe on the streets of Delhi, most of them were moved to Purana Qila for security. Strangely, both Patel and the president of the constituent assembly, Dr Rajendra Prasad, reacted strongly to Jawaharlal Nehru’s proposal to reserve certain residential areas in Delhi for Muslims. Nehru found himself isolated in governance. Nehru, however, pulled himself together and began depending upon Abul Kalam Azad and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the two minority members in the cabinet. Patel and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee invariably opposed him.”
Here is what I wanted to ask Mr Nayar when I read page 13 (I had similar questions for each of the first 70 pages).
Why hasn’t he described what HE felt and experienced when he arrived in Delhi from Sialkot, as a 24-year-old refugee without his family? And did he really have an inside track into Sardar Vallabbhai Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Jawaharlal Nehru’s discussions at the time of his arrival in Delhi? And if yes, then how? That’s the stuff autobiographies are made of.
I reckon a true autobiographer would have had more to say about how he felt and what he saw in a new place in difficult and interesting times. Only a “pundit” (and a young one at that) would be concerned with the differences between Patel, Prasad and Nehru at the time. A historian would have introduced the reader (especially ignorant youngsters of today who may want to read his book) to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.
Replicas of “Page 13” appear often in Beyond The Lines – a fair bit of punditry and very few personal insights. The book does attempt to cover the history of modern India. But the approach made me feel that I was sitting in on evening tea sessions at the India International Centre in New Delhi. It’s like reading a transcript of conversations that Mr Nayar has had through the years, interspersed with noble and ponderous reflections.
The pace however does pick up, a bit, after the first 70 pages. It coincides with the author’s stint in the Press Information Bureau. He has access to the principal political players and that reflects in his writing. He goes on to head the news agency, United News of India (UNI). The pace quickens, the plot thickens and the book is suddenly a much easier read. It offers glimpses into India’s foreign policy, problems with neighbours and equations within the Congress.
I suspect many journalists would write autobiographies like Mr Nayar, replete with sentences such as – “when I questioned the Prime Minister about…he said….but I think he should have acted differently”. You will notice it in conversations with journalists and probably find it in their autobiographies – that urge to constantly drop names and recount high-profile conversations on important historical events. Sometimes, the technique works in Beyond The Lines. For instance, Jayaprakash Narayan’s admission to the author that “nobody listens to me” in the Janata Government post-Emergency. At other times, it’s meaningless. Such as when the author describes Indira Gandhi following her election defeat in 1977 – “she saw me and initially moved towards me, but then retraced her steps and went inside”.
I did gain something from Beyond The Lines. I know a little more about our political masters from Independence to date – their private views versus their public face, how some of them started out and what their equations with Mr Nayar are. Unfortunately, I’ve learnt very little about what it was like to be a journalist during those years. That, Mr Nayar, was what I was most eagerly looking forward to in your autobiography.