Two Lives

Two memoirs that sow some life into the parched landscape that is Indian autobiography

Ashish Bose: his best personality portrait is that of JRD Tata. SIDDHARTHA TRIPATHY FOR THE CARAVAN
01 December, 2010

THE INDIAN MIND is not fertile soil for autobiographies. That may sound strange in a country that has produced some historically significant autobiographies—Gandhi’s, Nehru’s, Nirad Chaudhuri’s and Paramahansa Yogananda’s perennial bestseller, Autobiography of a Yogi.  But exceptions do not invalidate the general rule: We still have not developed a mature, professional understanding of the genre of autobiographies, or biographies for that matter.

Most autobiographies fall into the I-was-right category, especially those written by military brass like BM Kaul and politicians like Morarji Desai. Reverse ego prevented those with a story to tell from telling it, like Achyut Patwardhan and other heroes of the 1942 movement. Some kind of false modesty—or is it fear of the unknown?—stopped the captains of industry not only from writing autobiographies but also from allowing professionals to write credible biographies. Then we have the gentlemen writers, especially of the diplomatic kind, who write many things without saying anything. Peruse, if you have the patience, KPS Menon’s Many Worlds.

Fali Nariman and Ashish Bose come into this rather parched landscape with a pail of water. The experiences of one as a pre-eminent lawyer and of the other as a pioneering demographer have been extraordinary. Fortunately for the reader both have a disposition to freely share what they have learned from their lives.

Deciding what to share and how is part of the writer’s art. Neither Nariman nor Bose is a trained writer and it shows. Nariman is parsimonious when it comes to giving us pen portraits of the “great human beings” he has known. He praises the former Chief Justice of India (CJI) MN Venkatachaliah and the eminent jurist, diplomat and cabinet minister MC Chagla for their unrivalled “combination of knowledge and graciousness” but gives us no portrait of them. He whets our appetite with references to the superior qualities of Bhulabhai Desai’s intellect and the lovable uniqueness of Piloo Mody. But the whetting is all we get; the hunger remains.

Not that this legal luminary is unable or unwilling to analyse men and matters in depth when the mood seizes him. This is clear from the two most illuminating sections of the book—one dealing with the judiciary’s  prolonged struggle with itself over the powers of constitutional amendments, and the other comparing and contrasting the ‘Subba Rao era’ with the ‘Krishna Iyer era’ of the Supreme Court. The portraits of Justice K Subba Rao and Justice VR Krishna Iyer that Nariman paints are detailed, colourful, life-like and fascinating. In the process the book becomes at once valuable and a pleasure to read.

Nariman is majestic when he examines the saga of the constitutional amendment cases, perhaps the most celebrated cases that came up in the Supreme Court. They also showed how the pendulum of judicial wisdom could swing from one end to the other. In Shankari Prasad Singh Deo 1951 and Sajjan Singh 1965, the court ruled in favour of Parliament. But in Golaknath 1967 opinion shifted against it. Kesavananda Bharati 1973 was heard by a 13-member bench. Technically, they overruled the Golaknath judgement, saying that no part of the Constitution, including fundamental rights, was beyond the amending powers of Parliament. But they added a vital proviso—that the “basic features” of the Constitution could never be abrogated, not even by a constitutional amendment. Nariman comments: “If there was no Golaknath, there would have been no Kesavananda, and unbridled powers of amending being conceded, India would have gone the way of some of its neighbours.”

Before Memory Fades: An Autobiography Fali S Nariman Hay House India, 459 pages, Rs 599 {{name}}

In the Subba Rao-Krishna Iyer section, Nariman takes us behind the scenes, so to speak. Three types of judges are identified—those with a political agenda, those with a social agenda and those with no agenda. If you think the first two are dubious and the third ideal, you are wrong. Nariman’s exposition leads one to believe that it is the judicial pursuit of an agenda that gives law its soul force.

Nariman is unequivocal when he says that Subba Rao (Judge in the Supreme Court from 1958 and CJI from June 1966 to April 1967) with his political agenda and Krishna Iyer (Judge from 1973 to 1980) with his social agenda “influenced creative judicial thinking. They lighted new, difficult (and different) paths—paths which others followed.” Krishna Iyer “helped to humanise the legal system.” A decision according to law is different from a decision in the best interests of the country. Krishna Iyer had “that abiding quality of a great judge—he was fearless.”

Nariman also divides the history of the Supreme Court—indeed, of justice dispensation in India—into “pre-supersession” and “post-supersession” periods. The reference is to Indira Gandhi’s vengeful refusal to let Justice JM Shelat become, on the principle of seniority which had held sway until then, CJI in 1973. Shelat, Justice KS Hegde and Justice AN Grover had pronounced against the government in the Kesavananda case. All three were superseded and Justice AN Ray appointed CJI. Upon Ray’s retirement in 1977, Indira Gandhi again superseded the next seniormost judge, HR Khanna, who had opposed the government’s move to deny citizens the right of judicial remedy against arrest. She picked MH Beg instead.

Contrast this with what happened about a quarter century earlier. On Patanjali Sastri’s retirement in January 1954, Nehru asked BK Mukherjea to take over as Chief Justice. Mukherjea declined, saying that Mehr Chand Mahajan was senior to him. When Nehru pressed him, the judge said he would sooner resign than usurp the highest office before his turn. Only after Mahajan retired did Mukherjea become CJI. Nehru’s India was as different from Indira Gandhi’s India as Mukherjea was from Ray and Beg.

The weak spot in Nariman’s otherwise enlightened and enlightening life story is his unnecessarily heated arguments over Union Carbide. He cites the usual legalistic points to justify his accepting the company’s brief in the wake of the Bhopal disaster: lawyers cannot pre-judge guilt, the accused has the right to be defended by a “lawyer of his choice,” etc.

Fair enough. But he himself put conscience above legalistic arguments when he was defending Gujarat in a case 14 years later.  When Christians were violently attacked in Gujarat under Keshubhai Patel’s BJP rule, Nariman complained that anti-minority policies were “totally anathema to me.” The violence kept increasing and in December 1998 “I returned my brief and said that I would not appear for the state of Gujarat in this or any other matter.”

That was a brave position that won Nariman deserved praise. But what happened to the litigant’s right to have a lawyer of his own choice in this case? It is possible that initially Nariman was unaware of the details of the Bhopal accident. But subsequently enough information emerged to show that the Carbide management had installed faulty machinery in their plant to cut costs and had not paid attention to safety measures, apparently assuming that shortcuts were acceptable in India.

Faced with such information, Nariman could have followed his own example. He could have seen Bhopal as a case where the company got away with minimum compensation for a maximum crime. Instead he wrote an article in Seminar in 2004, six years after his return of the Gujarat brief, passionately defending his every move on behalf of Carbide and aiming barbs at his critics. All of that is reproduced with further explanations and justifications in this book. None of it will win over the jury. Bhopal remains a collective error by the Indian establishment, including the judicial system.

Fortunately Fali Nariman’s grace and dignity rise above his role in the Bhopal case. His autobiography bears witness to his culture of discernment.  Consider the company he keeps—Mathew Arnold, James Barrie, GK Chesterton, Shakespeare and Burke, St Augustine and Emerson, Omar Khayyam and Rabindranath Tagore. The view of life in its wholeness, of every individual as encapsulating all mankind, is apt at a time when a paragraph in a research book is enough for hooligans to destroy a treasure house of knowledge like the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune (which was attacked in 2004 by the Sambhaji Brigade as part of their protests against James Laine’s book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India). The age of the well-bred and the well-read is being taken over by the philistines.

Fali Nariman is deeply pained by this. “My greatest regret,” he says as he signs off the story of his life, “is the intolerance that has crept into our society… The Hindu tradition of tolerance is under immense strain—the strain of religious tensions fanned by fanaticism… Is Hinduism changing its face?”

It’s a cry of anguish from a civilised heart.

THE BEST WAY TO READ Ashish Bose is to start in the middle. All of Part I offers nothing more enlightening than Delhi coffee house talk. We can look for some esoteric link between the opening sentence of the book (“I had always been fascinated by Jawaharlal Nehru’s speeches”) and the concluding one (“Why have we allowed criminals to take over politics?”). But that serves no purpose. The question is: Where’s the beef?

Headcount: Memoirs of a Demographer ASHISH BOSE Penguin Viking, 224 pages, Rs 450 {{name}}

An author who subtitles his book Memoirs of a Demographer is inviting the reader to look for a specific type of beef. Knowing that the author has distinguished himself as a demographer, the reader will expect insights into an uncommon discipline, the people and places a demographer gets to know, the lessons he learns from his experiences—in short, the well-established ingredients that go into the making of meaningful memoirs.

The reader who persists through the inconsequentia of the first 70-odd pages will be rewarded: there is good meat in this very readable volume. In fact, Part II begins with an enchanting description of life in Kolhapur in the 1920s and 30s. Living in a delightfully chaotic republic in the cellphone age, we may have difficulty imagining that the big excitement in Kolhapur was Maharaja Rajaram’s outings in his four-horse carriage with an imported Englishman, Charlie, as coachman. This, says Bose, who was born in Kolhapur and schooled there, was the Maharaja’s way of displaying his sovereignty to the masses.

The story of the Boses landing up in the princely state throws further light on how different our yesterdays were. Rajaram College in Kolhapur wanted a professor of English and advertised in a Calcutta newspaper because Bengalis were then considered good in English. Bose’s father had just earned a Master’s degree and was surprised to receive, in response to his application, a telegram saying “Appointed Professor of English.”

But where was Kolhapur? A friend suggested it was in Ceylon. Finally someone in Howrah station said: Take the Bombay Mail via Nagpur, which would be two days and two nights, then take another train to a place called Miraj, then change tracks to a meter-gauge railway to reach Kolhapur. Bose Senior did—and stayed for 25 years.

The full import of the peaceful life in Kolhapur hit Bose when, two years before Independence, he moved to Asansol in Burdwan, where his father had accepted a new job. Communal tensions were so high that teenager Bose acquired a sword, a dagger and a lance to protect himself. He does not say whether he had opportunities to use them. It wasn’t long before father and son found Bengal unbearable and moved to Allahabad, “the Oxford of India.”

Demography was so new an idea in India that few people knew what it was all about. When Bose was working with the newly-floated Demographic Research Centre, he received letters addressed to the Democratic Research Centre. But he came across some remarkable personalities and he gives us remarkably life-like profiles of them.

VKRV Rao does not get the full chapter he deserves but there are enough snippets to remind us what a “great builder of educational institutions” he was. His “fits of anger and tantrums” did not dent his reputation as a great educationist and planner.

Ashish Bose’s best personality portrait is that of JRD Tata, a man who saw the significance of population problems before most of his countrymen did. Bose describes several meetings with him, throwing light on JRD’s deep understanding of the issues, his desire to get concrete programmes going and his sense of humour. We also get an interesting glimpse of how the chairman of Tata Sons operated when he wanted quick action—calling his senior directors for discussion (there was a special button on his table to talk directly to them), arranging for reading material, lining up conferences with absentee directors, instructing his secretary on how to take care of details.

Bose also gives us vivid pictures of how India’s villagers regarded family planning. (Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilisation programme comes in for deservedly harsh comments, both from villagers and from Bose.) When Bose’s Delhi-based field workers went into some villages for research, the rural folk did not appreciate male and female researchers sitting together. Once, the driver of the researchers’ staff car gave a lift to a village woman carrying a bundle of grass. That very night the woman was honour-killed by the village elders. All that the Delhi team could do was abandon the field work in disgust and go home.

Fali S Nariman: an enlightened and enlightening life story. SIDDHARTHA TRIPATHY FOR THE CARAVAN

Bose opens several small windows of new information for the lay reader. By presenting the information in a personalised, almost conversational style, he makes the book that much more engaging. But that is not an unmixed blessing. For such an experienced writer (25 books and numerous articles in periodicals), there is no excuse for the repetitions that tax the reader. Writing is a craft. There is nothing wrong in getting qualified professionals to help in the preparation of a book. Henry Kissinger used the services of The SundayTimes editor Harold Evans to fine-tune a manuscript or two. If nothing else, it would have helped avoid the flood of exclamation marks that submerge both Nariman and Bose’s prose, and provided better cohesion and form to writings that often tend to get too loose.

It would require a persuasive editor to tone down the tendency among our autobiographers to record their own glory, particularly notable in Bose’s narrative. He is keen for us to know that his lectures were widely appreciated, that his uncles adorned top positions in Delhi, that Tata used to quote him at board meetings and, of course, that he came to coin the term BIMARU (to refer to the problems of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh). Nariman is relatively easier to take. His eagerness to go on thanking family and staff for their support may be attributed to his old-world sense of courtesy.

But let no carping detract from the wholesomeness of two honourably-lived, socially beneficial, creative lives that enriched our times. Nariman and Bose are completely different personalities, yet have one common trait—absolute fidelity to their profession. They walked their own paths, fearing no foe and favouring no friend. They did nothing for personal gain, which alone sets them apart from the common run of today’s ‘successful’ men. Their lives offer us lessons to learn—and reasons to be grateful.