What price earthly glory ! No man is immortal!
An autobiographical odyssey? Not quite!Here are certain random thoughts on why some choose to write autobiographies,while more prominent leaders don’t do the same?
An intriguing question?Yes,if you look beyond the superficial writings most autobiographies and biographies are.Some autobiographies are just ego trips.Some others,the ones often by living politicians are just sponsored or ghost-written ones are displays of delusions of grandeur,or patent twists of facts and events to suit one’s illusions of greatness.
The point is that not all autobiographies are truths in the conventional sense.Even the Gandhi autobiography,”An Experiment with Truth” would these days invite some amount of scepticism and demand the more than conventional loyalty to the Mahatma.
One very important development nowadays is the growth of new technologies and new promotional weapons.Thus,organised publicity also helps to sustain certain autobiographies like those of Gandhi and Nehru.For Gandhi,there is the Navajivan Press and for Nehru,the Nehru Memorial Trust.Organised promotion and for others systematic promotion through print and television media and now the latest,the Internet,are all powerful forces for publicity.
So,it is becoming more and more difficult to judge the longevity of the many of the books ,autobiographies and biographies.But one thing is sure.Whatever may be the current popularity and the boom in sales of copies,it is no sure guide to the authentic quality of the books.
Gandhi’s own autobiography when it was first published in 1927(English translation edition),the print order was 6,000.The second edition was only in 1940.Print edition was 5,000 copies.The third edition was in 1945,print order,again,5,000 copies.In the same year in December,another print order,this time,it was 10,000 copies.In all these editions you see the young student Gandhi in his school,two photos and two photos in England and as a barrister.Gandhi hasn’t yet become yet a Mahatma or not yet widely seen as Mahatma which we have come to see in later years.
The point here is that sometimes,a figure gets a build-up as an icon,all of a sudden thanks to some historic circumstances.For Gandhi this icon image came also slowly.We should also remember that at that point of time there were other icons hovering on the horizon.Nehru,Nethaji,Jinnah and Ambedkar.They were equally formidable and also given to much mutual jealousy and even hatred in the case of one or two!
So,while writing autobiographies we have to keep in mind at what stage in their lives the writers start this self-examination.Many do so for of course articulating their thoughts on a wide variety of subjects,to understand the world and assess their own place in it.For others,more so in recent times,and also more in the case of politicians or holders of high offices,the autobiographies,in my opinion,seem largely contrived activities.Indira Gandhi also published one ,titled as”My Truth”.In recent times,the President,APJ Abdul Kalam published one and gave wide publicity!
So all autobiographies are not the same and all autobiographies or biographies also don’t tell the whole truth or truths!About the writers or about their own convictions!
We seem to be living in a sceptical age.So,there is a great need to clarify our own scepticisms and also define our own stands on several issues and personalities before we start reading and analysing their writings and their contents.
There are any number of autobiographies,from St.Agustine’s”Confessions”to Rousseau’s own”Confessions”to many others.In modern times,we have the instance of Winston Churchill,supposed to be the greatest Englishman and leader of exceptional qualities.Do you know that he is the one to write massive volumes about his own father and about himself?Yet, in the last big biography written on the great man,the equally illustrious Conservative leader and biographer(who was also the Chancellor of Oxford University),the late Roy Jenkins says Churchill’s megalomania didn’t serve him well and says at the very start of the massive biography that Churchill didn’t deserve the title of a great English country gentleman,in the long line of such great English aristocratic leaders.Churchill didn’t even possess the mandatory land holdings to justify his claims!
The point is that when men seek glory about themselves and seek all in their power to build up fame and fortunes,history soon catches up with them and exposes them also!The point is that life is often unpredictable and so is our fate!
I have often wondered why do people write their autobiographies? I also used to wonder why some other great men and women who seem to have lived a “successful” life,a life of fame and fortune,don’t like to tell us anything about their own life and their experiences.
Take for instance,the most familiar cases of the two autobiographies of our own times.I mean Gandhi’s”Experiment with Truth”and Nehru”s”Autobiography”
They sold well when they appeared and they continue to sell even now,considering the number of reprints and also the relevance of the two leaders to India of the modern period.We should also remember that there were other autobiographies by other leaders.I have an old copy of Nethaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s own autobiography.Its subtitle is:”An Indian Pilgrim”Published in 1948 by the Nethaji Publication Society,Calcutta and printed and published by Thacker,Spink&Co(1933)Ltd and just 144 pages,priced Rs. five only!Why I mention Nethaji’s autobiography is to remind the readers,more so the Indian readers that among the leaders of India’s freedom struggle,the role of Nethaji is as much significant as the other two whose names I have mentioned and yet when we look back we seem to realise how much we cant recollect about Nehtaji’s contribution,while we are reminded almost everyday the contribution of Gandhi and Nehru.
In the preface to the Nethaji autobiography,we are told by the devoted band of his followers,that Nethaji in the first part of his life,that is between 1897 and 1921 and he was variously called in this period of life as Rashtrapati and the Rebel President,the Desh Gaurab and the Nethaji!
And what sort of tumultuous life he had gone through! Even before he was 24 he was called upon to take the life’s path,not the easy and luxurious one of an ICS but one of selfless suffering and sacrifice.
Nethaji faced so much opposition from the old guard of the Congress and at one point of time,he was expelled by Gandhi and his trusted lieutenants and not only that ,Gandhi schemed to disband his entire Working Committee! So he wad to wage a battle to carve out a path of his own and so his flight from India and the subsequent dramatic events.
Recalling the days when Nethaji was fighting his battles within the Congress,the veteran journalist,M.V.Kamath writes:”Most of our sympathies were for Subhas Chandra Bose.Nor Bose knew about Hitler’s hatred for Indians,a non-Aryan race,as he narrated in his autobiography,Mein Kampf.”(A Reporter at Large page 143)May be if Bose had known that before he might not have allied himself with Hitler and fate might have spared him the tragic end that came his way.nor can we say that Gandhi or Nehru knew Hitler’s ideology any better and so they didnt align with him,instead they co-operated with the British!
The point is that Gandhi and Nehru in their autobiographies didn’t even attempt to analyse Hitler’s evils,they only went with the dominant Western view and it is also true that Nehtaji also didnt know well enough of the future of Hitler’s course of action.All these thoughts must give us at this point of time that just because we have some written record of how the minds of our leaders worked at that time,we are in a position to judge their minds at this point of time.
There are also figures like Jinnah and Ambedkar who had played such central roles in the freedom struggle and their lives and thoughts also diverged so radically from those of the nationalists and it is not they were not nationalists either.But there is a letter by Ambedkar reproduced by Kamath in the above mentioned autobiography (Reporter at Large):Ambedkar,it seems,was such a great opponent of Gandhi he hated him so much.Kamath writes(pages 235-239);”I had a brush with Ambedka four times and he was always rude to me.Years later I read a biography of his(Ambedkar)by one of his admirers.But what he said about Gandhi surely reflected his considered views.”I insist that if I hate Mr.Gandhi,dislike him,I do not hate him,it is because I love India more.That is the true faith of a nationalist”(page 238).On page 239 is a letter by Ambedkar.In which it says:”My own view is that great men are great service to their country,but they are also at certain times a great hindrance to the progress of their country.There is one incident in Roman history which comes to my mind on this occasion.When Caesar was done to death and the matter was reported to Cicero,Cicero said to the messenger:”Tell the Romans,your hour of liberty has come”.While one regrets the assassination of Mr.Gandhi,one cannot help finding in his heart the echo of the sentiments expressed by
Cicero on the assassination of Caesar”(page 239).
The point is that because we have written documents we are now at this point of time able to judge how the minds of our leaders worked at that time.
The point is that an autobiography is one such valuable document as it comes straight from the heart of the author who had played his or her role.
It is while reading Kamath’s autobiography that covers his years as a reporter and also he covers some of the greatest events of the later half of the last century when such great leaders like Nixon and Indira Gandhi played roles on the international stage,we are now able to judge how fate played with their destinies.
Two figures who played prominent roles at the time Kamath was the Correspondent in Washington were Richard Nixon in America and Indira Gandhi
in India.Nixon was re-elected on November 8,1972 “for a second and final term by possibly the largest margin ever given to a US presidential candidate”(page 591).Kamath’s report was splashed across the eight columns of the Times of India’s front page.That could be the greatest compliment for any reporter of a great newspaper.”But even before Nixon was re-elected the Watergate Scandal caught up with Nixon and in the next few months events moved in dramatic fashion and the American press did a great job of unearthing the series of scandals done by the Bixon regime,so unethically all the way and Nixon and his men(Kissinger,another face of the evil)had been willing to destroy democracy in America by all manner of means.”Nixon was drunk with power”.”So,when the end came,Nixon was alone,no friends for him.He was a beaten and defeated man,to be pitied and forgotten.Which he was.Then,Kamath says,in a poignant tone:”That is what earthly glory is,in the end”!
About Indira Gandhi,the less said the better.A fellow journalist(M.V.Mathew) writing in Mumbai at that time says:”Reading M.V.Kamath’s Washington despatch on CIA”I was chillled into cerebral immobility for full five minutes”.Then writes Kamath:”Compared to what the US,under Nixon was doing, Indira Gandhi comes through as a saint and the Emergency a minor aberration”(page 593).
There are certain incidents M.V.Kamath recalls about Mrs.Gandhi.When Kamath was posted in Paris to cover the Unesco,Indira Gandhi came as India’s Information Minister.Kamath called her to his apartment and gave a dinner.Mrs.Gandhi let herself go,she enjoyed talking all about herself,how she was proposed by Feroze Gandhi on the steps of the Paris church etc,late into the night.It was with some effort Kamath managed to escort Mrs.Gandhi to her place with the plea that next day she had a busy schedule.Then,suddenly after a few months,Lal Bhadur Shastri died and she became the Prime Minister and she again visited France! This time,when Kamath was also in the line to greet her,Mrs.Gandhi just ignored him as though she didn’t know him!This was another occasion when Kamath recalls his famous dictum:what price earthly glory!As in the case of Bal Thaeray who worked under Kamath in a humble cartoonist job and when power came to him as chief of the Shiv Sena,Thakeray became a stranger and a distant figure!That is what power makes people into heroes and heroines!In fact,political power often transforms men and women into beasts! They become beastly!They play with the fate of others,they make and unmake men and women! This is happening everyday!
I remember when I was working at the AICC in the late Sixties when Indira Gandhi was made the Prime Minister by no other than Kamaraj.At that point of time Kamaraj was the all-powerful leader.He could have made himself the Prime Minister! In fact,I remember Atulya Ghosh,my boss at the AICC telling Kamaraj to stand for the Prime Minister’s job.He told the great man:”You say yes,we make you the Prime Minister”!But Kamaraj was hesitant.Instead he went for Indira Gandhi and mobilised support for her.Again,I recall Indira Gandhi telling that morning:”Kamaraj ji asked me not to go out today.I am staying back “.The call came soon after and she found herself elected as the new Prime Minister.
I remember that myself and my other Oxford friend,Rudolf DeMello,the then Secretary of the Youth Congress at the AICC,tellig me how Indira Gandhi changed soon after.DeMello used to visit Mrs.Gandhi often and he told me that she was always very communicative and she chose him as Ambassador to Cuba etc.After Sanjay Gandhi came in,said DeMello,Mrs.Gandhi suddenly,became incommunicative and withdrawn! What went wrong?I asked DeMello.He too hadn’t any credible answer.There was a psychological change in Mrs.Gandhi.We can see the then series of events that finally ended up as the Emergency!
But then Indira Gandhi had to pay a price for her actions,during Emergency and also in later years.Here again,in the end we often stop and wonder,is this all to one’s glory in one’s own life time?Or,does fate catches us up in due course of time?There is something ironical about life lived in all glare of publicity and adulation by the public,all done at the momentous deeply-held tribal instincts of unseasoned emotions of joy and hilarity given an outlet to in our adulation of our leaders.There is a collective bizarre emotions that lead us to re-joice or find outlet to our own unfulfilled ambitions or rivalries or jealousies.We seem to find outlet in such collective jubiliations or in hurting the sentiments of our rivals so that when the power comes ,it straight goes to our head and we lose our balance so often!That seems to be the political fame and fortune even in these days of so-called empowerment and growth of democratic rights and privileges for the mass of the people.All deeply held traditional beliefs are thrown out and we resort to quick fix remedies to sort out our survival instincts.In this brutal display of brutal power game we,the powerful,enlist the willing co-operation of all sorts of elements,from the patently moral to the immoral elements,the religious men join with the goonda elements,that is what practical politics today is all about!
Why autobiographies matter?
It is not often we find the time and opportunity to pause and reflect on our life and actions.
Life for most people is simply a non-stop flow of days and months and years.
Before we realise what life we live like,the time span of our life is almost over and it is too late.So,in a way writing an autobiography for whatever it is worth is a valuable exercise for anyone who has the inclination to do so,at least for the posterity to remember and know what life we have lived and what meaning,if any, our life has given us and likely to give others who might read us.
Those who wrote autobiographies and managed to”sell”large number of copies in their own lifetime is an enormously satisfying ego trip.I have read a great deal of autobiographies and they all remain first and ego trip no doubt and then only the autobiographies serve other,may be,higher purposes.
As far as I am concerned I attempted many times to write my autobiographies,knowing fully well that I may not be able to match the others whose similar exercises exerted enormous influence on the life of our times.
But I have always felt that there is still need to put one’s views on life and times in whatever humble way it is possible.
For there is one thing I have seen in my life and felt acutely of the way the world moves.
The people who come to acquire either power,I mean first of all political power and next economic power ,suddenly and in an unprecedented manner,become often mad and they set out to give often not the right agenda and often the wrong one.
This is happening increasingly in my time and when we witness our democracy,our economy is becoming more open to new entrants and new players.What is right and wrong have been overturned and what is truth and falsehood also have been overturned.Because of the power of the high offices that come to occupy and also because of the economic power they have acquired,rightly through hard labour through legitimate corporate efforts or through acquiring money and muscle power through democratic politics that allows such people to enter and turn the system to their advantages,they go on to dominate the public mind through various modern devices,be it media or television channels or through high offices in government etc.
I have attempted to write my autobiography many times.The first time,I did so was in the early Seventies.That covered the years of my childhood in the village and how I went through my years at high school and later to Santiniketan and finally to Oxford.That manuscript remains unpublished.
The second attempt was in the early Eighties and this attempt met with some success.The book titled”Oxford and Other Essays on Education”was in fact an autobiographical account of my years at Oxford and also at Santiniketan.There are also essays on my later years when I established a secondary school in the native village and my experiences and thoughts in education.This book,some 275 pages met with critical welcome.Good reviews appeared in all leading newspapers and journals.Perhaps,this part of my autobiography,my years at Oxford and at Santiniketan,would remain my definitive writing on the topic.
One more attempt,though again a different title,is a book I wrote in 1985 on a Santiniketan artist,C.N.Vasudevan.Though this book is about another artist,there is enough material in the book that would give a fair idea of my experiences in Santiniketan where I developed my early interests in arts and culture,in particular,in paintings and,dances and music.
One last definitive attempt to write my autobiography succeeded unexpectedly when in the late Nineties I wrote in Tamil language my full-length autobiography.Of course,the manuscript remains unpublished.In its place,instead a poetry book was published, almost a confessional outpourings of my own inner self and also one might criticise it as an ego trip as well! Who else can escape from this ego,the man’s ego is surely one indication of the many bruised ego trips one makes in one’s path and gets severely beaten in the game of life!As it is written in Tamil language, the audience is also a limited world.
It is in English we can go for more serious issues,serious studies ,be it philosophy or history or politics.
There is a tendency in India to extol the virtues of Indian religion and philosophy and also claim how “superior”is Bharatiya Vidya or our spiritual traditions of wisdom.I have no quarrel with this dominant tendency prevalent in the more traditionalist sections of society.As for Indian philosophy too I have no quarrel.
I have often wondered how India is going to integrate itself as a society with the international community.Much of our modern day secularist,political and scientific developments are ideas that originated from ancient Greece and Rome,Italian Renaissance,then European Enlightenment,the triumph of reason over authority,be it religious or social hierarchical authority.
The triumph of democracy itself is a Western contribution.
As a student of the Western philosophy and much of the modern day secularism,reason over authority,I have been brought up in a Western mould,so to say.How can I disown this corpus of belief systems?So,all the years since then have been spent in exploring these themes,the various theses of the outcome of the European Enlightenment.The fall of Communism meant a whole new perception of a new alternative to a new ism,whatever that may be,to mankind.
There is so much terror and violence,there is also much room for hope and positive action.
All these thoughts engage my attention and may be in due course my continued explorations might add up to a new set of belief systems that might favour with our countrymen.
The many articles and brief essays I have written in my personal journal,”School Journal of Education Excellence” is a continuation of what I have been thinking about on several issues of the day.Besides there are some pieces that are directly autobiographical,this time,it is more on my intellectual developments,my knowledge and interest in diverse fields, philosophy,history and economics and also on agriculture and rural development.Last of all is my abiding and continuing interest in politics.
In my opinion,any autobiography to have its vast appeal and relevance,must deal with the politics of one’s own country and also about the sort of politics that is evolving in our own times.
In that sense my continued writings on politics,in India and outside would give the readers my evolution as a political thinker and a political activist.I continue to comment on the on-going politics.I also take time off to write directly to the political leaders,to Sonia Gandhi,to Presidents,in particular to the incumbent Rashtrapathi,A.P.J.Abdul Kalam and others.
Yes,I know there is the protocol,they dont write directly to me,but I know the letters are getting noticed.
One has to live one’s life in these days of rapid changes at various levels!
Yes,one cant be rest content with one’s efforts in one field only.These days it matters a great deal where your resources come from!It is an advantage,if possible,if you have a corporate source of income!To that extent you needn’t compromise with your freedoms!So,one has to be an entrepreneur and at the same time also interested and engaged with the on-going politics as well!
Today,in the current scenario,high political offices dont command so much social weight,all sorts of corrupt and criminal elements,enter the political field and have built up vast networks as well as lots of unaccounted wealth!So,this newly acquired wealth also contributes to distort values.How do you account for politicians as ministers,and even Prime Minister,suddenly jumping into their seats straightaway from one job to another!Who is a morally upright leader today?Very difficult to say?So,what do you do?Sit quiet and curse about your own fate?
I have pondered over these dilemmas!This is a dilemma everyday!
But then you have to mobilise your powers and your own resources,be it economic resources or intellectual resources and go out and fight your battles as you see fit!
This is what I am doing these days! Over all fronts!
The Internet is a highly satisfying medium.So,the personal blog comes in handy to continue to write and reflect on various issues of the day.
So,in a way my own autobiography can be taken to be an autobiography on the Web!
And it is evolving.It gives me enormous freedom and also power to write so comfortably and convey the same so effectively.
As an autobiographical medium,the weblog has given me lots of hours of joy and contentment and also a power of unequal reach.
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