‘This book is for a generation that has very few memories of the Seventies’ India.’ This is the opening line of the preface of Kumkum Chadha’s new book The Marigold Story: Indira Gandhi & Others, comprising eleven profiles of personalities largely belonging to the world of politics and stardom. The basic idea is to make the present generation aware of the human side of these larger than life personalities with all their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Also, it seeks to introduce readers to the everyday struggles of a reporter in the pre-social media world of journalism. Largely based on memory and recalling events, it is more like an organic, observational narration of the author’s own life-world than about actual reportage. The result is a mixed bag as it leaves many questions unanswered. At the same time, it also compels the reader to raise a fundamental issue of the relevance of such a work in today’s times.
What did it mean for a promising young female journalist in the 1970s to get into the head space of popular public persona? This premise has enough appeal and content to be skilfully mined especially for the present generation. Unfortunately, the slapdash treatment of profiles is typified by the randomness of the profiles included and the paucity of any genuinely new insight even in the process of humanizing the popular. The author has had a good personal rapport with all these public figures. However, seldom is the characterization restricted to this period. 1970s merely remain the starting point after which the stories traverse across many decades, coming down to as late as the 2014 General Elections. The novelty of the entire project (of introducing the present generation to 1970s and 1980s style of journalism) is watered down by its haphazard, expansive coverage as opposed to an intensive one focusing on short periods. For instance, the brief mention of typewriters in that period could have acted both as a literal and figurative metaphor for capturing the arduousness of reporting.
For a book that intends to focus on the 1970s, the very first chapter is surprisingly on Abhinav Bindra and his heroics in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Apart from a few personal conversations with his father, there is precious little to know as it masquerades along the already well-trodden path of popular exemplifications. Similar is the case with chapters on the ‘power couple’ Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan and on Ekta Kapoor and Smriti Irani. The former has paeans of praise for Jaya Bachchan’s political acumen as opposed to the manufactured political correctness of Amitabh. The author’s soft corner for Jaya is perceptible as it takes precedence over an impassioned and unvarnished insight into the heady mixture of politics and stardom. Likewise, the chapter on Ekta Kapoor and Smriti Irani is nothing but an eulogy of legends in the make. Even the bare minimum critique comes in the form of a benign narration. We hardly come across a purposeful interjection in terms of the author’s personal take. This continues with Lalu Prasad Yadav as apart from the already known stories surfacing around his corruption scandals, a page long interview about his shift in dietary habits from rodents and rabbits to vegetarianism is the only ‘original’ nugget of information on offer.
Arguably the best profile is of Rajiv Gandhi. His chivalry, composure and reluctance is introduced through a variety of anecdotes––from his train journey conversations to the spectacle of election campaigns in pre-TN Seshan days. All these public activities dovetail well with his inherent shy and introverted nature. The chapter on Smita Patil also makes for an interesting read on one level. Her constant premonition of death is the primary subtext that acts as a paradox for someone who had a phlegmatic presence on celluloid. Interestingly, the characters that are more interesting are people who unfortunately only appear as brief interludes in the service of a ‘bigger’ personality, from Giani Zail Singh’s public gaffes of communicating in English, Sitaram Kesari’s shrewd understanding of Bihar politics as opposed to Lalu Prasad Yadav to the spiritual guru called Baba Nagpal and his role in providing meditative solace to Indira Gandhi during her tumultuous years. Nonetheless, one does feel that separate profiles of these and many more that get a cursory mention could have made it a rich account of slightly lesser known yet essential characters of post-Independent India. Such desultory accounts hamper the bigger profiles more as can be seen from the one on Arun Jaitley.
The underlying basis of Arun Jaitley’s politics is traced to his father being driven out of his home in Lahore. This is something that purportedly shaped his conservative nationalism in early years. However, he is also said to have been obsessed with hyper consumerism by having a strong liking for select brands like Patek Phillipe, Mont Blanc, Omega and Salvatore Ferragamo. There is absolutely no attempt at exploring this effortless blending of the paradox of conservative nationalism and consumerism. The information stays descriptive without adding anything substantial on how his personal mannerisms influence his political life. Instead, the profiling needlessly stretches to the benefits of demonetization at least in the ideational realm.
As far as introducing the human face of a public life is concerned, why must there be a reluctance in exemplifying the human along with nurturing a basic line of provocation? What purpose do personal nuggets of information serve if not seen in the larger oasis of space and time they occupied? It also leads us to ponder over certain hypothetical questions of what ought to be the most fruitful way of introducing personalities––by focusing on their flair, flamboyance and vulnerability of their private lives or dwelling on the already meticulously documented aspects of their public persona? Comprehensive biographies do both. (Inder Malhotra’s biography on Indira Gandhi and Vinod Mehta’s biography of Sanjay Gandhi come instantly to mind.) In this case, what can be the reasons for the possible relevance of writing such profiles even for a new audience? Practical issues are bound to surface. For instance, if today’s generation is completely oblivious of Smita Patil’s body of work, how prudent is it to introduce her to this new generation by solely focusing on her ill health before her death?
There is no anecdotal leitmotif that one can latch on to. Here, sporadic doses of personal conversations fail to amplify the intrigue of the popular. By no means is it a completely stodgy account but neither is it an invigorating read as it repeatedly presses hard for a novelty that only comes in the bare minimum form of trivia.
Suraj Thube is a Political Scientist based in Pune.