|Politicians & Literature|
Mani Shankar Aiyar | 71 | Tamil Nadu
Rajya Sabha MP, Congress
I HAVE ALREADY detailed at some length recently in TEHELKA the reasons for which I regard Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India as having had the most significant impact on my mind and life.
The next position must be given to the Communist Manifesto, which I heard rather than read when two college mates (who eventually went into diplomacy and chartered accountancy, respectively!) took to declaiming long passages from it while mounted on a table in my rooms at St Stephen’s. Completely taken in by the slogan, “From each according to his ability and to each according to his needs,” I think much of my later political thinking has remained essentially anchored in this precept. To begin with, it drove me to a passionate espousal of communism and the Soviet Union, particularly under the influence of Ronald Meek’s Studies in the Labour Theory of Value and Maurice Dobb’s Soviet Economic Development Since 1917.
At Cambridge, however, disillusionment started setting in, particularly after I had several unsatisfactory conversations with Dobb. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and the collected essays in The God that Failed further sowed the seeds of doubt, but it was Clare Sheridan’s fascinating portraits of the principal leaders of the Bolshevik revolution in her To the Four Winds, which I picked up at a Heffer’s sale for a couple of shillings, that put an end to my romanticising the Soviet Union, without dimming my admiration for the fundamental ethical values that underlie much of Karl Marx’s awakening of the human conscience in an era bewitched by the sudden accretion of wealth brought on by the Industrial Revolution (in the throes of which we now find ourselves). The violence inherent to revolution distorted the noble ideals of the revolution because they were quite incompatible with Nehru’s (and Gandhi’s) insistence on the ends never justifying the means, dwelt on at length by Nehru in his autobiography. That conviction was finally reinforced when, many decades later, I read and shuddered at Edvard Radzinsky’s Stalin, reinforced by Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. But the outrage I feel at deliberately fostered inequality remains as impassioned, as I discovered with pain, awe and shock from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
To the horrors of war, and the idiocies of diplomacy that lead to war, I was introduced by a book that was a raging sensation in my years at Cambridge, AJP Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War. I had already discovered that I was in the wrong academic discipline (economics) on reading EH Carr’s renowned lectures, What is History? Taylor demonstrated how misperception could lead ineluctably to disaster. (Brig John Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder makes the same point, from a soldier’s perspective, about our slipping into the entirely avoidable Indo-China conflict of 1962). Later, I immersed myself in several more books on war, particularly Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, followed over the years by her The Zimmerman Telegram on World War I, brought so vividly to life by Wilfred Owen and other poets who fought in the trenches, and now superbly anthologised, annotated and commented on in the recent 25th anniversary reissue of Paul Fussel’s The Great War and Modern Memory.
On Vietnam, the confrontation that defined the thinking of my generation, there followed Barbara Tuchman’s unbeatable The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam. I found myself, in my mid-20s, posted to Hanoi in the aftermath of the turning point in that conflict, the Tet Offensive of February 1968. In our Consulate General was a young man of exactly my age, Vien, with whom I became particularly friendly. The Vietnamese authorities had posted this highly educated and intelligent boy at our Consulate as a sweeper under a rule which stipulated that the only sons of North Vietnamese parents could be spared the agonising tribulations of the Ho Chi Minh trail, subject to their accepting the menial jobs to which the government directed them. I was fascinated at the thought that I had never known war and Vien had only known war. There was, therefore, particular resonance in a line I had read on my way to Hanoi in Mary McCarthy’s searing indictment of the American intervention, titled simply Vietnam: “Charlie (the Viet Cong) say, Yankee go home. But Yankee can’t say, Charlie go home, because Charlie’s home already!” More soberly, Richard Falk’s The Vietnam War and International Law became my staple reading in Vietnam.
The biggest event in my diplomatic life, indeed, my whole life, was being sent as India’s first Consul- General to Karachi in late 1978. I stayed till January 1982 and in the past 30 years have visited Pakistan some 30 times. It has become my magnificent obsession, fed, above all, by Farzana Shaikh’s little masterpiece, Making Sense of Pakistan, building on my initial introduction to that country, Khalid B Sayeed’s Pakistan: The Formative Phase and Sherbaz Mazari’s A Journey to Disillusionment. I consider Mazari the most honest man I have ever met in politics. Unsurprisingly, his political career has largely consisted of setbacks and failure.
In literature, I fell under the spell of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first of the four-volume Alexandria Quartet. Durrell writes English as if he were writing Urdu or Persian, so mellifluous is his prose, so uninhibited his love of the language (“I felt as if the Heavens lay close upon the Earth, and I between them both, breathing through the eye of a needle”), a spiritual successor in some ways to the greatest translator of Farsi ever, Edward Fitzgerald and his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, a magnificently illustrated copy of which I bought as a debating prize at school for the princely sum of Rs 25. At school, I was enthralled by the stirring oratory of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind and Keats’ Ode to the Nightingale. I once missed a flight from Heathrow to the US because I was rooted under the tree in Hampstead where Keats is said to have composed his ode. At college, TS Eliot caught my imagination with The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and Gerontion, but I did not really understand Eliot (does anybody?) until I heard on long-playing records (how old-fashioned that sounds!) Alec Guinness reciting Murder in the Cathedral and The Waste Land. Of Indian writers writing in English, I doubt if Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things can be bettered. My only spiritual experience ever has been Khushwant Singh’s The Freethinker’s Prayer Book.
And how can I end this piece but by paying tribute to the greatest of them all, PG Wodehouse: Jeeves, Bertie and Blandings Castle, and, oh, so many, many other completely dotty unforgettables! It is from Wodehouse, much more than from Shakespeare, that I have learned my English.