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An unusual life

Krishna Menon's approach was not calculated to win friends, but it did influence people.

Photo: The Hindu Photo Library

Witty and incisive: V.K. Krishna Menon.

I ONLY met the legendary V.K. Krishna Menon once, and in hardly the most propitious of circumstances. My father, then only 38, had been hospitalised with a heart attack and I was in the ward, an anxious child of 12, when his old friend came calling. Krishna Menon was out of office at the time, having been defeated the previous year in his attempt to be re-elected to his seat in Parliament, and I did not quite know what to make of him. He arrived in his white mundu and shirt, the unruly shock of white hair distinctive above his hawk-like nose, trailing a couple of hangers-on, and greeted my father with a bluff comment: "What's this about a heart attack? Chandran, I didn't know you had a heart." That is all I remember about the great man, though I also recall being childishly offended by his remark, then growing up to think that his was a very witty comment, only to conclude a few years later that it was not witty enough. (My father was famed for his generosity of spirit, so Menon could easily have said, instead: "Chandran, we all know you have a heart. You didn't have to prove it this way.")

Four years later, when I went to college in Delhi, Krishna Menon was back in Parliament and my father urged me to call on him. I never did, for reasons I can no longer explain; and before I had graduated, he had passed away. My father had helped him establish the India Club in London's The Strand, where masala dosas and tea could always be had at prices affordable to young Indian newsmen. I never learned whether Menon had been partial to dosas, but of tea he was a notorious addict, admitting to consuming 38 cups a day. I will always regret never sharing one of those with him.

Controversial figure

In four days' time, on May 3, the handful of people who still care will mark V.K. Krishna Menon's 110th birthday. Or maybe it's his 111th; even on the subject of his date of birth, Menon could not shake off controversy. He was an extraordinary figure, one who attracted more opprobrium in his lifetime than any other Indian leader, certainly in the West, where the choice epithets about him ranged from "Mephistopheles in a Savile row suit" to "the snake charmer with hooded eyes" and even, unimaginatively, "the devil incarnate". Time magazine put him on its cover, a snake hissing behind his head: it was an honour the newsmagazine had been slow to accord the Mahatma, but Menon was a foreigner most Americans loved to hate.

He has also, paradoxically, been unjustly treated by the guardians of our historical memory. Krishna Menon is remembered in India largely for two things: delivering a record-setting, marathon seven-hour-and-58-minute speech on Kashmir in the Security Council 50 years ago, during the course of which he fainted, had to be revived and carried on; and presiding over a Defence Ministry whose lack of preparedness for war in 1962 led to the humiliation of military defeat by China, a humiliation seen as having been brought about by Menon's own leftist illusions about the Communist giant. His abrasive personality, his reluctance to suffer fools gladly, his bluntness to those he did not judge intellectually worthy of his time — even Nehru's sister Vijaylakshmi Pandit, the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly, fell short of his standards, and complained to the Prime Minister of his "rudeness" to her — meant that he had few genuine loyalists.

The last days

In good times, his brilliance, his restless energy, his eloquence, and his astonishing reserves of stamina, carried the day and won him admirers if not fans; but when disaster came, he was left friendless and alone, abandoned by the party he had served without pay or thanks in the best years of his life. He died a forgotten backbencher, without even a political party to call his own.

His had been an unusual life. Much of it had been spent in London, where he devoted himself to fighting the battle for India's independence on Britain's home turf, against men "who draw their incomes from India and spend the evenings of their life in maligning India and her people". He enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate, serving as a Labour Party councillor for the London borough of St. Pancras, where he established libraries and started a literary festival (Menon had been an early consulting editor for Penguin Books, tricking Allen Lane into publishing A Passage to India by implying it was a travel book.) Nehru, who had admired Menon's record in the U.K., rewarded him by making him Independent India's first High Commissioner in London, a position which he used to put the former colonial masters firmly in their place. That acerbic wit rarely failed him: when the hapless Brigid Brophy complimented him on his English, Menon retorted scathingly, "My English, Madam, is much better than yours. You merely picked it up; I learned it." It was not an approach calculated to win friends, but it did influence people.

I have read no more remarkable exposition of the mindset of the first generation of India's nationalist leaders than Krishna Menon's magisterial interviews with the Canadian political scientist Michael Brecher, published in 1968 as a book entitled India and World Politics: Krishna Menon's View of the World. It is difficult to think of an Indian leader other than Nehru who would have been capable of the extensive discourse on world affairs, human history and international politics that Menon so magisterially managed.

I did not agree with most of Krishna Menon's views — his socialism was imbibed directly from Harold Laski at the LSE, and his anti-Americanism was visceral rather than rational — but I admired the way he expressed them.

Unlike my father, Krishna Menon may not have had a heart; but he had a brain, and a tongue. In this golden jubilee year of his historic U.N. speech, they're both worth raising a toast to when his birthday comes around next week.

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