Eclectic and eminently readable
Natwar Singh's elegant style, coupled with his erudition, makes Heart to Heart an informative and enjoyable book, says INDER MALHOTRA.
AS readers of K. Natwar Singh's earlier books some edited by him and others entirely his handiwork know, he is an accomplished writer with a style of his own that is both lively and elegant. He is also extremely well read his personal library is enviably large and his erudition is accentuated by a touch of humour and an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes collected during his diplomatic career from which he effortlessly moved on to politics. All this makes his writings both informative and enjoyable. The book under review a collection of essays, sketches and articles written from 1985 to 2002 is no exception.
Natwar's canvas, as usual, is wide. It ranges from Don Bradman's incomparable wizardry in cricket to Henry Kissinger's duplicitous diplomacy; from the magic of Nelson Mandela to the majestic prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; from the superlative qualities of Ho Chi Minh to Margaret Thatcher's "self-righteous memoirs"; and so on. A large part of book is devoted, of course, to affairs and personalities Indian. Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi loom large Indira larger than both her father and son.
This is understandable because the author worked for her through most of his diplomatic career of which five years were spent in the Prime Minister's Secretariat (PMS) since renamed PMO, had enjoyed her confidence and was indeed perceived to be in high favour with her. For his part, Natwar admits candidly that she had inspired in him "a lasting affection", "a degree of respect verging on veneration" and "a deep sense of gratitude". "When she was assassinated, the spring went out of my life." Every word of what Natwar says in praise of Indira Gandhi is absolutely true. But some mention of the negative side of her persona and performance as the nation's dominant leader for full two decades, irrespective of whether she was in power or out of it, would have made his account and assessment balanced and thus more credible.
Other towering leaders of the Freedom Movement "an amazing real-life political drama", in Natwar's words including Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, C. Rajagopalachari, Sarojini Naidu et al also get their due. So do eminent personalities in diverse fields. In short, so many illustrious Indians and foreigners flit across the pages of Heart to Heart (the title derives from the bypass surgery Natwar had to have), that those who do not know the author well enough might accuse him of namedropping. That would be uncharitable. The reality is that Natwar's professional opportunities and the personal knack have combined to enable him to make a large number of friends across the world. He also seems to have had the good fortune to be present at the right place at the right time.
For instance, as a junior member of the Indian Embassy in Beijing in 1957, he was present when Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, visiting China as Vice-President, was accorded by his hosts the rare honour of being put up in Chongnanhai, where live, in splendid isolation, that country's top leaders. Calling on Mao Zedong, Radhakrishnan did something "unimaginable". He patted the Great Helmsman on the cheek. Before either Mao or his stunned staff could react, the distinguished guest "broke the tension by an exit line which would do any great actor proud; `Don't be alarmed, Mr. Chairman, I did the same thing to Stalin and the Pope'." This is but one of many such examples.
When Indira Gandhi was voted out of power in the post-Emergency General Election in 1977, Natwar Singh had to pay the price for being in her good books. The Janata Government chose to punish him by sending him to Zambia as High Commissioner. "The punishment posting," says H.Y. Sharada Prasad, Natwar's colleague in the PMS and friend still, in a short, sensitive and superbly written foreword to the book, "turned out to be a reward; it enabled Natwar to consolidate his friendship with Kenneth Kaunda and other African leaders."
After she returned to power in 1980, Indira Gandhi asked Natwar's wife, Hem, where he would like to go next. "Islamabad" was Hem's reply, and Islamabad it was. There are few jobs in Indian diplomacy as challenging as that of the envoy to Pakistan. How well Natwar handled it is best revealed by his essay on General Zia-ul-Haq. Not because of any claims Natwar makes on his own behalf but because of his masterly analysis of the complex personality of Zia, known for his flair for double handshake and triple embrace, and of the collective psyche of the country he presided over. Another memorable piece is that on Rajaji, as Rajagopalachari was better known, who had been Natwar's houseguest in New York. Yet another is on R.K. Nayaran, "Our Man in Malgudi", who the author had sought out at the behest of E.M. Forster, Natwar's friend and guide from his Cambridge days.
No book is entirely without flaws and Natwar's is no exception. It has one inexplicable factual error: his suggestion that there was a second contest for the Prime Minister's office in 1967. There never was. Instead, there was a compromise under which Morarji Desai became Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Finance, the portfolio of which Indira relieved him while nationalising commercial banks after which the Congress split inevitably followed. The rest, as they say, is history.
In a review of a collection of Nirad C. Chaudhuri's articles, compiled and edited by Niradbabu's son, Dhruva, Natwar draws attention to the book's appalling proof-reading quality and remarks, "The perfectionist father must have pulled up the son in choice language!" Sadly, Natwar's own publishers have also let him down on this score. The omission of an index in a book of this kind is also regrettable. However, these are minor failings that should not interfere with the pleasure of reading this eminently readable book to which Sharada Prasad's Foreword has added lustre.
Heart to Heart, K. Natwar Singh, Rupa, p.302, Rs. 395.
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