Chronicler of our times
`It is fair to say that in matters small and large, Sharada Prasad is inclined to give Indira Gandhi the benefit of doubt. However, he is conspicuously fair to her political opponents.'
H.Y. Sharada Prasad ... comfort in print.
I FIRST met H.Y. Sharada Prasad in the New Delhi home of G. Parthasarathi. We listened as "G.P." spoke of cricket at which game he had represented Madras in the Ranji Trophy of journalism he had once been Associate Editor of The Hindu of international relations he had been High Commissioner to Pakistan and Ambassador to China and of plenty of other things besides. It was a late summer evening, and we sat on cane chairs in the verandah, stoked by G.P.'s conversation and by the finest moru (buttermilk) it has been my privilege to drink.
That day Sharada Prasad spoke little. He is a reserved man and in any case, G.P. in full flow took some stopping. In later meetings he has spoken more. However, these meetings have been few, and far between, for he lives in Delhi and I in Bangalore. Over the years our conversations have also been carried on by letter and the occasional phone call. Most of all, though, I have furthered our acquaintance by reading his columns in the press.
Like G.P., Sharada Prasad is a man of culture and civilisation, but where one operated best in the oral tradition, the other finds more comfort in print. When G.P. spoke, you listened; and when Sharada Prasad writes, if you have any sense you drop everything else and read him.
Born and bred in Mysore, Sharada Prasad went to jail during the Quit India movement. After his release he worked for the Express newspapers where, on January 31, 1948, he published an anguished tribute to the Mahatma written by his long estranged son, Harilal. After a decade in the privately owned press Sharada Prasad joined Government, where he served as the editor of the Planning Commission journal, Yojana, before joining Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1966 as her Information Adviser. He worked in the Prime Minister's Office for almost the next 20 years, a period when whatever he wrote generally appeared under someone else's by line. In retirement, he has resumed writing for the press, and currently has a weekly column in the Asian Age.
The anthropologist Clifford Geertz once distinguished between three styles of writing, which he called "author-evacuated", "author-saturated", and "author-supersaturated". The first referred to those observers of the human world who preferred to keep themselves completely out of the narrative; the last to those who chose to keep themselves always in the foreground. Like Geertz, I am partial to the middle road, where the author stays in the frame, but never in its centre. The best columnists, like the best anthropologists, write from a perspective of curious and enquiring participation. They do sometimes draw attention to themselves, but only to establish the context of what they are writing about. This is the method of H.Y. Sharada Prasad, now conveniently on display in his new collection, The Book I Won't be Writing and Other Essays.
The book's title essay explains why the author chose not to write a "kiss-and-tell: memoir about his years with Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Nonetheless, he does here give us several long, reflective essays on the political styles of our different Prime Ministers. He is most convincing in explaning why Nehru did not intend his daughter to be Prime Minister, but less convincing in arguing that Mrs. Gandhi did not really want her son Rajiv to succeed her. He perceptively underlines the similarities between Nehru, Indira and Rajiv, as for instance their lack of parochialism and their desire to engage with the masses. However, he glosses over their differences, which were perhaps more consequential in the long run.
It is fair to say that in matters small and large, Sharada Prasad is inclined to give Mrs. Indira Gandhi the benefit of doubt. However, he is conspicuously fair to her political opponents. Jayaprakash Narayan he singles out for his "deep earnestness of face, gesture and voice, the breadth of his vision and compassion, and his absolute freedom from malice, meanness and selfishness... " Morarji Desai he calls "a big man and a very interesting man" with an "innate sense of fair play"; a "first-rate administrator, one of the best in free India; and "one of the best-dressed Congressmen in a crowd so notorious for sloppiness". S. Nijalingappa, who expelled Mrs. Gandhi from the Congress, thereby precipitating a split, was nonetheless "a simple man, a sincere man and a genuinely amiable man", who served four terms as Chief Minister of Karnataka and yet did not make a sou for himself or his family.
This is a book of portraits, of character sketches that are affectionate and warm without being syrupy sweet, these written by an intelligent yet modest man, whom life has placed in a position of proximity to greatness and influence. The remarkable people that he has known span the range from Indira Gandhi to M.S. Subbulakshmi. Sharada Prasad is sharp when he writes on politicians, but when he moves away from them he is better still. He is a subtle literary critic, as comfortable with Pope and Hemingway as he is with Tagore and Masti. He is also a deeply learned rasika of classical music an art form he grew up with, for his father was an accomplished composer whose songs were sung by M.S. herself. Some of the finest essays in this book are indeed about writers and musicians. In a collection so consistently good it is perhaps invidious to single out personal favourities but if I had to, these would be the portraits of the Kannada polymath Shivarama Karanth and of the maverick biographer of Mahatama Gandhi, D.G. Tendulkar; and the brilliant but wholly unmalicious demolition of Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi.
Wisdom and literary elegance seldom go together. In Sharada Prasad they do, alongside a mordant wit as well. Consider these judgments;
"(R.K. Narayan) signed no manifestoes, presided over no conferences, delivered no lectures on the responsibilities of an author in the ushering of a more just and humane society."
"A cartoonist having a soft corner for a politician is like a mongoose which carries visiting cards from cobras. He had better quit the trade."
"For admen have a simple rule: when it is a choice between now and tomorrow, choose now."
"A bibliophile's attitude towards reading is like a philanderer's attitude to sex: `it is good when it is good; it is good even when it isn't so good'."
In a tribute to Mallikarjun Mansur, Sharada Prasad writes that "so many of our well-known authors and artists move about with a swagger for they seem to believe that they indeed are colossi striding the scene." Mallikarjun, by contrast, "did not care to be the centre of attraction. He was content to be inconspicuous. He continued to look like a shopkeeper's accountant. He did not speak like an oracle. He rarely referred to his triumphs ... He was wholly without envy. His was an unfailing geniality and lightness of heart. His airs were what he sang. He did not put on any."
The true measure of Mallikarjun Mansur's genius lies in the esteem he was held in by his peers. Much the same could be said of Sharada Prasad. He is the writer's writer, much as Mallikarjun was the musician's musician. No better book will be published in India this year than this collection of essays. Buy it.
Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilized and Environmentalism: A Global History.
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