The word for history, itihasa, literally means ‘this is what happened’. ‘Thus it was’,” begins Jairam Ramesh. “And when I write political biographies, this word is what I follow. Because history doesn’t lend itself to binary interpretations, it is complex. So as a biographer, it’s my job to be clinical, precise, and be a narrative biographer instead of passing judgment.”
This is, perhaps, the only way to do justice to a biography of as complicated a historical figure as V.K. Krishna Menon. The diplomat who spent decades in London negotiating fiercely for Indian independence; the three-time Member of Parliament representing constituencies as diverse as Trivandrum, Midnapore and North Bombay (as they were then); the orator par excellence who, in 1957, delivered the longest speech until then at the United Nations (eight hours over two days, after which he fainted); a founding editor of Penguin’s Pelican imprint; an abrasive, acerbic man and Jawaharlal Nehru’s political soulmate — Menon was many things. But he is also, and perhaps most instantly, remembered for the debacle of 1962, when, under his watch as minister of defence, India was roundly defeated in war by China. This is also why the title of Ramesh’s biography of him, A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of Krishna Menon, is a fitting one.
At the fifth edition of the Kerala Literature Festival on Kozhikode Beach (in the same city where Menon was born, in fact), Jairam Ramesh speaks to ThePrint about why he wrote this book, the art of being a politician and writing a political biography, the importance of Krishna Menon in Indian political history, and why he supports but stays away from the protests sweeping across India.
Krishna Menon is so much more than the defeat in 1962
“One major reason [I was keen to write about Menon] is the availability of primary archival material. I’m willing to write a book on anyone as long as there is mountains of primary material. Second, he was a very complex personality, but also very important, both pre- and post-1947. And any student of political history needs to know and has to contend with this personality,” explains Ramesh.
Why was he so important, when, for 30 years, Menon wasn’t even here? He was in London and came back to India only in 1953, and there was a lot of resentment among freedom fighters in India that Nehru gave Menon so much importance — people felt that he had not suffered or sacrificed as they had, he had not protested and been lathi-charged, he had not gone to jail.
“We are all taught in school that Indian Independence was the product of a revolutionary non-violent upheaval led by Gandhi and fought in India, and that’s true to some extent, but there was a whole other kind of freedom struggle going on in London and other parts of England, decades of negotiations and back-channel dialogues with the Labour Party, Round Table Conferences, talks with Clement Attlee and Stafford Cripps and the likes — and Krishna Menon was leading all of that. Because Nehru was the international face of the Indian National Congress and Menon was Nehru’s man, he was key to this process.”
There are so many people in our freedom movement waiting to be excavated, says Ramesh. “Menon is better known than some, but there’s still so much people don’t know. For example, today at anti-CAA/NRC protests across India, everyone is reading and reading aloud the Constitution, the Preamble. To a large extent, the Preamble and the idea of a Constituent Assembly came from Menon.
“From 1934 onwards, Menon was bombarding Nehru with ideas on these. Gandhi, in fact was initially not in favour, and it was only in the late 1930s that he came around. We don’t know all of this about Menon because the defeat to China in 1962 clouds everything else.”
Ramesh believes our view of 1962 is blinkered by the fact that “the first books that came out about it were by Army officers — Brigadier John Dalvi’s Himalayan Blunder and others. But it’s clear that there was a collapse of military leadership, the Army top brass was infighting and playing its own games.”
He continues, “In July of 1962, five months before the Chinese invasion, Thimayya wrote an article in Seminar saying that war with China was inconceivable, and that the only way to solve the Chinese problem was through diplomacy — exactly Menon’s position as well.”
Most biographers do hagiographies or hit jobs
How does one politician write about another, from his own party, without bias? “In all my three biographies so far [he’s done one on Indira Gandhi and one on P.N. Haksar], I have used a narrative tone, and primary archival material — letters, newspapers, official documents. No oral history, no recollections, no interviews. It’s also important to keep your distance from the subject. Most biographers either love or hate their subject, they either do love jobs or hit jobs, and that’s not a good biography.”
There are some political biographers whom Ramesh is a fan of. “There’s Sarvepalli Gopal, who has written biographies of Nehru and of his father (Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan); Rajmohan Gandhi, who wrote on Rajaji, Gandhi and Patel; Ramachandra Guha now. Robert Caro, an American biographer of Lyndon Johnson, is meticulous in terms of his devotion to detail and archival material. And Roy Jenkins, former British Labour Party MP who has written a number of political biographies. I’m in the Caro mould in terms of substance, and Jenkins in style.”
It is difficult, he admits. But he is also clear he is not writing as a Congressman, but as a student of history. “If I was writing as a Congressman, I would not have been critical of the Emergency in the Indira Gandhi book. I wouldn’t have been critical of Nehru and Menon’s roles in 1962 in this book.”
As much an epistolary novel as a political biography
The book relies so heavily on correspondence — letters between Menon and his sisters, Menon and Nehru, later Indira, and even correspondence about Menon — that it is, in many ways, an epistolary novel. Ramesh agrees, adding that this book would not have been possible in today’s times because no one writes those volumes of letters.
“You see, this was a generation of letter writers. Someone came to me once asking if I’d write a biography of Vajpayee, and I asked, do you have any primary material? They didn’t, because it’s a different generation,” he says.
From womb to tomb, this book took Ramesh about 15 months, including the research and the writing. It was the research that took time, he says. He likens his writing process to the Brownian motion, a physics term that describes the erratic movement of particles, with no structure or sequence.
“I don’t wait for all the material. I get what I think is the crux of the research material and I start writing. Then I see the gaps and go out and try to fill them. I don’t have a structure, a table of contents or summary to begin with.”
That also means that while researching and writing, Ramesh himself discovered many things about Menon and his life, came across many surprises. For example, while Menon is deified in his birthplace and the wider state of Kerala, Ramesh was shocked to learn that he actually opposed the creation of Kerala in 1956.
“He wrote to Nehru in 1955 saying that the creation of Kerala would be dangerous as the state would emerge as a bastion of the Reds. He was also opposed to the creation of an independent Madras, as he felt that would become a bastion of separatism and linguistic fanaticism. His rather romantic view was to have a Dakshin Pradesh instead — with parts of all the four southern states. Also, Menon didn’t speak Malayalam at all! He won three elections after having campaigned entirely in English — we can’t imagine that today.”
Another interesting thing he found was that it was in 1959 that Article 356 was used for the first time.
“Nehru used it to dismiss Namboodiripad’s government — and Menon didn’t oppose it. His family owned a large plot of land, and he and they were very worried about the loss of land in a Communist government, despite his own somewhat Communist leanings. So, he isn’t a character one can pin down easily or put in a box. In fact, one of his sisters wrote to Nehru asking for assurance that their land would not be taken away — and Nehru patiently wrote back to her as well,” Ramesh chuckles.
Role of women in Krishna Menon’s life
“He would not be who he was without the women in his life,” says Ramesh, “especially his first mentor in life, Annie Besant. Then, there was his eldest sister Chinnamalu Amma, a firebrand feminist and polyglot who wrote articles on feminist issues in the 1910s, and wrote an article in 1948 supporting Sheikh Abdullah, well before Menon’s own marathon speech at the UN on Kashmir.
Another sister, Janaki Amma, was his lifelong confidant and emotional support, incredibly talented, an excellent swimmer and shooter, and in fact, he executed the power of attorney in her name when their father passed away. He was also very close to Indira Gandhi — it was an ‘Indu’-‘Krishna’ type of relationship despite the fact that he was so much older.”
Ramesh believes Kerala’s society is paradoxical like that — female literacy is the highest, gender empowerment is highest, “but it is only Kerala’s men that have been the focus of its literature, talented women have never got their due. In Menon’s case, I’ve tried to bring out the importance of these women”.
This brings us to the role of women in today’s times, particularly the protests across India, which are being led from the front by women.
“Yes! You see, I think women understand oppression better than men — that could be partly why they’ve come out in such numbers. Also, it’s not so much the CAA as the NRC combined with it. People have seen what happened in Assam, people have recognised what’s going on.
“We should applaud protesters, but I do believe we should maintain an arm’s-length relationship. Despite pressure from my sons, especially my younger son, I have refused to go to JNU or any protests — not because of anything else, but it’s not right to go and become the story. I would go as a citizen, not as a Congress party member or MP, but that is what it would look like. I have a life outside politics but it would get overshadowed.
“Protests must remain spontaneous, loose and unstructured, and they should not be contaminated by the virus of political parties. I’m glad that people have resisted political parties this time. I have consistently been saying parties have to fight their political battles in Parliament and in courts, but people’s protests should be left to them.”
New challenges and Netflix addiction
Ramesh isn’t one to sit idle. He’s already looking at his next project — about an 1879 book called The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold. “It explores how Indians look at Buddha, what we think of Buddha as a man, Buddha the compassionate human being. This book profoundly influenced Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar; it played a huge role in the social justice movement and was translated into multiple Indian languages: Gujarati, Tamil, Punjabi, Malayalam, Marathi, Assamese, Sindhi and more. I’ve got a lot of material, so I want to look at why this book was so influential.”
So, what does Jairam Ramesh do for fun? He laughs at the thought. “I wish I could read for fun, but most of my reading is on political history and economics. I don’t watch movies, but I’ve become a big Netflix addict — my older son is aghast at this,” he grins. “I loved Wild Wild Country, Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War series, and oh, I loved The Irishman!”
He loves documentaries and biopics, but believes that creating one on someone who is still living or active is odd.
“Even this book of mine on Menon would not have been possible for me 20 years ago. My job was also to write a history of India via writing about Menon, and you have to allow for a bit of time and perspective to do justice to it,” Ramesh says.
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