A ringside view of how news stories in the past decades unfolded
A file photo of former president Giani Zail Singh (centre) and former PM Rajiv Gandhi (Express photo)
By Amitabh Ranjan
Born under the care of the Queen’s doctor at King’s College Hospital, London… early education in Mayo… moving on to Oxford… a handsome inheritance… dalliance with journalism at age 20… With all these, life offers you protean possibilities.
A Rude Life by Vir Sanghvi, one of the most recognised journalists in the country, is about such possibilities, the pursuit of some, and the rejection of a few. The subtitle tells you it is a memoir. It is much more than that. It holds your hand and takes you through a kaleidoscope— personal life, stories of and about celebrities and politicians, middlemen and behind-the-scene actors. The range will be the envy of any book in the genre. George Harrison (post-Beatles break-up), Miles Copeland (The Police), Raj Kapoor, Zeenat Aman, Big B, Giani Zail Singh, Morarji Desai, Bal Thackeray, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Harshad Mehta, Chandraswami are just a few in a long list that will have you salivating.
Sanghvi plays the navigator, taking you through some of the most defining moments in Indian politics while his life story is played out in the backdrop of a professional roller coaster. Someone who defined the art of interview in the Indian news media, the author brings stories from his personal encounters. His contacts have worked for him. But that is because he nurtured them well and demonstrated a rare perseverance and sense of balance-qualities on the verge of extinction in the current journalistic environment.
Having cut his teeth on journalism with India Today and Bombay, his first big political story came out of an interview with Giani Zail Singh during the time when the popular perception was that the president and then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi were in an eyeball-to-eyeball situation. The story put Imprint, an otherwise little-known feature magazine, under the spotlight. A corollary to the story happened when Sanghvi had, with the help of his friend Mani Shankar Aiyar, a rare in-flight opportunity for a one-on-one with Rajiv Gandhi. The prime minister was frank, coming down heavily on the president. A repeat interview was done with Zail Singh and with Sanghvi as the editor, Sunday carried the story quoting both the sides. The scoop caused enough splash for people to sit up and take notice of the news magazine, which in the post-MJ Akbar days had gone into a slumber. Then there are Morarji Papers, the “all too clear” Russian hand in ensuring his downfall and Indira Gandhi’s political gamesmanship while using Charan Singh as a pawn. For the major part, the author stays a dispassionate chronicler. On quite a few occasions, however, he doesn’t mince words.
In spite of a generous dose of credit for economic reforms that he received from the intelligentsia, Rao, in the author’s view, “was remarkably shrewd and extremely canny…the sort of chap who operated under the cover of darkness than in the clear light of day”. VP Singh who (with Arun Nehru) plotted the deception and became the prime minister “was a little like Arvind Kejriwal is today. Financially upright, soft-spoken, competent… was also a man without any core beliefs, without any long-term loyalty and without transparency”. HD Deve Gowda, who was propped up by non-Congress parties and by the Congress itself to see the back of Rao, “was slightly in the (Sitaram) Kesri mould. He would fight with RK Hegde, his chief minister, but bow down to touch his feet if this was to his advantage”.
You may not agree with all of the author’s assessments, but he had a ring-side view of what he says. Amitabh Bachchan’s dalliance and disenchantment with politics soon after, Rajiv government’s self-goal in the Bofors saga, Musharraf’s breakfast meeting with the media at Agra during a summit that was destined to fail will give you an insight into some of the avidly read stories, a lot of which has also stayed in the realm of speculation all these years.
Straddling both print and broadcast, Sanghvi traces the growth of Indian TV across genres—talk shows, lifestyle, news. At a time when much of the TV news seems to have lost the script and the plot, you will longingly rue the demise of its heyday. Wannabe and in-the-field journalists will do well to take a leaf out of the author’s book. Written with a trademark elegance and felicity of language, the reader will have enough.
Candour, the hallmark of any memoir, is generously sprinkled. Humour, subtle, lurking there, but rarely making landfall. With crisp chapters, the book maintains a steady pace. You have a lot to sit up and read. A lagniappe or two come along the way. The book is worth the read, and a reread.
A former journalist, Amitabh Ranjan teaches at Patna Women’s College. Views expressed are personal
A Rude Life: The Memoir
Penguin Random House
Rs 699, Pp 400