B.G. Verghese combines autobiographical and historical narrative in a pleasing and interconnected manner to produce a book that is many things at once — a contemporary record of events, a kind of diary that reveals how he reacted to them as they unfolded, a history of India, as he modestly puts it, “with a very little ‘h'.”
Verghese was many things in his distinguished career — reporter, editor, social activist, information adviser to the Prime Minister, Lok Sabha aspirant, and member of sundry committees and commissions. His “worm's eye view of history as an individual saw it” is ineluctably influenced by his calling at the time.
While he is not afraid of being critical, he is never disparaging of people, tempering his disapproval with appreciation wherever he thinks it is due. At a time when there seems to be renewed interest among academics and writers in eulogising Jawaharlal Nehru (a possible reaction to perceptions about the increasing irrelevance of some aspects of his legacy, particularly on the economic and foreign policy fronts), Verghese takes a refreshingly different line on the country's first Prime Minister. While praising his contribution towards laying the foundations of a democratic and pluralistic society, he portrays Nehru as an isolated man, surrounded by sycophants, and someone who should have relinquished office by the end of the 1950s, instead of staying on and extending what he calls the “era of compromise.”
The narrative in subsequent chapters adopts a more familiar and predictable tone as they detail Indira Gandhi's growing authoritarianism, which eventually resulted in the internal emergency; the fleeting hopes raised by the Janata Party experiment before it collapsed like a house of cards; Mrs. Gandhi's assassination; and the slow but steady unravelling of the goodwill that greeted her son Rajiv's ascension.
Full of hope
The book, which covers the period of economic reforms and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, ends on a contemporary note and is full of hope about the emergence of a new India. Yes, he has been “roundly critical”, Verghese admits, but this was to sound “a note of caution'” rather than utter a “cry of despair”. Describing himself as an “incorrigible optimist”, he concludes — in contrast to so many negative and despairing voices — that India is “far more stable and more democratically rooted and integrated than ever before.”
The more biographical bits also contain much that is of interest. His days in the Hindustan Times, from which he was unceremoniously sacked as editor, and in the Indian Express, provide a window into the journalistic climate of the time. He also recounts his work with an NGO and a think tank at some length and the book is replete with passages and debates relating to the country's socio-economic development.
Here and there, one wishes he had spent more time in explaining why his varied life took the course it did. Why he moved from being a journalist to becoming Mrs. Indira Gandhi's Press Secretary is not fully clear beyond the fact that he was told that “he must accept”. His movement between the media to officialdom and back and his direct engagement with politics — which included standing for the Lok Sabha as an Independent in 1977 and helping to write the Janata Party manifesto — also deserved to be fully explained, particularly to those who believe that journalism is, and must remain, a profession of detachment. Despite its size (573 pages), First Draft is a breezy read, written with an unassuming modesty and a large and generous spirit.