When a life story is being told, how much does the reader really need to know?
After hearing Vikram Sampath on the art of biography some weeks ago, some of us took up the topic again over coffee. “That bit about the singer collapsing to the ground, didn’t you find it a bit melodramatic?” asked one friend. “And how does he know how it happened?”
The writer of a conventional biography, birth to death, acquires a few points of data from documents or first-hand accounts. Then he must link those points to fabricate a narrative for the reader. In forging those links he sometimes injects the drama he himself must have felt in exploring a life so profoundly. Any continuous narrative contains some interpolated fiction, and the reader has no way to separate data from interpolation.
Of the kind of biography we call “definitive”, I have always relied on R.K. Narayan: The Early Years: 1906-1945, published in 1996. Readers of this tome must keep their eye on the ball through letters, footnotes and meticulous connections to Narayan's stories, but that’s just the kind of documentation we old fogies like. We enjoy plodding.
What is far more off-putting is hagiography, common in Indian works but a hazard anywhere. When biographers commit years to studying other lives, when they identify with those subjects, will they not overstate their importance in history and understate their flaws?
Biography is a tangled form of writing, especially if we try to tie all the threads together. Autobiography is no better. Even in our own lives, we misremember events and encounters. We revise. We self-serve. Each time we recall an event we tweak our explanations for why it happened. Like a tongue prodding a sore tooth, we work to make sense of it all.
If we allow that any narrative becomes fictional, we might prefer a more disconnected collection of memories or encounters, properly attributed and documented, that lets us make up our own minds. One memoir that doesn’t attempt to chart a life is Leela, by Leela Naidu and Jerry Pinto. Leela Naidu was married to one of the Oberois and then to Dom Moraes. She acted in and directed films, she shared chocolates with the Mahatma, she looked in Imelda’s shoe closet. In short, she led an eventful life, so in this book she recounts events, wryly, modestly, and with no attempt to prove, conclude or unify.
We might see a trend in that. Or we may be the last generation altogether to read published biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. Leela Naidu and R.K. Narayan did not have Facebook pages and official websites, but can we say that of any younger writer or actor? Or even of any bank clerk or cupcake baker? Biography is now available to all. We can all have our lives blogged, posted, tagged, commented on, liked and shared. If we want to know about other people, we can assemble their lives from all these pieces any way we like. We still have no way of separating fact from fiction, but readers of biography are used to that.