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Updated: March 3, 2012 16:54 IST

Midnight's child

DEVINA DUTT
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POLITICALLY AWARE: Zareer Masani.
POLITICALLY AWARE: Zareer Masani.

Scholar and historian Zareer Masani talks to Devina Dutt on his latest memoirs.

Zareer Masani has written a brilliant and elegiac account of his parents and their times. His father Minoo Masani, founder of the Swatantra Party and Leader of the Opposition against the Congress for several years in Parliament and mother Shakuntala Srivastava were both outstanding individuals but divided in every crucial respect including their politics.

Almost a midnight's child, Masani writes with a restrained but real sense of historical purpose, and gives us a rare glimpse of the growing venality of Indian public life which was to overtake the apparent successes of Indian democracy.

Did the idea of the book evolve over a period of time, and was it always going to be a memoir?

It certainly began as a memoir when I was going through my mother and father's old papers, correspondence, and diaries. I felt I would like to draw on them to tell the story of a very unusual family. I was not sure at that time if I wanted to publish it but I felt it should be kept for posterity.

As far as the political aspects are concerned I told it like it was and like I remembered it. When politicians write their own memoirs they are given to self glorification. That was never my intention. When my father wrote his memoirs, which I drew from, he did not eulogise himself. It was considered bad manners to blow your own trumpet. When biographies on politicians are written, the writers usually want to ingratiate and flatter the subject.

I just wanted to express what I was feeling and what I remember had happened and so I did not censor the emotion. If you are telling a story and it is a sad story you tell it anyway. The only thing I was conscious of was that I did not want it to be a boring story. I tried to stick to the main story and have a narrative pace.

When did you become aware of the political motif in your family and what was your own engagement with your father's politics?

Certainly from the age of ten or 11, I was aware of my father's politics. Even early on I knew he was travelling all the time for political reasons and activities. Then I became very aware of his politics and his opposition to the Congress when he founded the Swatantra party in 1959 and by then I was a teenager. I was a very political teenager. I shared my father's politics and used to have a lot of arguments with friends and relations who were pro-Congress. Later I moved to the Left and I had a lot of arguments with my father.

How do you assess his politics and his place in Indian politics?

He was much ahead of his time but very necessary because he opened up the debate on Nehru's state planning and rejecting his socialism etc. He hammered away at it for 35 years before Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh and Rajiv Gandhi came along and decided to liberalise. So the ground had been prepared. If he hadn't I think we would have been slower in coming.

Secondly I think his memory would be important if it was regarded more. His politics was also about how important it is to have ethical standards and not sacrifice them to stay in power. But it is interesting that of all the political leaders of his generation he is probably the only one who does not have a road named after him, or have a postage stamp in his name and who the government has not honoured in any way because I think it is not a convenient memory because he is in such stark contrast with the political venality of present times. They have honoured all kinds of people. When his 100th birth anniversary came around in 2005, I tried to interest some people in Delhi but nothing came of it.

The incidents related to your mother joining Indira Gandhi's Congress and her subsequent marginalisation are brutally depicted. What did it take to write about it so unsparingly?

Well, it involved being quite self critical of course. Because I had played a major role in persuading my mother to do what she did. Until I radicalised her she was pretty loyal to my father's politics and quite critical of Indira. So I felt I needed to be self-critical about my own naïveté and how many people Mrs. Gandhi did mislead about what she stood for. There were many people who were taken in by her slogans and her apparent desire to present a new young reforming vision of India against the old Congress guard when in fact she was just involved in a power struggle and increasingly wanted to create a dynastic succession within the Congress. I was taken in by her for a period of about four years but that is not so long and I was only about 20 at the time. I became a convert around 1970 and I was cured of her in 1974 when I was finishing the biography on her and I wrote a very critical final chapter pointing out that she moving in a very authoritarian direction. So the book got banned when it came out, just in time for the Emergency, when it seemed to fulfil the prediction I had made.

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