Jairam Ramesh’s latest book on VK Krishna Menon throws light on the
enigmatic man who has been misunderstood, underappreciated and demonised by some critics for the 1962 Indo-Sino war debacle
Since he came to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been steadfast in connecting with the large and influential Indian diaspora. Be it at the Madison Square in New York or the ‘Howdy Modi’ event at Houston, Modi seems to have managed to bring the 30 million-strong community into the India story.
However, the original exponent of ‘diaspora engagement’ lived a full two generations before the PM entered the world. In fact, there is a special award in his name to recognise achievers within the Indian diaspora. He is none other than Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon or VK Krishna Menon as he is known to the world.
For generations of Indians, Menon continues to be the primary villain of the 1962 Indo-Sino war debacle — the fall guy whose constant feud with the army top brass contributed to the Army’s humiliation at NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh). But Menon, Jawaharlal Nehru’s friend and closest advisor, was a much more complex character than he is made out to be by his critics. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh’s latest offering, A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon, is a one-of-its-kind book on a man who has been misunderstood, underappreciated and demonised by some critics for his failure in the war and Rasputin-like influence on Nehru.
Ramesh’s book is the result of a meticulous scholarship that depends entirely on written archival material and does not incorporate overhead (overheard) gossips as biographical data. Ramesh has written a remarkably dispassionate portrayal of the man, who came to the United Kingdom at an age of 28 and continued to live there till 1952. “Many biographies often tend to be hagiographies. They rely on oral testaments that may be unreliable. Some even go to the extent of being too critical. But very few biographies, especially in India, have been serious work of scholarships, which look at the subject dispassionately,” says Ramesh at an event in Mumbai.
To his credit, Ramesh has been successful in letting Menon speak for himself through the hundreds of previously unseen written archives; many sourced from different parts of the world, including India. These documents give the readers a glimpse into Menon’s personal professional and political life. The book stays largely true to its title as it introduces the reader to the little-known pre-1947 world of Menon — the perennial student at the London School of Economics, the foremost figure of Independence movement abroad, and the Labour party — then a rising force in British politics — member.
Not only was Menon a masterful activist-organiser who made the India League in London the epicentre of the Independence movement, he was also the brain behind Penguin Books and its successful imprint Pelican Books. In fact, bibliophiles may love the chapter on Menon’s brief but eventful career as a Penguin commissioning editor. That Menon was a key figure in internationalising Nehru’s autobiography could have been lost in the passages of history if not for Ramesh’s book. The following passage from the book gives a glimpse into Menon’s unrecognised contribution to the international bestseller:
“The manuscript that he mentioned in his letter to Menon was to be his first to appear internationally. He (Menon) made a number of useful suggestions for improving the manuscript but his most important contribution was to change its title...The next thing we know is that Menon cabled Nehru: Present title unsuitable. Consensus of opinion in favour of Jawaharlal Nehru An Autobiography . . .Please cable. The next day came a telegram from Nehru: HAVE IT YOUR OWN WAY.”
No Dull Moments
It is generally difficult to write a biography of people as complex as Menon. He was a diplomat who could enthral people with his brilliance but also make the most ‘undiplomatic’ of remarks. “Menon was close to bringing about a Sino-US rapprochement in the mid-50s itself. But at the height of his prominence, he is reported to have called John Foster Dulles, then US secretary of state, ‘dull duller dullest’,” says Ramesh. Perhaps, a line in a 1955 profile in the book captures his complex life: In spite of tremendous personal magnetism and an almost unique ability to persuade people to devote their lives to his causes, friendship is difficult for him.
Divided into seven parts, covering his pre- and post-1947 years, the book is particularly worth a read for the never-before-seen information it provides on his life in the UK. The book does a bigger favour to the world of scholarship by highlighting Menon’s often-unrecognised contribution to nation building in the 1950s. Not only was he instrumental in creating the DRDO, which later gave India its future president APJ Abdul Kalam, Ramesh says that he missed out on adding the fact that ‘Sainik Schools’ across India was also Menon’s brainchild.
The former Union minister’s book could be the best tribute to one of the most enigmatic but effective figures of 20th Century international politics. The author, through his ability to weave the story through archives, has been able to re-assess Menon’s contribution to modern India.