When in November 1990, I walked into Penguin editor David Davidar’s office lugging under my arm a year’s load of my columns for Sunday magazine (that had, I imagined, something of an enthusiastic readership), he looked at me gravely over his spectacles and remarked, “Books of columns do not work.” At the time I was a bit put out, but several volumes of collected columns later, I have to acknowledge the essential soundness of David’s observation. Books of columns do not, indeed, work.
We have in recent months had a spate of such publications. For the sheer ghastliness of Modi rule had caused a virtual tsunami of indignant secular, liberal outpourings that it seemed to the columnists to be important that on the eve of the 2019 general elections (and even thereafter) these compendia must be breathlessly presented to the voting public. The public, alas, have gone their indifferent way and we are now stuck with a second edition of the ghastliness we had hoped we would overcome.
This outdatedness has compounded the persisting truth of David’s perceptive assessment that “books of columns do not work”. There can be little doubting the extraordinary erudition of Pavan Varma’s intellectual armoury. It also has an exceptionally catholic breadth of vision. He can as easily produce an apposite shloka from Adi Shankara as cite a telling couplet from Mirza Ghalib. Steeped as he is in Hindu lore and spirituality, he is a living example to Hindutvawallahs of how to be both Hindu and secular. Indeed, he demonstrates with a great facility that you cannot but be secular if you are a true Hindu. For he adds to his treasure house of all that is best in the Hindu tradition a genuine understanding, empathy and admiration of other religious traditions, particularly Islam. Why “particularly”? Because pseudo–Hinduism of the Hindutva variety is less pro-Hindu than anti-Muslim.
Besides, Varma, through his columns, has consistently shown that a fine balance can be maintained between being a party political partisan and an objective assessor of the larger political picture. This makes the reader reach for his latest book with pleasurable anticipation. I certainly did. But these thousand-word columns, that fit so well into the transient pages of a newspaper or newsmagazine, do not feel quite as adequate between the hardcovers of a book that one has purchased to find a permanent place on the shelves of one’s book-shelf. The sense of disappointment at reading or, rather more often, re-reading these columns, is akin to finding yourself invited to a banquet and having the plate snatched from you immediately after you have barely tasted the appetiser. For while a thousand words are all you expect (or want) from a newspaper article, after the five or six minutes it takes you to read the same column in book form, you are left like Oliver Twist begging, “Please, Sir, can I have some more?”
What one looks for is a merging of these columns, the argument filled out and fully referenced, a cogent case presented for this important alternative view to leave the thought reverberating in the reader’s mind. A column is designed to provoke, to startle, to amuse; a book to stimulate reflection. It is the difference between a punch line in a debate and a philosophical drawing out of the inner meaning. Pavan Varma has so much to say, so much to explain and with such finesse that he short-changes himself when he takes the easy route of handing over a bunch of his long-penned columns to a publisher and asks him to get on with putting the jumble into some sort of order and then market it to a forgiving public. Varma has such a deservedly large fan following that this collection of columns might well make it to the best-sellers’ list, but less to be read than to proudly display the author’s signature to those who could not attend the launch. In this case, it is the publisher rather than the author who is to be faulted for so much overlapping between columns written at different times and designed to rebut different arguments in different contexts; chapterisation that seems less keen to make a coherent argument than somehow to fit in every piece; and at least one howler that should never have found a place in a book priced at a rupee below Rs 700: the notorious Pak terrorist, Masood Azhar, whose name is correctly spelt at page 318, is spelt Mazhoor Asad two pages earlier!
But perhaps my biggest disappointment is at being left after more than 300 pages with little enlightenment as to what is “Chanakya’s View”? Is it just a catchy title? Does the author regard his views as those the great Chanakya would have held had he been with us today in the gathering gloom? Is it his argument that the Modi establishment has woefully transgressed Chanakya’s injunctions? Or that the answer to the Modi juggernaut lies in assiduously following the Chanakya line? In which case, what is the Chanakya line? We have a few hints here and there, a few quotes that might light our way, but these are too brief and too stretched out to know what exactly is Chanakya’s “view”. Or is it just a pseudonym that Pavan Varma has given himself?
Varma would have done himself and his readers a better service had he given us more on the original Chanakya’s original text contextualised into the present through a longish introduction to this compendium. He could make up for that with a full-fledged book that might show us the Chanakya way out of this dark passage.
Mani Shankar Aiyar is a former Indian diplomat and a member of the Indian National Congress Party