This is the kind of memoir that leaves nothing out.
Gurcharan Das started out life as Ashok Kumar. His parents belonged to the Radha Soami sect. A “saint” at the ashram gives him his present name, which translates to “humble servant at the guru’s feet.” Das is an author, a playwright (Larins Sahib and Mira) a columnist and a former CEO. There is nothing humble about his autobiography.
Memoirs come in different shapes and sizes. Naseeruddin Shah’s And Then One Day ends when he’s thirty-two. You don’t need to be famous to write one; it doesn’t need to be a string of fleeting anecdotes of meeting notable people (this one is). In the eighteenth century, labourer-poet Stephen Duck wrote The Thresher’s Labour, while washerwoman Mary Collier published The Woman’s Labour.
This is the kind of memoir that leaves nothing out. It pretty much begins at the foetal stage and ends with the present day. Along the way, we are told the history of mankind: “65,000 years ago, a band of Homo sapiens had crossed over from Africa to Asia”, the history of Partition (“panic buying by departing Hindus sent the prices of gold, weapons, horses and tongas skyrocketing”) and the story of independent India.
It’s an account of Das leading the Aristotelian good life. He describes his pleasant routine: while a secretary answers his calls and emails, and takes care of “bank work” and paying utility bills, Das writes for six hours, then goes for a swim in the heated pool at the “Gymkhana Club next door”. In the evening he goes for a stroll in Lodi Gardens, and, at 7 pm, “I would walk across to the India International Centre or the India Habitat Centre, where there was always a movie or a concert or a book talk.” The reader wonders why she’s being fed these details.
The story begins in Lyallpur, a town designed by a British officer “to replicate the eight lines of the Union Jack”, “eight roads emanate from the brick clock tower at the centre of town.” Das relies heavily on his mother’s diary; these are the best parts of the book.
His idyllic childhood is shattered by Partition. Das witnesses a murder: “Two Sikh teenage boys came from behind, shouted ‘Musalman’ and thrust their kirpan through the policeman from behind. My mother pulled me away.” His aunt is killed in the riots that engulf Lahore. In India, his grandmother tries to replicate what has been left behind by planting jasmine and hanging identical blinds; “the guchcha of keys was her only tangible possession of the past.”
In Delhi, Das attends Modern School, before his father is transferred to Washington DC. In 1959, he passes out of his American school; the Washington Post carries a story on page 3: “Boy on Visit from India Stays to Excel at School.”
On page 87, Das admits to “namedropping shamelessly”; in the course of his life he meets Edward Said, John Rawls, Henry Kissinger, Timothy Leary, Bal Chhabda, Dharma Kumar, Sham Lal, Sonia Gandhi and LK Advani. The author doesn’t dwell on these encounters, leaving the reader with the sense that she’s sitting in a fast train, watching the stations whizz by. One wishes that the train had halted at some stations.
The book comes alive when Das talks about his day job, selling Vicks products around the world. He invents the “monsoon cold”, an ad we all remember, when six-year-old Raju catches a cold playing football in the rain. There’s a fascinating account of negotiating the labyrinths of Indira Gandhi’s License Raj, an era of punishing customs duties. Setting up a new factory is more complicated than going to the moon. During a flu epidemic, the sales of Vicks cough drops go through the roof, but the company is not allowed to meet demand— the government has put a limit on production capacity. The company finds a way out by relabelling Vicks as an ayurvedic product. There is an account of the detergent wars between Surf and Ariel, with Das working for Ariel.
Another Sort of Freedom works as a nuggets-from-history kind of book. We learn how Lal Bahadur Shastri died “almost penniless—his only possession a second-hand car for which he was still paying instalments.” Or the passages where Das describes the conundrum of undivided India in the 1940s: whether to support Churchill against Nazis or Japan’s invasion of Kohima or Gandhi’s Quit India movement.
The insights are like statements: the English language should have been “integrated” in “a natural, organic way into Indian life”. What does this even mean? Das refers casually to “I like Ike buttons” in Eisenhower’s America, the “authoritative voice of Melville de Mello”, and the “opening of Nasreen Mohamedi’s show”, without any explanation. The present generation wouldn’t know what he’s talking about.
This is one rambling hold-all of a memoir, which, at various points reminded me of a man talking to his barber as he gets a shave; a writer dictating memories as his secretary furiously jots it down; and a Lutyen’s Delhi dilettante with “a Western mind and an Indian heart”, gargling for hours in his opulent drawing room.
Another Sort of Freedom: A Memoir
By Gurcharan Das
Penguin Allen Lane
pp. 296; Rs 699