[ Daily News and Analysis 13 Aug 2012 ]
The Indian Union has a Right to Information Act for stuff on paper – files, communiqués, data, clarifications and things like that. But these jottings of the powerful do not and cannot divulge the dealings of the powerful. And the shadow state that is the private sector does not even figure. Keys to open doors do not open trap doors. No such hint of any trapdoor could be found in Arjun Singh’s autobiography with a title that reeks of that unmistakable desi style of faux-humility. His less than 400 page production, ‘A grain of salt in the hourglass of time’, quite predictably, did not shake up the hour-glass of time. It could have. He was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in 1984 when the Bhopal gas tragedy happened. Warren Anderson might not write an autobiography. Rajiv Gandhi died before writing one. Apparently, the new president of the Indian Union has been writing a memoir too. And this has been going on for quite some time. However, it will not be out in his lifetime. That is good news – for lesser mortals can then hope for a memoir without an eye out for this life. After all he lived through the Emergency, the rise of the polyester prince and much more. Still, there is the vexing problem of legacy. People want to go with a bang and want the firework display to be permanently etched on the sky. The search for immortality, that is sad and pathetic at the same time, has led almost all big men and women to write legacies, not autobiographies. Politicians, fixers, executives, and tycoons – all refuse to believe that they will actually die, till they actually die.
This had leads memoirs and autobiographies of people of power to be filled with stories of childhood, stories of rise, often ghost-written passages of visions and ideas, private small talk. So much so, they often read like a hagiographies written in the first person. Few examples of candour are generally limited to those that are not libelous and hurt no existing deity. Given how intertwined autobiography writing and legacy making is, omission and concoction may not even appear so to the autobiographer. But autobiographies have a potential to be heretical and blasphemous, if only people of power would chose to redeem their pledge to the people, even partially. Crimes, murders, conspiracies against the people, defrauding, sleaze, and intrigues – are a part and parcel of the life of the powerful. Given so many people actors in this play, that nothing much actually comes out is an indirect testament to the terribleness of truth. Struggle against truth can tie public political adversaries in compacts that weather life and death.
To live the life of the powerful, to be witness or party to crimes, to lead double and triple lives, to see ‘great’ men and women in their purulent nudity, to be a ‘great’ man or woman of that sort, is common if not the rule in the corridors of power. I too have a second or a third life. But the crucial difference is that my double or triple life, in comparison, affects very few. Not all-lifelong charades cast their shadow on the people in the same way – the more powerful one is, the longer is the shadow. I have often wondered something. Just like the priests at Delphi, the ones deemed closest to Apollo knew the fraud, similarly the society of elite insiders also know what they deny. Given that the entourage of the powerful minimally has bodyguards, hanger-ons, pimps and others, why do we have near to nothing in the public domain. I have a feeling that partly the reason lies in the threat of swift and fatal retribution if the compact is breached. I cannot totally blame the entourage. For it is a choice between riding a luxury car and being squashed under a truck or disappeared. As the playwright said, assassination is the extreme form of censorship. The other part of the reason is that this entourage is not formed overnight, but through a long process of continuous pruning and screening. As a result, when one starts approaching the top, the product is impeccable. We have to look elsewhere for public disclosures.
All people, including those without a moral-ethical compass one can boast of, want to come clean to someone. People caught in the web of posturing in public life, in relationships, often wish that they could admit their life to someone and face no consequence. Amnesty, even from one person, can be powerful. That is why I suspect that for many, their deepest bonds are not with people with whom they have greatest consonance, but those who known their life more substantially, in front of whom the weigh of posturing is that bit lighter.
The urge to admit is dismissed during life, for being too risky. And it most probably is. Why not try it in death, by writing an autobiography that has everything that one was party to but could not admit during life? It can be opened after death. Technology might do away with untrustworthy middlemen. May be even Wikileaks. Fingerprinting the pages for is a good idea – for a posthumous tell-all will surely be disputed on grounds of authenticity. What is there to lose? Why lose a chance to gild one’s afterlife after having gilded this life? For the believer of the Hindu type, a parting shot, even one that hits the target after the archer is gone, would give the person a fighting chance to have a decent sort of re-birth. For the Abrahamic ones, they might just escape hell on judgement day. For the non-believer, there might be a surge of righteousness, an end of the road high like Timothy Leary, sans the substances. One can have one’s cake and eat it too.