Lives in need of authors

Why South Asians don't write good biographies.

In contrast to the art of the novel, the art of biography remains undeveloped in South Asia. We know how to burn our dead with reverence or bury them through neglect but not to evaluate, judge or honour them. Newspaper obituaries are little more than listings of dates and positions, so-called 'definitive' biographies recitations of achievements with little reference to context. This is a world governed by deference, not discrimination. A widely circulated biography of Indira Gandhi was dedicated to – Indira Gandhi. The author of an adulatory work on the life of the long-serving communist former chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, was rewarded with the pro vice chancellorship of Calcutta University. Even when their subjects are not powerful politicians, biographers are excessively respectful. Thus, a Madras couple spent 600 pages on the first four decades of that most quotidian of lives, the life of RK Narayan.

The Calcutta historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee points out in a recent essay that while in the West "the second half of the twentieth century has been an era of great biographies", this has "left Indian writers and scholars unaffected. Biography is not an art that flourishes in India despite the nation's obsession with individuals". The record in the countries that neighbour India is not much better. The standard, or at any rate most accessible lives of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and SWRD Bandarnaike have all been authored by Western scholars. There are indeed two outstanding exceptions: S Gopal's life of the philosopher Sarvepalli Radha-krishnan, published in 1989 to mark the centenary of its subject's birth, and Amrit Rai's life of the novelist Munshi Prem Chand, first published in Hindi in 1962 and, 20 years later, deftly translated into English by Harish Trivedi. Both are books by offspring, not at all uncritical, but helped by the intimacy that comes from shared genes and the luck to have all the subject's papers in one's attic. Both pay proper attention to the lived life but also subtly set it in historical context. (Honourable mention is also due to BR Nanda's political biographies of Mahatma Gandhi and Gopalkrishna Gokhale, and to Rajmohan Gandhi's books on the nationalist stalwarts C Rajagopalachari and Vallabhbhai Patel.)

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Himal Southasian