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.)
Probing the paucity
There would be at most a dozen biographies written by South Asians that are both well researched as well as moderately well written. This is a meagre harvest, if one considers that biography lies at the intersection of history and literature, fields where the region has made handsome contributions. Social and economic historians from South Asia have acquired an increasing visibility outside the region, particularly in the United States. And the works of South Asian novelists have been widely appreciated. When they have excelled at the writing of history and the writing of novels, why have South Asians been so laggard when it comes to biographies
To find the answer we need look no further than the region’s dominant religion, Hinduism, and its dominant intellectual tradition, Marxism. Both grossly undervalue the role and status of the individual human being. For Hindus, a man just dead has already been reborn as something or someone else: why bother to recall or document the life? For Marxists, the life is reflective of wider historical forces: of the clash of classes or the progress of technology. Why unduly dignify an individual by writing about him rather than about the social changes that the life mirrored?
Admittedly, while Hindus have not written biographies as Hindus, there have been professedly Marxist lives of individuals. These have generally been written to advance a particular historical thesis. Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume life of Trotsky was an extended essay in sectarian vindication, which sought to prove that if, instead of Stalin, his hero had succeeded Lenin, the Russian Revolution would have been faithful to its original aims. EP Thompson’s large life of William Morris was written to prove that his hero was a scientific socialist who believed in dialectical materialism, rather than a romantic radical with a sentimental attachment to justice and community.
Deutscher’s books on Trotsky were once much praised in revolutionary circles, but no one reads them anymore. And Thompson is now remembered for his books on the working class and on the history of English law, rather than for his life of Morris. When that book was first published, in 1955, its author was a cardholding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. But when it appeared in a revised edition, 22 years later, Thompson had long since left the party and most of its tenets. In the foreword to the revised edition, he admitted that in the original work he had “intruded far too often upon the text with moralistic comments and pat political sentiments”. That, indeed, shall always be the case with avowedly Marxist biographies: they shall be strongly coloured by the party-political beliefs of their author.
As it happens, within South Asia Marxists have not ventured into biography in the first place. They have felt more comfortable writing about social aggregates: about peasants, workers, and the state – rather than about individuals. Take West Bengal, the epicentre of contemporary Marxism, and a province that is home to India’s most highly regarded historians and political scientists. Bengali scholars have written insightfully, about such topics as peasant protest, industrial evolution, literary history and street culture, but not about their own exemplary individuals. The best lives of the icons of modern Bengal – Ram Mohun Roy, Vivekananda, Subhas Chandra Bose, even Satyajit Ray – have been written by foreigners.
Whether Marxist or otherwise, Indian scholars tend to work with what the sociologist Dennis Wrong once called an “over-socialised conception of man”. Doctoral dissertations almost never approach a problem through an individual, even when he had a fundamental influence in its articulation or resolution. Students and professors alike would choose to write on ‘The Dissolution of the Princely Order’ rather than on ‘Vallabhbhai Patel and the Dissolution of the Princely Order’. It is striking how some of the most influential figures in modern India have yet to find their biographers. There are no books, good or bad, that one can turn to for the basic facts about such men as Sheikh Abdullah of Kashmir, Master Tara Singh of Punjab, AN Phizo of Nagaland and CN Annadurai of Tamil Nadu, men whose legacies continue to shape the politics of the land.
To religious prejudice and scholarly dogma one must add a third reason for the paucity of good biography, namely, that it is the most challenging of literary forms. As Andre Maurois observed many years ago, biography “will always be a difficult form of art. We demand of it the scruplosity of science and the enchantments of art, the perceptible truth of the novel and the learned falsehoods of history. Much prudence and tact are required to concoct this unstable mixture… A well-written life is a much rarer thing than a well-spent one”.
The biographer must possess the instincts of a sleuth, a nose for smelling out hidden documents and a flair for persuading people to part with them. He must have the staying power of the historian, the willingness to read and take notes from millions of words written in shaky and indistinct hands and lodged in dark and distant archives. Last but certainly not the least, he must display the imaginative insight of the novelist, the ability to turn those years of source-finding and note-taking into a compelling and credible narrative.
The biographer’s oeuvre
In his Questions for a Biographer, the Bombay poet Ranjit Hoskote nicely captures the essence of the enterprise:
How to phrase what must be told,
how force the seals, twist back the locks,
burgle the cabinet of the soul?
How to rifle his cupboard of masks
and then to squeeze into the damp
between costume and true colours?
The biographer is an artist, but as Desmond MacCarthy long ago pointed out, he is an artist under oath. He stays close to his sources, and while he may plausibly speculate on his subject’s thoughts and moods, he cannot invent. The novelist-turned-historian is thus most likely to write good biography, as is the case with AN Wilson, who has written a riveting life of Tolstoy as well as biographies of CS Lewis and Hilaire Belloc, and more recently, of Jesus and Paul.
Wilson is British, as is my own favourite biographer, David Gilmour. Gilmour is a historian who trained at Balliol College, Oxford, under the great Richard Cobb. He is also a published novelist. Besides, he is no Little Englander. He is a cosmopolitan scholar who has worked in West Asia and travelled extensively in Asia and southern Europe. Gilmour has written lives of three rather dissimilar characters. He began with Giuseppe di Lampedusa, a Sicilian aristocrat who lived a life of complete obscurity, spending his days reading and, towards the end, writing. A couple of years before he died, Lampedusa completed the manuscript of a novel. He could not find a publisher in his lifetime, but this book, The Leopard, posthumously won recognition as one of the finest novels of the 20th century. Based on a hoard of previously undiscovered letters and papers, Gilmour skilfully reconstructs the life of his subject, writ small against the social and political context of 20th century Sicily.
From Lampedusa, Gilmour moved on to a man who, by contrast, always sought to live a very public life. Very early, this man acquired a reputation for insolence. As the Balliol rhyme went, “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon/I am a most superior person/My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek/I dine at Blenheim once a week”. He seemed destined for high office, and did serve as viceroy of India and as a cabinet minister in several conservative governments. Like his close contemporary, Winston Churchill, he was a prolific and best-selling author and, like Churchill again, closely connected to America (both his wives came from there). But unlike him he never became prime minister, an office that his contemporaries had always thought would be his. Curzon’s was a life rich in incident and achievement as well as controversy, these captured with elegance and understanding by his biographer.
Gilmour’s most recent book is The Long Recessional, subtitled ‘the imperial life of Rudyard Kipling’. It looks at the poet’s complicated views on empire and the encounter of races. This is in some ways a revisionist book, seeking to show that Kipling was not always the gungho cheerleader of imperial expansion that leftist scholars have portrayed him to be, and that he had an abiding love for India and for at least some Indians. The ‘poet of empire’ was often sharply critical of British policies, and while an admirer of generals and rulers refused always to accept any favours from them. His artistic integrity was uncompromised. In this, as in Gilmour’s other books, the industry is massive, but carried lightly. Judgement is nicely balanced with exposition, with the poems and letters quoted to effect, but not to excess.
My own enthusiasm for Gilmour stems perhaps from his being more than a narrowly ‘literary’ biographer. He probes his subject’s emotions, as he must, but also displays a sharp awareness of his place and time. When writing about Curzon he can grasp the complex structure of colonial administration in British India, when writing about Kipling suggestively explore the ideologies of empire and the rivalries between the European powers. His books combine scholarship with style, the analysis of politics and policy with the delineation of personality.
Gilmour’s biographies have won many awards, but as much as those prizes he might cherish a line in Jan Morris’s review of his Kipling book. This wise writer (and sometime biographer) termed The Long Recessional a “fine, fair and generous work”, where, “in hundreds of pages of dense narrative, there is never a flaccid line, and never a hasty judgement”. Gilmour’s other works are marked likewise by solid research and a fine style, but also by balance and proportion. He knows what to say and how to say it, but also what to leave out. This sense of balance is indirectly manifest in the length of his various works. The life of Lampedusa, a fascinating but ultimately marginal figure, extends to 223 pages; the life of Curzon, a more important man by far, runs to 684 pages, including notes and the index. Kipling is perhaps as or more important than Curzon, but unlike him had already been much biographised. Gilmour’s book on the poet sought not to be ‘definitive’ but, rather, to focus on a particular if contentious aspect of his life and legacy. In context, its length of 351 pages seems about right.
“You have to be a genius to sustain a biography of 900 pages”, wrote AJP Taylor once. I would add: to justify that length either or (preferably) both biographer and subject have to be geniuses. Some Indians have not heeded Taylor’s warning, nor have many Americans. In that country there is a long tradition of the multivolumed life, going back at least to Carl Sandburg’s six-volume study of Abraham Lincoln. American biographers tend to throw everything into their books. The urge for comprehensiveness keeps historical judgement in abeyance. Their books are often too long and sometimes too solemn. Paradigmatic here is Robert Caro’s life of Lyndon Johnson; three published volumes thus far, all of 2000 pages, and we still have not got to Johnson’s presidency.
There is no question in my mind that the British make the best biographers. One could add, to the names of AN Wilson and David Gilmour, those of Richard Holmes (biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, and also a superb essayist on the art and technique of biography), of Michael Holroyd (biographer of Lytton Strachey and George Bernard Shaw), of Victoria Glendenning (biographer of Anthony Trollope and Vita Sackville-West), of Francis Wheen (author of a wonderfully entertaining life of Karl Marx), of Hilary Spurling (author of lives of Matisse and Paul Scott), and of Ray Monk (biographer of Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell). Intriguingly, most of these biographers are freelance scholars without a university position. This might not be an accident: it might have helped them escape the tyranny of academic fashion, which typically scorns biography and, where it deigns to allow it, subjects it to the canons of political correctness, with lives ultimately judged with regard to how they retard or further the biographer’s own chosen cause.
Human resource undeveloped
Now, 55 years after the British departed these shores, South Asian scholars look to the universities of North America for inspiration. Anglophilism is passé. Young Indians or Pakistanis are hardly likely to read the British writers I have here praised, their ignorance constituting another hurdle to the writing of good biography. And there are still other hurdles. For one thing, South Asians are careless about keeping letters, records or historical memorabilia. For another, they are absurdly sensitive about their heroes. In this age of identity politics, which non-dalit would dare to write a dispassionate study of the extraordinary dalit leader BR Ambedkar? And which Delhi-based publisher, dependent like others of his ilk on government patronage, would willingly publish a critical biography of the leading ‘Hindutva’ ideologue MS Golwalkar? Lives of political icons, be they of the left or of the right, risk being suppressed or burnt if they are too candid or too argumentative.
When they do venture into biography, South Asians are generally too genteel and fastidious to attempt to burgle the souls of their subjects. We somehow do not know how to deal with tension and contradiction, with our subjects saying one thing while meaning another, with them showing a healthy regard for their self-interest, or (especially) with their falling in love or failing in their careers. In most cases, reverence and respect comfortably supersede analysis and understanding.
Hinduism, Marxism, Anglophobia, the indifference to record-keeping, the fear of giving offence; to these impediments now add the very complexity of the craft, its unique combination of art, industry, scholarship, and literature. Still, the poverty of biographical writing in South Asia must be reckoned a pity. For the region is hardly lacking in men and women of character and interest. In a recent collection of his essays, Edward Said has written feelingly of how his friend Eqbal Ahmed took him to meet the legendary Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In a Beirut café, Eqbal and Said listened as Faiz spoke, mournfully at first – he was in enforced exile –- but then with passion, as he moved from politics to poetry. Not long after I read Said’s piece I came across a lovely essay published many years ago by the veteran human rights activist of Delhi, RM Pal. This was a tribute to the social worker Akhtar Hameed Khan, at that time (the 1980s), being persecuted by the Pakistani government. Pal wrote of his own early encounters with Khan, in Comilla in present-day Bangladesh, where he was pioneering a new approach to rural development. This was the second of Khan’s careers; the first had been in the Indian Civil Service and the third in the slums of Karachi, where he inspired the admirable experiment in community living known as the Orangi Project.
In an intellectually alert and sensitive world, Edward Said’s cameo on Faiz Ahmad Faiz, and RM Pal’s on Akhtar Hameed Khan, would inspire younger scholars to research and write full-fledged biographies. Certainly, both Faiz and Khan figure at the top of my own personal wish list of South Asians whose lives need to be more fully documented. This list of mine does not include figures of high political authority – the Nehrus and the Bhuttos – who will be written about anyway. Nor does it include the truly ‘subaltern’ – the workers and peasants who do not usually leave a trail of personal papers and thus, regrettably, have to be usually, written about in the aggregate. Rather, my list privileges the fascinating intermediary figures: the men and women in the middle, the scholars and activists whose lives are noteworthy in themselves and provide a window into the great social and political issues of our time.
Thus, a writer interested in the tortured history of Tamil-Sinhala relations in contemporary Sri Lanka might take as his theme the life and endeavours of the Colombo lawyer, scholar and statesman Neelan Tiruchelvam, killed by a Tamil suicide bomber for seeking to make peace with the ‘enemy’. A historian of Indian science and conservation could do worse than approach the topic through the remarkable self-trained ornithologist Salim Ali. A feminist might choose as her subject Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade), the daughter of an English admiral who went to jail with Gandhi, fell in and out of love with a Sikh revolutionary, did pioneering environmental work in the Himalaya and ended her days in the Vienna woods, listening to Beethoven. A like-minded Bengali could tell the tale of Nirad Chaudhuri, the unknown Indian who became a wellknown Englishman. A young and radical scholar might write in some depth of Gadar, the remarkable folk poet and singer whose career has been so deeply interwoven with the bloody politics of his native Andhra Pradesh. In each case the life would be richly illuminative of the times. In any case the best days of South Asian biography lie ahead of us.