A very brief Kalam

Issue 18 - Sep 2008
Samanth Subramanian

The Kalam Effect, a new memoir by the former Presidential secretary P M Nair, is a difficult book to review, because it is so slight not only in substance but in intent. Any spirited attempt at criticism stands the danger of taking the book more seriously than the author himself intended.

The book is, as Mr Nair says in his preface, “by no means an attempt at a biography, nor a chronicle of Dr Kalam’s scientific pursuits.” It is also “not an attempt at either defining or deifying him. It is only a narration of what I saw and experienced in that time.” That is a modest ambition at best, and Mr Nair fulfills even that ambition modestly.

This is only too familiar with the majority of Indian political memoirs, and for a country with one of the most intricate political systems found anywhere, that is unfortunate. The reason for this is not immediately obvious, and we can only hazard that it simply has to do with the fact that our politicians are done with being politicians only when they are resting in peace. (And perhaps not even then. Indian politicians never die; they merely storm the well of a greater House.) Memoirs thus turn into manifestos for future action, or defences of mistakes made, or propaganda for achievements. Sensitive, highly placed toes are carefully side-stepped, backs are protected, and potentially serious revelations are avoided. Insight and analysis—even subjective insight and analysis, because we’ll take anything we can get—are invariably the first casualties of memoir writing.

John Updike once urged book reviewers to refrain from blaming authors for not achieving what they did not set out to attempt. To fault Mr Nair for producing a superficial, unmemorable memoir would therefore be unfair; superficial and unmemorable were exactly what he was aiming for. But we can still bemoan the opportunity that has been lost. Like the Roman emperor Cincinnatus, Dr Kalam came from a non-political background, and he returned to that background at the end of his presidency; like Cincinnatus, he also presided over his country during interesting times. If there was ever a chance to tell truths about the inner workings of Rashtrapati Bhavan without jeopardising a former President’s future chances at judgeships, ambassadorships, or other politically influenced sinecures, this was it. Mr Nair has chosen to voluntarily give up that privilege.