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Not just a tall tale

I’m sure you would agree that autobiographies are not easy to write. Even authors who have led fascinating lives are often mistaken about what events to include or judiciously omit, leave aside the degree of subsequent detail. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Jul 04, 2010 02:19 IST
Karan Thapar

I’m sure you would agree that autobiographies are not easy to write. Even authors who have led fascinating lives are often mistaken about what events to include or judiciously omit, leave aside the degree of subsequent detail. Some start at the beginning and plod on to the end, leaving you lost, bewildered or bored. Others skim or circumvent and end up offering an unsatisfactory and incomplete account. Most get confused between the personal and the professional.

Now, if you think about it, for these very reasons, autobiographies are also not easy to read. You may be curious about the author but do you really want to know everything about him? On the other hand, how satisfactory is his own self-serving selection of events and details? Without the benefit of an astute biographer’s commentary, you either have to rely on your own skeptical judgement or simply suspend evaluation. Neither is easy or advisable.

This is why Fali Nariman’s autobiography, Before Memory Fades, is a joy to read. No doubt the author starts at the beginning but it’s not his life story he relates so much as an honest account of the important events that stood out in his life. You can pick and choose the ones that interest you and you don’t have to read them in any particular order.

However, Before Memory Fades is exceptional for two other reasons. They’re worth noting, in case you are secretly or wantonly, planning an autobiography yourself. First, it deftly avoids the pitfalls most memoirs inevitably hurtle towards and, second, it discovers the real secret of a delightful read.

The author doesn’t blow his own trumpet, although if he’d wanted to he could’ve played a fairly riveting tune. You only discover accidentally that in the ‘80s Chief Justice Chandrachud invited him to join the Supreme Court. A rare direct appointment from the Bar. At the time he was 53. If Nariman had accepted, he would have ended up as Chief Justice and served an astonishingly long term. But he declined. Today how does he look back on this? “I comfort myself with the reflection that I would not have made a good judge.” Pleasing modesty, which perhaps proves he’s wrong!

The secret, the author has discovered, is that nothing is as gripping as a good story. And Fali Nariman certainly knows how to tell one. Lawyers, because they stand up and address a court for a living, have learnt to hold attention. When they don’t, they usually end up losing. Nariman’s account of the Bombay Bar he joined in 1952, told through a series of stories about his mentor — Sir Jamshedji Kanga — is simply impossible to put down.

Actually what you don’t realise, except in the company of lawyers, is that they have a fund of fascinating anecdotes and riveting tales. More importantly, they tell them with a sense of drama. They enact the different parts, their voices rising to a shattering crescendo or dropping to the softest sotto voce. It’s an act, of course, but it can be spell-binding.

Each of his stories tells you something about Fali Nariman. He’s not just the raconteur but the man in the middle too. However, what they reveal is what you have to work out for yourself. This is, thus, an autobiography that makes you think. That, I would say, is the third Nariman ‘trick’. The author makes you engage with the book rather than simply read it.

The views expressed by the author are personal