Review: A Bonsai Tree by Narendra Luther
A celebrated civil servant’s memoir is expected to be on familiar lines, about issues of governance, resistance from lawmakers and overall, an aversion to taking risks lest the sarkar gets annoyed. Narendra Luther’s autobiography goes beyond these occupational hazards to defy most of these stereotypes. The author, one of the first officers of the Indian Administrative Services, as the ICS came to be known in 1948, keeps the narrative lively. At Partition, the Luther family’s journey on the train from Lahore, with rioters trying to waylay them and a platoon of Gurkha soldiers guarding them, makes the reader fear for their safety. Once they migrate to east Punjab, the author’s father, a scholar who loved translating the ayats of the Quran as well as slokas from the Gita into Sanskrit and Urdu respectively, hankers for the lost Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of Lahore, something that Luther himself rediscovers when he migrates to Hyderabad as an IAS officer.
When writing about Hyderabad, Luther appears to be at his best. He succeeds in evoking nostalgia for an era when the City of Nizams was a hub of culture. He has an eye for the unusual when it comes to people and places, sights, sounds and flavours. The Hyderabad of his salad days was anything but the IT powerhouse today known as Cyberabad. Luther’s is the laid back Hyderabad of cultured soirees and Urdu mushairas, Rs 2 per head Udipi thalis and a quaint airport where you could walk onto the tarmac and get into a waiting Dakota. “At evening parties, the poems of Junior Prince, Moazzam Jah, who sported the pen name of Shajih, were recited by singers. Jamila Bano and Vithal Rao used to enthral the audience with their rendition of ghazals... and the rotund and ever-smiling Aziz Warsi was reputed to be the best qawwali singer in the country,” he reminisces.
Luther’s stint as Principal Secretary during the reign of NT Rama Rao, the flamboyant actor turned chief minister, leads to some epic encounters. When NTR sends him to New Delhi to get central clearances for replicating a Disneyland in Hyderabad, the bureaucrat at the PMO brushes his demand aside as another of Mr Drama Rao’s Quixotic demands. At another time, he gets a call from the chief minister at the crack of dawn and initially fails to recognise his voice. An embarrassed NTR gruffly tells him that he had called Luther to compliment him on his ideas to revive tourism in Andhra Pradesh.
The candour with which Luther writes isn’t restricted to the foibles of public representatives alone. He is equally honest when it comes to his own life. That is what lends this autobiography an intimate, personal subtext. A large chunk of his biography is devoted to his son’s struggles with alcoholism and drug abuse. As expected of most Indian parents, the Luthers’ response to his addiction evolves from disbelief, to rejection, to despair and acceptance. The sections in which the son moves in and out of rehab and his struggle holding on to his dignity and his loved ones are particularly poignant. After close to three decades, the son overcomes his personal demons and returns home to launch a successful de-addiction centre of his own.
One of the best bits about the book is the author’s ability to look on the brighter side. Even when his family is uprooted at the time of Independence, Luther’s Zen-like equanimity helps him fight off communal outrage and recount how it was their Muslim neighbours who provided shelter to the family for more than a month at the height of the carnage sparked by the Partition. Still, despite all his tribulations, the former Andhra Pradesh chief secretary’s autobiography isn’t a sombre life story. Far from that, Luther’s yen for languages and interest in humour writing shines through and lifts the narrative from the mundane. Sample this anecdote involving two former Indian prime ministers: “During Nehru’s visit to the state in November 1959, at my suggestion he [PV Narasimha Rao] was chosen to interpret Nehru’s speeches from English to Telugu…Nehru opened his speech with his usual ‘Friends and Comrades’ when Narasimha Rao proceeded to translate it into Telugu. Nehru waved his hand imperiously at him and said, ‘O, shut up. Let me finish my sentence.’ This snub was carried over the public address system and we heard a snigger rising from the audience much to Narasimha Rao’s discomfiture.”