Unhappily ever after

This is about a book to be published tomorrow. If I’m not mistaken, nothing like it has appeared before in India. Karan Thapar writes.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2012 01:33 IST
Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar
Hindustan Times

This is about a book to be published tomorrow. If I’m not mistaken, nothing like it has appeared before in India. What’s more, it’s also a delightful read. Written by Zareer Masani, whose biography of Indira Gandhi in 1975, the year of the Emergency, hit the top of the charts, it’s a portrait of his parents dysfunctional and, ultimately, failed marriage. Called And All is Said, the name is my only cavil. I suspect somethings have been left unsaid! But leave that for later.

Zareer’s father was Minoo Masani, president of the Swatantra Party and leader of the Opposition from 1967 to 1971. His mother, Shakuntala, was the daughter of Sir JP Srivastava, a former member of the viceroy’s executive council and a leading industrialist of his time. Their marriage was opposed by both parents and so they eloped. Alas, their love was not as lasting as the differences that steadily parted them. Zareer, their only child, served not as a bond but as a cause of division.

It was politics that broke the marriage. Whilst Minoo was leader of the Opposition, fighting for his seat in the 1971 elections, Shakuntala chose to join the Congress and ally with Mrs Gandhi. She broke the news by letter: “Zareer has joined the Congress (R) and I wondered if you would mind my also doing so. I feel it is the only party that can give India a stable government.”

Shakuntala offered to campaign for Minoo in his Rajkot constituency — “as I also feel that leaders and worthwhile people from other democratic parties should be supported” — but that consolation was insufficient. Minoo declined, lost the elections and resigned as president of Swatantra. His political career was over and, simultaneously, Shakuntala’s utility to Indira Gandhi hugely diminished.

In this book, the son tells the story of their unravelling marriage. Minoo and Shakuntala parted in 1973 but it took 16 more years before they were divorced. The decade -and-a-half in between is the story of Shakuntala’s breakdowns, her desperate efforts to find meaning and her desire to cling to Minoo while refusing to distance herself from Indira Gandhi. Minoo, on the other hand, emerges in a kinder light. More rational, certainly more patient and tolerant but, eventually, driven to despair and determined on divorce.

This book is reminiscent of one I read 20 years earlier, Nigel Nicholson’s account of his parents tempestuous marriage. While Minoo was as big a name as Harold Nicholson, Shakuntala is not the equal of Vita Sackville-West. So there are chapters when you wonder why you’re reading this story of their sad troubled lives. If Zareer had revealed more of their political discord, such doubts would not have arisen. Perplexingly, he’s far too brief.

What kept me going is Zareer’s style. His language is precise, restrained but evocative, and it flows like rushing water. The concluding chapters on his mother’s decline and death are haunting. By then Shakuntala had become “the major problem” in Zareer’s life, while he was her “sole carer”.

What emerges is more than a heartrending account of a tragic end. It’s also a son’s expiation of guilt and an honest assessment of his parents’ lives. “He (Minoo) lived long enough to see his free-market, pro-Western political values triumph … Mother died without any such vindication: I was her only achievement. I hope by telling her story I have afforded her some of the tragic dignity she never quite achieved in life.”

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Feb 12, 2012 00:57 IST