Biography: The Buzzword

Biography: The Buzzword

Since decades, most Indian schoolchildren have been brought up reading a staple comprising two autobiographies – Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with Truth’, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘My Autobiography’. An odd political or celebrity memoir might have added to the reading collection, but it rarely grows. A few Indians put biographies and memoirs (and autobiographies) as a serious genre of reading ch


Sports stars, film actors, politicians, et al; Indian literature world is buzzing with biographiesof every kind. Going by the trend, the genre seems to be on an upswing and is set toevolve, mature and grow. However, will the celebrity fixation that is currently driving the literary genre take it far?

Blurb: The Indian reader, biographer and potential subjects are all going through a phase of early adolescence, leaving aside a minuscule set of readers who devour the best the world has to offer, past or present. But it is bound to evolve, and mature

Since decades, most Indian schoolchildren have been brought up reading a staple comprising two autobiographies– Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with Truth’, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘My Autobiography’.An odd political or celebrity memoir might have added to the reading collection, but it rarely grows. A few Indians put biographies and memoirs (and autobiographies) as a serious genre of reading choice.

But it is changing. While India does not produce as many, or as many good, contemporary or historic biographies each year, the number has been growing, the interest is rising, and like many things at a starting phase though, it has been triggered largely by political expose memoirs, celebrity circuit’s indulgence in its own admiration, and it looks stronger than a season’s trend. While the mainstay is the quad foundations of Indian public interest and adoration – films and cricket, godmen and politics – it will only evolve and grow.

Indian Biography Trends

Kanishka Gupta, India’s numerouno literary agent, who has almost singularlypioneered professional representation in the Indian sub-continent writing world, is upbeat about the genre.

He has represented biographies of Kamal Hassan,SonalMansingh, Jayaprakash Narayan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Sardara Singh, the hockey player, Reshma Qureshi, the anti-acid activist, Dangal Mahavir Singh Phogat, wrestling coach, Sapna Bhavnani, celebrity hairstylist DipaKarmakar, the gymnast, and books on the late SmitaPatil and late Rajesh Khanna.

Acknowledging thatthe celeb culture is a strong part of the publishing interest because of near guaranteed media interest,controversy and hype, he says that, however, most of these books are pure commercial ventures with little literary merit.

“Strong celeb worshiping culture and media interest means that most of these books are strictly commercial ventures,premature and lacking in depth. I am sure almost every successful politician, Bollywood star, spiritual leader and cricketer must have been approached by all leading publishers multiple times for a book project,” Gupta says.

Hehas numbers to back the claims. In recent times, autobiographies of Karan Johar and Rishi Kapoor have sold big numbers, while the memoirs of Naseeruddin Shah fared relatively strong.A book on Bollywood diva of yesteryears ‘Rekha’ by Yasser Usman was one of Juggernaut's bestsellers from their inaugural list.

Speaking of the reasons for such market and readers’ appeal, he explains that the two broad kinds of biographies – authorised and unauthorised – both have reasons to market. Authorised bios have the backing and celeb firing power to market the book, but are whitewashed resumes, while the unauthorised ones, analysing and revealing things publicly unknown about the subject, including the unflattering aspects, tend to get the benefit of controversy.

“As long asa biography is unauthorised, there will always be a fear of lawsuit and backlash. It doesn't even matter if the subject is living or dead because problems can be created by legal heirs too.Butauthorised books seldom elevate themselves above hagiographies so it is always a catch-22 situation,” Gupta says.

“While most authorised ones, endorsed and supported by the subjects are drab, there are exceptions such as ‘Rekha’ by Yasser because of the air of mystery surrounding the subject and the racy, juicy narrative,” he says.

Politics’ Publishing Power

A rare exception, an outlier in Indian publishing landscape was the runaway success of Dr SanjayaBaru, whose work, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’, was simultaneously one of the most controversial works in Indian non-fiction spectrum, was hailed by critics as a masterpiece, setting newer standards in research, quality of writing, and was loved by the people.

Sharing the context of its genesis, Dr Barusays, “As I mentioned in the foreword, ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’(TAPM) was written partly in response to requests that I write about my time in the Prime Minister’s Office. It was written to correct any impression created both by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the media that Dr Manmohan Singh was a weak PM and a disaster. I argued that UPA-1 was a great success, which is why Dr Singh-led UPA was re-elected in 2009. But in contrast, the UPA-2 was a disaster mainly because of Sonia Gandhi's focus on making Rahul Gandhi the Prime Ministerand owing to the inability or disinterest of Dr Singh in asserting himself in his second term.”

One of the major reasons for its extraordinary success was the timing. Dr Baru says that he had initially wanted to launch it after the elections but the ominous trends of the rise of Narendra Modi made the publishers feel that a book on Dr Singh would become irrelevant after the results came.

But when BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi spoke about the book to justify his decision to call Dr Singh’s government ‘Ma-BeteKi Sarkar’ quoting TAPM, it zoomed on the charts.

“My book is a balanced account. It is largely supportive of Dr Singh’s tenure in the UPA-1 but critical of UPA-2. I certainly did not expect Modi to use the book in the way he did during the last leg of the campaign, but I guess on hindsight that I should have. Largely, the book has been fair to Dr Singh. It was the knee-jerk reaction of the PMO which created a wrong impression. Their response was ill-thought out. In the end, TAPM will remain the definitive account of UPA-1,” argued Dr Baru.

“I never expected TAPM to be a runaway success,” says Dr Baru. Of course, he is hounded by editors wanting him to write another biography. He wrote a successor to TAPM but it was the bio not of a person but of 1991, the year, featuring the first accidental PM, PV Narasimha Rao.

“My book on 1991 is very different. It is more research based and less based on personal exposure or insight. TAPM is a highly personalised,” he says.

But bringing Carlyle’s insight into focus that lives of great human beings were essential to understanding society, Dr Baru set a context of boldness, honesty, intrepid revelation, and put the reader’s right to know above the entitlement of the subject on a lower rung, and in so doing, ensured the title of the book, which became a byword, and also how Dr Singh might be remembered in history.

Author as Subject of a Biography

DrPatrick French, who wrote on the most acclaimed and definitive literary biographies of our times, ‘The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul’, opines that the critical biography as a category does not have a long literary heritage in India, but there is no reason why that cannot change.

DrFrench, who has recently been appointed the first Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, says, “I was interested in writing Naipaul’s biography because he is a brilliant writer and observer. I felt that with his cultural displacement and traumatic personal journey from colonial Trinidad to postcolonial England, he was emblematic of the great migrations across the world of the last half century.”

French, who ran into controversy and trouble with the book, wherein Naipaul, the subject, first authorised the biography and handed over a diary, but later “refused to read the book”, says, “the first commitment of a biographer is neither the subject nor the reader but truth.”

“The challenge was trying to identify a narrative path through his voluminous archives and the conflicting versions of his story,” he says.And of course, in handling a very difficult man.

French, who in various accounts after the launch of the book, said Naipaul was cooperative and direct, though at times, angry, says, “It is possible to write a biography without the cooperation of the subject or their descendants, but for the sort of insights I was seeking, it makes sense not to do it as a purely independent research venture. Principled cooperation, with clear boundaries on both sides, is a good basis for biography.”

What are you reading?

Dr Baru himself does not read too many biographies. The ones that impressed him most were all political biographies; of Rajmohan Gandhi’s ‘Gandhiji’, Mao (Snow), Kennedy (Schlesinger) and Deng (Kurt Vogel).

In contrast, Manu Joseph, one of India’s most influential columnist, and author of ‘The Illicit Happiness of Other People and Serious Men’, enjoys biographies, especially those on the lives of scientists.

“I have often wondered why I tend to enjoy biographies of scientific figures. ‘Einstein’ by Ronald Clark is a book I enjoyed though a long time ago. I think there are three clear answers as to why I enjoy biographies; they have a clear focus, its focus is a human being, usually a very interesting one, and everything in it happened. For these very reasons, I will never read an authorised biography. I won't trust it. I think the least important element in a good biography is access,” says Joseph.

“When you (columnist) asked me to speakabout my interest in biographies, I felt it was paranormal that you asked me this at a time when I am reading one of the finest biographies I have ever read, a most highly underrated, and under-reported, book: 'Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics' by Nancy Forbes and Basil Mohan. The last time I was so affected by science journalism was ‘Quantum’ by Manjit Kapur, which, too, would qualify as a biography, though it is an arrangement of a dozen biographies of some of the finest scientists as they quarrelled over the nature of reality,” he says.

“The greatest living biographer is Michael Holroyd,” French adds.

Times Ahead

But why are so many biographies being written and published. Is it the sudden brand appreciation amongst celebrities of all hues; or is there sales and money?

No, says Gupta. “There is the general trend that non-fiction in general is outselling fiction unless it's the big names like Chetan Bhagat or Amish Tripathi, or internationally acclaimed fiction writers like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. Biographies are not assured bestsellers by any means.”

Would he like to represent an author who is penning the next biography?

“Yes, I would like books on lesser known individuals, at least in a conventional sense, who have lived exemplary lives. I am not sure if we have career biographers in India like in the West. It is all about an author's interest in and access to a particular celebrity or subject,” he replies.

Joseph will not be one of them. “Another reason, why I enjoy biographies is probably that I am somehow not so drawn to writing one myself. As a result, I am able to read them with complete surrender of a reader and there are no annoying voices in my head about the craft of writing and other complaints.”

Neither will Dr Baru. “I don't think I will write another biography though publishers have been after me for more,” he confesses.

But Gupta has many others to look forward to. “In terms of sheer mass appeal, I would say the book on ‘Baba Ramdev’, by whose release has now been held by a court injunction and one on Nawazuddin Siddiqui, by Rituparna Chatterjee.”

Ghostwriters for autobiographies

As much as authorised biography written with permission, cooperation, at times participation, or even active commissioning by a subject, an allied area where writers can look to find work is as a ghostwriter of an autobiography, but by definition it comes with no acknowledgement, or a minor mention in the back pages.

Gupta concurs.“It's very lucrative but quite painstaking. You have to be a good storyteller, first and foremost. You must possess excellent writing skills. Many writers are doubling up as ghostwriters, so it is a viable option. Especially, when the subject is not willing to let you be the biographer.”

Indian biographies

The Indian reader, biographer and potential subjects are all going through a phase of early adolescence, leaving aside a minuscule set of readers who devour the best the world has to offer, past or present. But it is bound to evolve, and mature.

The onus is seldom on one stakeholder – the publishers will pursue silly instant celebs and have them turned into a subject of a poor written or a PR script with the justification that readers will buy it. The biopic industry is growing too, and will have its own impact on how we analyse famous people for an insight more serious and profound than gossip.

In recent times, Jairam Ramesh wrote a fantastic environmental biography of Indira Gandhi, a first time a singular facet of an extremely famous Indian was explored. It will likely set a trend in future.

Readers have an onus too, and so too perhaps, has the magazine section of media devoted to books. But in the next decade, our staple of biographies will grow, in number, scope, diversity and quality. Here is a happy thought for an ending.

By Sriram Karri

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