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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On August 27, 2023

    By Karan Thapar

    My initial impression of the first volume of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s autobiography was the author doesn’t believe brevity is the soul of wit. The opening chapters of ‘Memoirs of a Maverick’ couldn’t be more loquacious. From the fascinating to the frivolous, the interesting to the irrelevant, the jocular to the jejune, Aiyar has crammed in all the details he possibly could. Beautifully written, no doubt, but needlessly, even ceaselessly, long. Indeed, there are times when he admits as much. “As is inevitable”, he chides himself, “I have lost the narrative thread.”


    But I soon discovered I couldn’t have been more wrong. Forgive him his self-indulgence when he recounts in tiresome detail his birth, family and other animals or his definitely dated reminiscences of Doon School. No doubt things improve by the time he makes it to Cambridge but only because of his obsession with the Union. Its presidency was his “overarching ambition”. Alas, he didn’t make it. In fact, he had a pretty torrid time even getting elected to the Standing Committee, the lowest rung of the Union’s hierarchy. But the charming honesty with which this emerges wins your admiration. And, clearly, the politician of the noughties was crafted in the Cambridge Union Chamber behind the twelfth century Round Church.


    Get past these early barren moments and the book blossoms like the Mughal Gardens in December. Suddenly, his loquacity transforms into a riveting narrative of gripping detail. Every little addition to the story draws you further into the world he’s recounting. At this point I couldn’t put the book down. Late into the hours of the night, I was turning its pages fortified by nothing stronger than the waters of Scotland! Oh, and a bit of ice too, given the temperature in Delhi.


    The saga of how he almost never made it to the Foreign Service should be excerpted by the papers. I won’t spoil it by revealing the details because I’m pretty confident one of our leading papers will. But I’ll add, stop buying your favourite daily if it doesn’t!


    However, it’s the chapter on his four years in Pakistan, as Consul-General in Karachi, that reveal a love and understanding of a country the rest of us consider an enemy, which will be literally eye-popping for most of you. He paints a picture of Pakistan as it really is – or, to be honest, as it then was – that shatters the misconceptions and downright lies we’ve been told and have obediently accepted as truth.


    Be courteous and affectionate, Mani’s account suggests, without actually so bluntly stating it, and the Pakistanis will overwhelm you with their response. On the other hand, “Indian hostility, or even the apprehension of such hostility, is what unites Pakistanis behind their government, military or civilian.” At the moment, we’re successfully pushing them deep into their army’s embrace.


    Mani raises questions we need to face. “Why refuse visas to Pakistanis when we want to reprimand their rulers? Do we really believe all Pakistanis are jihadis bent on wreaking havoc on our people? Why stop the Samjhauta Express when we wish to retaliate for some act of terror that has nothing to do with 99.99 per cent of the Pakistani population? Do we really think the Hurriyat will give up their call for azadi if we stop Pakistanis meeting their relatives in India?”


    I endorse his answer even if his geography is more alliterative than accurate: “We are sure-footed in Paraguay, we stumble in neighbouring Pakistan!”


    Let me leave you with the one sentence that captures a truth most of us don’t realize whilst the few who do will not accept. “I have had to reluctantly conclude that the lobby for peace is far larger in Pakistan than it is in India.”


    If you agree, I hope that will entice you to read this book and discover just how accurate you are. If you don’t, let it provoke you to confront what you have either never been told or are hiding from yourself.

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