Friday, December 4, 2009

A rare case of wit and wisdom

Among the Prime Ministers of India, who was the most intellectually proficient? The temptation is to point to Jawaharlal Nehru, the Cantabrigian who conversed with Bernard Shaw and Albert Einstein, who wrote classical books and masterpieces of English prose like the Tryst-with-destiny speech and the description of the Ganga in his last will and testament.

But, as in all human affairs, don’t glamour and charisma give an edge to Nehru’s appeal? By the same token, doesn’t the complete absence of glamour and charisma in P.V.Narasimha Rao tend to hide his intrinsic worth? As Prime Minister PVN made himself notorious as the Mouna Muni, saying not a word when scandals rocked him and the country. His pouting lips were notorious too, but at least cartoonists loved them. For all that, wasn’t he the finest intellectual who sat in the Prime Minister’s chair?

This is an inopportune time to bring up the subject of Narasimha Rao. For one thing, the Gandhi dynasty’s penchant to bury non-dynasty leaders as immaterial has kept PVN in the forgotten category. Remember how his body was refused entry into the AICC headquarters, and how they turned down the family’s request for a site to bury him in the capital. For another, Liberhan’s report on Babri Masjid demolition has revived memories of PVN’s inexcusable inaction when organised fanatics pulled down the mosque and unleashed a tidal wave of religious violence across the country.

But, inopportune or not, it has to be recognised that PVN remains in a class of his own as a thinker, writer and scholar. His sense of humour was of the kind that only people of refined taste and erudition could have. A sample of this disarming attribute has just come to light through Mainstream weekly. In November 2003 he was to release a book on India-Pakistan by the late Nikhil Chakravartty, the most consequential editor of his generation. He was unable to do so and wrote the following explanation to Mainstream’s current editor and Nikhil’s son Sumit:

“I am extremely sorry I cannot join you at your function on the 3rd. Because of excruciating back pain I have had to be admitted to the hospital just now. The treatment is simple: Lie on a flat bed, no one knows how long. There is no way I can move, except my moving along with my flat bed to the venue of the meeting. We are told that Lord Vishnu used to move along with his snake-bed, but I thought I would spare myself the responsibility of Godhood after what all I have already gone through as a human”.

Wit and wisdom came naturally to PVN, a master of thirteen languages who could read Greek, Latin and Sanskrit classics, impress Fidel Castro with his Spanish, speak Urdu stylishly, translate novels from Marathi to Telugu, from Telugu to Hindi, and give guest lectures in German and American universities. He as an expert on classical military doctrines and a well-honed aficionado of music, cinema and theatre. He was the closest India got to Plato’s philosopher-king.

Look at the contrast. Singularly unblessed men like Charan Singh and Deve Gowda have also sat in the prime ministerial chair. Ashok Gehlot’s Congress Government in Rajasthan today has a minister, Golma Devi, who could barely read her oath card and took three days to learn how to sign her appointment letter. And she is minister of state for nothing less than Home, Civil Defence and Rural Industries. In Karnataka a wanton family that plunders the earth controls the Government. Unworthy men and women abound in Parliament. These are the realities that should make us grateful that a man like P.V.Narasimha Rao, warts and all, lived in our midst once upon a time.