Biographies and bias

Topics biography | books

I just finished reading, without getting a hernia I might add, Jairam Ramesh’s hefty biography of V K Krishna Menon ( A Chequered Life: The Many Lives of V K Krishna Menon ). It’s excellent. 

Over the years, as I have often boasted here, I have read many autobiographies of all sorts of people, famous and obscure. But few biographies. 

There is a reason for this: A biographer can never get it even half-right. I mean, the facts may well all be there. But the truth? Now that’s a different thing altogether. 

In autobiographies, some economy with the truth is natural. The writer either wants to present himself (or herself) as a heroic figure or a victim. 

There’s also the need to be discreet about others. Very few can be like Montek Singh Ahluwalia in avoiding these pitfalls and reservations and write a straightforward account. 

But biographies are different. The starting point is the biographer’s bias. 

He or she must be, at the very least, well disposed towards the subject. Indeed, why would anyone write the biography of someone he or she didn’t like, or admire in some way?

Some of my friends says this doesn’t apply to people long dead, such as, say, Napoleon. Or other such people. There are around a 100 biographies of him. 

A biography is not a PhD thesis where you start with a proposition or hypothesis and then see if it holds any water and commend or condemn the subject of your biography. In a biography, it’s not the evidence that suggests the conclusion. It’s the other way round. 

Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Stalin remains the best even though it drips with negativity. Deutscher simply arranged the facts in a particular way. 

Or, it’s hardly likely that when he started his research Mr Ramesh had absolutely no thoughts about V K Krishna Menon or P N Haksar. More likely, he had some vague ideas and when he found their papers, it seemed like a good idea to sift through them and produce a biography. Both were icons of the Congress party at one time. 

(For younger readers of this article — though I doubt if there are any — Krishna Menon was India’s defence minister when the Chinese walloped us in 1962. Many blamed him for adventurism. Haksar was Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary for about six years and many blamed him for India’s definitive and long-lasting leftward turn). 

Goody-goody: The question remains: Would Mr Ramesh write the biography, even if he chanced upon their papers of someone he didn’t hold in some minimal measure of esteem? I have read both these books. His admiration, even when it’s justifiably tempered as in the case of Menon, serves as the base note. As to Haksar, there is no effort to hide his admiration. 

Then there is the Rajmohan Gandhi style of biography writing. He, too, tells a good story in that the narrative is nicely arranged to portray the subject in a good light. But he tends to leave out the warts. You learn a lot but you don’t learn everything. 

Rajmohan Gandhi’s admiration of his subject and his own innate goodness combine to produce goody-goody books, which leave you dissatisfied. It’s like a superbly cooked dish but without salt, except that unlike in the case of food, you can’t add your own salt to his books. 

The same sort of thing is there in all the biographies of the Nehru-Gandhi family. No one really wanted to offend the Family and all biographers have left the inconvenient facts out. These are many. Trivia, perhaps but worth putting down in a complete biography. 

The very best: Talking about inconvenient facts, absolutely the best book containing these is  Intellectuals by Paul Johnson. It’s a lot like Plutarch’s Lives  in which he wrote about 48 celebrities of the Roman Empire. 

I had written about the Paul Johnson book in this space about a year ago. This is what he says: “This book is an examination of the moral and judgemental credentials of certain leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” He then proceeds to wash all their dirty linen. That’s what Plutarch did, too. 

It turns out in the Johnson book that many of the great western thinkers of the last 150 years were quite awful in their highly troubled and spotty personal lives. 

You should read the book. The scales will fall. These guys were the pits by any normal standards. 

Of course, the problem with such inclusions of the inconvenient is that people don’t like it. They don’t want to hear anything adverse about their heroes. So they rubbish the author instead. 

And there lies the problem biographers face.



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