There is no clarification in the preface about the ‘experimental’ nature of this autobiography; there is instead a brief account of the unhappy circumstances in which this book came to be written. At the age of 60, says Mr. Abbas, it struck him at the instigation of a friend that he had led an interesting life, and that ‘many more people would be interested to read about politics, literature and films.’ Knowing Mr. Abbas’s facility with the pen, I doubt if the task appeared to him as a long, difficult or intimidating one. Delay came unexpectedly. Illnesses—first an eye operation and then a cerebral stroke—cut short the venture, but quite heroically Abbas struggled through to set down his story. For that one can only commend the author.Certainly Mr. Abbas has had a varied, accomplished career, as a journalist, novelist, film producer and director, and a privileged member of what I would call the ‘Nehru generation’, Abbas had his moments of glory.
These one can read about in elaborate detail. Four chapters (and they are, I must admit, not too long), entitled ‘My Long Love Affair’ are devoted to his encounters with Nehru over the years. But even before they met—’the very first time I met Jawaharlal Nehru, it was love at first sight’—Abbas was a Nehru fan of long standing. At the age of 17 in 1931, when Abbas first came face to face with the future Prime Minister, his excitement was understandable. Abbas initiated a correspondence—and Nehru often complied with replies. A reountal of the first meeting thus positively glows with boyish enthusiasm.
As a raconteur Abbas is not without talent. Being a journalist of many seasons he has an ear for both dialogue and detail; recalling the past seems an easy business. And successfully he turns out functional but inevitably sloppy journalistic copy.
As an observer of major national and international events Abbas often found himself in a vantage position. In 1938, Nehru encouraged him to go abroad (actually he offered to go as Nehru’s secretary but the offer was politely turned down). Abbas undertook a world tour by boat: through China and Japan, the U.S., Europe on the brink of war, and the Middle East. He passed through Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany and impressions of these are narrated like the rest of the book, mainly through anecdote. They manage to recreate the oppressive air of fascism, and are, at any rate, readable.
But anecdotes, and endless digressions, do not necessarily constitute a successful biography. They merely provide points of departure. Sometimes Mr. Abbas succeeds in using them to strengthen an argument, to illustrate a turning point, a milestone in his life perhaps. But mostly he fails to scratch beyond the superficial.
And so for the rest of his life. The hard and humble beginnings of breaking into professional journalism in Bombay, establishing himself as a reporter, critic and columnist, writing and producing plays for the IPTA, the initiation into film-making, the involvement with politics—all this broken up into chapters (and there are 49 of them)—what does it amount to? A flimsy, repetitive sentimental review of an undoubtedly rich and colourful life.
Perhaps he attempts too much, perhaps there was too much to say. No doubt Abbas has been witness to a whole era—the last chapter ends with the declaration of the emergency which, because of coincidence, could be’ taken as a sharp bit of allegory. No doubt he has pioneered many a cause, fought many a battle, seen many a transition, and survived it all not without scars.
Where he has failed is in the process of sifting the essential from the redundant. There is too much stuffing, and the skeleton is missing. The ‘experimental’ part of this autobiography—and I only hazard a guess—probably lies in the layout of the chapter headings. They occasionally follow a chronological order; sometimes they divert into the past or the future; yet others stand out as independent essays or sequences. Using flashbacks and flash-forwards, shifting from the long shot to the close up, if I may borrow the terms from the cinema. Abbas does not move swiftly or subtly enough. The final impression is somehow one of a promised treat suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn.
A major fault in the book is the appalling lack of editorial interest shown by the publishers not only in terms of general editing. This book probably breaks a record in typographical and grammatical errors. Instead of tidying up the number of loose ends left flying about, they give it an unforgivable air of shabby gentility.
Sunil Sethi is a journalist on the staff of India Today.