Tuesday, December 14, 2004

A Sunday interview with Mihir Bose

I’ve never cared for the idea of the Sacrosanct Sunday. Many friends - even those in journalism, where regular hours are hardly the norm - baulk at the idea of working on Sunday, either in office or out of home. But I enjoy it - not, I admit, on a regular basis but in doses. Enables one to combine a sense of purpose and achievement with the general relaxedness that runs through the day. (In fact, even when I was doing a regular Sunday shift in Today, the atmosphere was always more relaxed than on other days -- as if everyone, including the bosses, had the "Tension" switch set to "Low". Besides, for once the traffic was never a problem.)

But of course it’s a bonus when the "work" is something you’re really enthusiastic about, and you know it’ll only take an hour or two of your time, and you don’t have to travel a long distance to get it done. Which is why I was quite pleased about my appointment on Sunday morning with author Mihir Bose, at the Marriott Hotel, just 1 km from my house.

Went there feeling some ambivalence though, even a little nervousness, because the focus of the interview was to be the revised version of Bose’s 1982 biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, which I wasn’t familiar with. My connection with Mihir Bose, and the main reason I wanted to meet him, was his epic A History of Indian Cricket, one of the first cricket books I had read - and I hoped to have at least a brief, informal stumps-and-bails chat with him. Conflict of interest? Sure.
But it went off as well as I’d imagined. Bose, who’s worked for 30 years in England as a business and sports reporter, had a brisk, academic, briefly intimidating manner to start with (and I squirmed when our zealous photographer made the poor man squat and pose in all sorts of weird angles, while holding his very heavy books) - but over the course of our discussion it slowly dissolved into cameraderie. He had a scribe’s thirst for information about recent developments in the country, and kept interrupting me to ask about the Ashok Advani case, the general health of journalism in India ("how’s that magazine run by my old friend Vinod Mehta doing?"; "What’s Akbar up to these days?"), the number and quality of television channels now telecast.

Naturally, Subhas Chandra Bose (who I’ll henceforth abbreviate to SCB) was the principal topic of conversation. The author is clearly bemused by all the obsessing over whether SCB died in that 1945 plane crash; when he was researching for his book in the 1970s, he found there was a paucity of useful material but "I was told to go to Madhya Pradesh because SCB was going to appear at a rally there! The man has been diminished by the mystery surrounding his death." The Lost Hero eschews speculation along those lines, instead focusing on the life of the man who controversially fought for Indian independence not the Gandhian way but by teaming up with the Axis powers during World War II. Much of the new material in the revised edition comes from the recently opened files of the Indian Political Intelligence (IPI), a secret service of the British Raj. From these files, Mihir Bose gathered information on British spies who pretended to work with SCB, and Indian communists who took advantage of their association with the high-profile figure.

"Indians often find it difficult to take a balanced view of history," rued the author. "Everything must be black or white, Ram or Ravana, and so it’s inconvenient to dwell on what doesn’t accord with common perception. Which is why probing biographies of public figures are so rare here." This, he believes, is also why SCB’s role in the independence movement is often obscured. "But history is more complicated than we like to think."

Bose believes much of the double-think and double-speak in modern India is tied up with the ambiguity about how relevant the Father of the Nation’s beliefs are to our practical life. "Gandhiji," he said -- the ‘ji’ a careful reminder of his fundamental respect for the man -- "has the status of a modern Hindu God today. But if you list the top principles of Gandhiism, you’ll find that none of them is followed by modern India -- we certainly wouldn’t be sitting in this posh hotel today if we had followed his ideals to the letter! He has been turned into an icon whose beliefs are of no practical value, and this has encouraged double-thinking and hypocrisy." If SCB had been a prominent political figure in independent India, he feels, there would have been "more rational, straight-line development -- no beating about the bush".

Our conversation had lasted an hour and over its course Bose had metamorphosed into a jovial raconteur lounging across the lobby chairs and chatting animatedly. But we hadn’t talked cricket yet. So when he casually remarked that "Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest man this country has produced -- with apologies to Sachin Tendulkar", I seized the opening and led him down paths yet untraversed. It lasted just 5 minutes, not an indepth discussion or anything, just a couple of anecdotes (including his first glimpse of Gary Sobers in the late 1950s) but what I was glad to note was that he still had the schoolboy light in his eyes when he talked about the game.

I asked what he thought of Indian cricket’s development since he wrote his book in 1990. "I think Sourav Ganguly is the most interesting figure to have emerged in the modern Indian game," said Bose with a crinkly-eyed parting smile. It said a lot for the conviction radiated by the man that it was possible to believe his admiration for Ganguly was unrelated to the fact of their shared Bongness.

1 comment:

  1. I cannot think of SCB now without Shashi Tharoor's portrayal of him as a libidinous Pandu in The Great Indian Novel coming to mind. Shyam Benegal's film about him is scheduled for a Feb 2005 release; it should be interesting, at the very least.