I started reading Kuldip Nayar’s Beyond the Lines with great anticipation because these days I’m very much interested in reading post-independence history of India. Although the book is supposed to be autobiographical, primarily he has discussed how the Indian democracy evolved in terms of politics, religion, realpolitik and culture. But after reading around 60% of the book I got totally turned off. He has this boring habit of throwing in big names – when I talked to him and when I talked to her (the Who’s Who of the Indian subcontinent) – and making it sound as if directly or indirectly he had a hand in everything happening in India.
The problem is not with that: you knowing people and people knowing you cannot be held against you. It’s just that he gives too much importance to himself. Rather than engaging the reader he is constantly talking to the reader. Somewhere in the beginning he mentions somebody telling him that he is not a good writer. Although he mentioned the incident condescendingly (knowing well what a well-known writer/journalist he is), I think the person who said that knew what he was talking about.
One of the major issues with the book is that he cannot decide whether he wants to write his own story or the story of the country. Is it a history book or a personal account? In this regard I hold Midnight’s Children in great regard – Salman Rushdie has woven the entire post-Independence history of the subcontinent around his central character. This sense of narrative is missing in Beyond the Lines.
Another confusing point is he never explains how he comes to be so influential. His father was a well-known physician back in Sialkot, Pakistan. Despite the fact that he had this knack for being at the right place at the right time and asking the right questions from the right people, some pieces are missing. For instance, during partition he comes to India almost penniless. His parents have to start a new life in Jalandhar all over again. He has to struggle to meet both the ends. He works in small newspapers. And he gets married to the daughter of a highly influential Congress politician. This in itself explains how he had all those various connections and accesses.
Kuldip Nayar comes out to be a haughty person despite trying too hard to sound humble through his writing. The last straw was the way he talks about Arun Shourie for the first time. I mean, he says that Khushwant Singh was a known Congress sycophant but still KN has no problem in affectionately calling him “Professor Saab”. Whatever may be his shortcomings and whimsical outpourings, you cannot in the same book talk affectionately about Khushwant Singh and mockingly about Arun Shourie. Just because Arun Shourie is sympathetic towards Hindutva ideology he becomes a lesser person. I mean, what kind of skewed mentality is that? Although throughout his book I could feel the biases and misplaced values, after reading a sentence or two about Shourie, I decided to stop reading the book.