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An Array of Celebrities Together

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By ARVINDAR SINGH

Defining India Through Their Eyes; Sonia Singh; Penguin Viking: Rs599; 2019: Pp216. Media persons from the world of television also make good scribes. Sonia Singh is obviously one of them. Her recent book, “Defining India Through Their Eyes”, gives evidence of this. The persons she has profiled through face to face interviews in this volume will undoubtedly interest readers who are in touch with contemporary Indian affairs. The personalities described include politicians like Pranab Mukherjee, Arun Jaitley and Nirmala Sitharaman, social activists Aruna Roy and Kailash Satyarthi, economists like Raghuram Rajan and Amartya Sen, sportspersons like Sania Mirza and Sachin Tendulkar, spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, legal luminary Fali Nariman, as well as actors like Aamir Khan and Kamal Haasan, to name a few. Pranab Mukherjee, while speaking to the author, described the events in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi‘s assassination in 1984. He states that, upon arriving in Delhi from Kolkata with Rajiv Gandhi, the then Cabinet Secretary had sounded him out about taking over as interim Prime Minister, but he had indicated the choice of the party top leadership was Rajiv Gandhi for the Prime Ministership. To the best of my knowledge, this has not been stated anywhere else in the past. Arun Jaitley also holds forth on his experiences in jail during the emergency and the tough days he faced in detention and rightly points out that the most distressing part of the emergency was that a constitutional provision was used to subvert the constitution itself. While comparing India with Pakistan, Jaitley says Pakistan had army rule many times because it did not build institutions like the judiciary and professional army as India did. It would have been also appropriate if he had given credit to India‘s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who played a major role in building these institutions, but unfortunately he does not in the interview. Raghuram Rajan makes a point worthy of note in the chapter on him. He states that when he came to take over as Governor of the Reserve Bank, he found people standing up when he entered a room. He found his office still functioning with files with comments written in the margins! It was a culture he found pretty surprising. This just goes to show that in India the government and the bureaucracy is way behind the times in its way of functioning. He is critical of the 2016 Demonetisation but stops short of saying that he would have resigned had it been done when he was at the helm. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is an intellectual giant and this is amply clear in the piece on him. He tells the heart rending tale of Qadir Miya, a daily wage earner who collapsed in his lap when he was eleven in his house in Dhaka, a victim of communal riots in 1944. He believes that Indian democracy is at a churning point where introspection is required. Another person who has been awarded the Nobel Prize, the Dalai Lama, is featured in the book. He mentions his famous flight from Tibet in 1959 and, laced with his trademark laughter, harks back to the time when Nehru overruled his own Ministers to accept him as a refugee in India. Fali Nariman mentions in the write-up on him, his resignation as Additional Solicitor General when the Emergency was declared in 1975. A few people stood up then. He was one of them. Another Parsi lawyer, Nani Palkhivala, returned Indira Gandhi‘s brief. It gave courage to an oppressed nation. Nirmala Sitharaman, who was then Defence Minister, is among the characters who feature in the work. She talks about the Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrikes in considerable detail. Kamal Haasan, the talented actor turned politician, is also one of Singh‘s personages. He gives details about his film career and run in with Chief Minister Jayalalithaa over his film “Vishwaroop”, whose rights she wanted for her TV Channel. On the whole, the book features an impressive array of present-day public figures. Though the interviewing is a bit timid and could have been somewhat more searching, it is a highly informative volume.