Profiles and Letters

The greats Natwar Singh met

Rajagopalachari, E. M. Forster, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Lord Mountbatten, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, R. K. Narayan, Han Suyin, Indira Gandhi, Zia-ul-Haq, Nargis Dutt. It is an impressive line-up of 10 great men and women of our times.

Some people are great; some have a great deal of interaction with them. Often life stops at that. In Natwar Singh, we have a person who has corresponded with many contemporary greats, and in his book “Profiles and Letters”, he has penned sketches of the above-mentioned 10 men and women. He has also reproduced excerpts from their letters to him, which add to the charm of the book.

Natwar Singh was born in a family which brought him in touch with the cream of society; he was educated at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and at Christi College, Cambridge. He joined the Indian Foreign Service at a time when it was rather prestigious to do so.

It was as an IFS officer posted in New York in 1962 that he came in touch with the Congress stalwart and former Chief Minister of Madras, Rajagopalachari, who was leading a delegation to press for a total ban on nuclear tests. It was Rajaji’s first visit outside India, and he stayed with the author. That they struck a warm friendship is evident from the letters they exchanged, and from them emerges some fine vignettes of the life of a shrewd, unbending, Indian patriot.

Of the various people that Natwar Singh has written about in this book, his relationship with E. M Forster stands out. Natwar Singh met the legend who wrote “A Passage to India,” at Cambridge and developed a long-lasting friendship. It is obvious that the British author had a great impact on the young student.

As Natwar Singh puts it: “Getting to know Forster was the most intoxicating experience of my stay at Cambridge. He enlarged my horizons, enriched my understanding of English literature, taught me the value of personal relationships and generally raised the level of my consciousness.”

From Forster to Nirad Chaudhuri. Distinguished authors, both distinctive personalities, who though not quite fond of each other, shared a friendship with Natwar Singh. The human side of the well-known “Unknown Indian” comes out well in the sketch. Nirad Chaudhuri is not quite the most comfortable person to be with.

In direct contrast, R K Narayan is. The man who made the fictional town of Malgudi familiar to the peoples of the English-speaking world comes across as a disarmingly “ordinary/practical” (as opposed to pompous/air-headed) individual, who revelled in meeting Prime Minister Nehru. In this chapter, Natwar Singh manages to bring out a rather spirited picture of Narayan, complete with a flight from New York to get away from the tentacles of the American legal system.

A starving Natwar Singh, alone in a hotel where the staff spoke only Chinese, wrote a note to a stunning lady wearing a colourful dress—Han Suyin. Thus began a friendship that has survived the turbulent, at times hostile, phases of Sino-Indian relationship. A 39-year-long friendship that lasted even as India went though Operation Bluestar and China saw the Tienanmen massacre.

Han Suyin’s passion comes through quite well in her various letters to Natwar Singh, as does her zest for life, a through understanding of the Sino-Indian ethos, as differentiated from an Euro-centric one. A warm, passionate person comes alive in her letters that the author has reproduced: Describing herself, she says “As for Han Suyin, you know she has no sense of hierarchy, caste, class of boot licking. She goes straight for the really fine people of this world, like Natwar, and is rude like hell to C-in-Cs, Generals, Maharajas, Presidents, lions, VIPs and in general sacred cows.”

In his essay on Indira Gandhi, the author brings out the person behind the forbidding persona. The non-political side of a person who was a voracious reader, a person of taste and gravitas. He has many anecdotes from his long association with her, some of which he shares with the reader. Especially touching are some of the copies of personal notes which she wrote on family occasions.

Sometimes letters give more than a peep into the mind of the writer. In August, 1981, Indira Gandhi wrote: “I feel isolated, not because of policies, the correctness of which will be seen in time, as it has been before. But while the earth spins on the beauty and with method, the world of men is a hollow one, when words have no meaning and sentiments, no feeling, the young have lost wonder, elan and even hope. What can a leader-eyed civilisation do? Can a flame of idealism or a vision of a better man be protected from all this cynicism, hypocrisy and hatred? ”

Nargis Dutt’s embarrassing encounter in London, Zia-ul-Haq’s way of turning foes into friends, Vijayalakshmi Pandit’s vibrant voice and commanding presence, Lord Mountbatten’s involvement with India and his concern about his and Edwina’s portraits, the book is a good collection of vignettes of people who shaped contemporary history.

It is not fair to expect the author to give weighty, analytical bio-sketches of the people he knew. These are personal pieces, in which people, as Natwar Singh knew them, come through — —this is their strength, and their frailty.

Profiles and Letters by K. Natwar Singh. Sterling Publishers, New Delhi. Pp. 260 Rs 350. Review by Roopinder Singh