By a happy coincidence, I am currently involved in updating and reissuing my first two and only books so far; both biographies and both as diverse as they get.
The Dalai Lama biography (Man Monk Mystic), originally published in 2007 by Random House/Doubleday in United States and subsequently by over twenty other publishers around the world, is almost ready to be out. The Sam Pitroda biography, first published in 1992 by Konark Publishers of New Delhi, has just been taken up by me for some fresh updates even while retaining a majority of the original.
The two protagonists of my biographies could not be more different. That I have written 300-plus pages about both must say something about my range of writing from the techno-political to the politico-spiritual. One is 78 (the Dalai Lama) and the other is 71 (Sam Pitroda) and both are separated by at least two generations, if not more, from me. And yet, what unites them for me is their ability to be so completely current in their outlook. I can point out several common personality attributes but perhaps the most striking is their effusive openness towards life.
They may give you the sense that they have no guards or filters but that is misleading because as you approach their core you realize that there are exacting standards to be met before reaching there. Both come from very humble backgrounds and both have made the best of the opportunities that life gave them. Both also have a clear sense of transcendence, one perhaps more than the other. You can guess who that would be.
Also, they both have a remarkable sense of detachment from everything even as they are deeply immersed in their tasks, a trait I share with them. For me, perhaps ironically so, that sense of detachment is the point of connection with them.
I have made a conscious choice that I would not write any more biographies after these two because the genre of literature has its inherent limitations. Of course, within those limitations one can still do a lot but the constant awareness that you are operating inside a real life and you must absolutely adhere to facts as they have unfolded can often make creative expression challenging.
Being a sucker for telling lines and constructs, I find biography as a genre particularly restricting. It is my personal weakness to look for memorable lines in any form of writing. If you write 300 some pages without a single inventive, evocative or quirky line, then you have got to wonder about your career as a writer. That’s what I think. But that’s just me.
There are some interesting lines and telling thoughts. For instance, in Man Monk Mystic in the last chapter while trying to understand the Dalai Lama’s draw on millions around the world, I say this, “As with most gifted figures, it is perhaps futile to try to analyze or unravel or demystify the Dalai Lama. The reason they stand out in any crowd is because they have that indefinable quality. One cannot analyze charisma without simultaneously destroying it.” I like the last line about analyzing charisma and simultaneously destroying it. Even if I say so myself, at the very least, it has the merit of being not so ordinary as a line and a thought. I have been told that by many readers independently.
In the Pitroda biography, there are passages that I remember 20 years later. There is one in particular in Chapter 2 where I describe his ancestors and their hard life. “Tikar Ran was on the outskirts of civilization. It was the sort of village that never asserted its existence. The threshold of contentment of its inhabitants was very low. If they ate well, they slept well. A good night’s sleep was a blessing that the people of the village sought. Most people were blessed thus. Except one man, Kalyanji Pitroda. He did not spend sleepless night. But he was in a perpetual hurry to wake up.
Kalyanji’s survival chores began before the sunrise. He was always on the run. It was not as if he chased a better future. He merely attempted to stay a step ahead of his bleak present.”
I like the last bit about him not chasing a better future but merely staying a step ahead of his bleak present. In the same passage there is a line that says, “Kalyanji struggled even to keep pace with Tikar Ran’s poverty.”
I am aware that I am rather susceptible to using any form of writing, including this blog, as a vehicle for what I believe are compelling lines. There is obvious danger in that approach because one runs the risk of sacrificing substance in aid of clever crafting. That weakness of mine continues even while watching films. If a filmmaker cannot create a single memorable frame in an entire film, he or she has to wonder about their filmmaking skills. It is a visual medium and necessarily demands some measure of captivating framing.
People confuse compelling or memorable writing with pleonastic or ornamental writing. They are quite far from each other. (Is it not ironic that pleonastic is in and of itself a pleonastic word?)
I think I have plugged and indulged myself enough for now. The long and short of it is that I am in the process of reissuing my biographies as updated versions. You will be informed about their publication here so that you can heartily ignore both.