A quiet dissenter

An extract from chapter 11, The Emergency
Vidya Charan Shukla, the scion of a well-known political family from Madhya Pradesh, was given the information and broadcasting portfolio in Indira’s Cabinet after the incumbent, I.K. Gujral, was unceremoniously removed. While

newspapers and other magazines and journals had to follow censorship rules and carry news items based on government handouts, I thought of placing such items as the predictable approval of bills pushed through a pliable Parliament on inside pages. It was another form of protest but I was not in breach of rules.
V.C. Shukla, as he was universally known, was a shrewd politician who knew which side his bread was buttered. He most reminded me of the Shakespearean phrase “dressed in brief authority”. He called a meeting of editors in Delhi the day after taking office (on June 26, 1975) with the object of showing them the mailed fist. As information minister, he had to crack the whip on the press. Delhi newspapers had appeared that morning, power (which had been cut during the day) having been restored the previous night, and several of them had blank spaces to denote the censors’ scissors. The Delhi edition of The Statesman additionally carried the announcement on the front page: “This edition of The Statesman has been censored.” Shukla made it clear that such forms of protest were impermissible. When told that even the British had allowed such protest during the Raj, he retorted that the comparison was odious.
Shukla played his part admirably. He was rude, boorish and full of a barely concealed contempt for dissent of any kind. Nothing illustrates the atmosphere of the meeting as well as the question an editor asked: “Would the government come down on a newspaper for voicing criticism of bad bus services?” Such criticism, Shukla answered loftily, would be permitted, within reason.
I was paid a visit by the government’s chief press officer, who suggested that I should display Indira Gandhi and the Congress Party president, D.K. Barua, prominently. My answer was: “This is not on.” Barua, the inventor of the sycophantic slogan “Indira is India and India is Indira,” was to undergo an unbelievable transformation during the Emergency. He had on one occasion in the early 1970s kept me for hours as he reminisced about his college days, his literary pursuits and his devotion to the London Times. A rotund and jovial man, Barua had an engaging manner and was inclined to reduce all the country’s problems to the caste equation. He was also in the habit of generously handing out Cuban cigars out of the last box he had been gifted; his benefactors apparently kept him in constant supply.
But now he was a new Barua, complacent, cocky and relishing in full measure the immense power he had suddenly acquired by being president of the ruling party in a quasi-dictatorship. It was amusing, if sad, to hear him berate me at length during the only meeting I had with him in the Emergency period in late 1975. He had taken strong exception to a suggestion I had made in an article published many months earlier about his communist sympathies and had waited for this opportunity to vent his spleen.
In January 1976, Shukla summoned me. Scarcely had I shaken hands with him when his secretary brought in the previous day’s Statesman. “What is this?” Shukla asked in grave tones. “You make Sadat (Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt) the main lead. You have other foreign stories on the front page, and you gave a little bit on the front page to the Rajya Sabha passing the Emergency legislation.”
“Mr Minister”, I answered, “your censorship laws permit you to tell us what not to print, but if you want to tell us what to print and how to print it, you will have to devise new laws.”
Shukla pretended to take umbrage over my remarks. I cut short the interview by pointing to the long queue of people waiting to see him. His parting shot was: “I shall not speak to you about this subject again.”
A sad aspect of the Emergency was how quickly the Indian press accepted its new lowly fate. Apart from The Statesman and the Indian Express of Ramnath Goenka and a few other lonely voices, the press was eating out of the government’s hand. Dutifully, the press wrote pro-government editorials. In L.K. Advani’s telling rebuke after the Emergency: “You (journalists) were asked to bend and you crawled.” (Advani became the information and broadcasting minister in the Janata Party government that came to power at the Centre after the general elections of March 1977.)
After my meeting with Shukla, almost instantly, a cigarette seller set up a wayside shop outside my Ratendone Road (later renamed Amrita Shergill Marg) bungalow so that two crew-cut men holding bicycles, pretending to be his customers, could keep a watch on my movements and visitors. At this level, intelligence in India is hamhanded.
Kuldip Nayar had already been put behind bars for his writings and events seemed to be moving towards my incarceration as well. I opened a particularly good brand of Scotch before saying a virtual farewell to my home that night. But nothing happened. They did not come for me.

This extract is from chapter 1, The Early Years

I liked women. I loved women. My pin-up girl was the Hollywood actress Ava Gardner. It was my innate shyness that kept me from fraternising more with women.
And then one evening in April 1953, an English grandmother deflowered me. She was a saucy woman and recognising my naivety, she simply took me to bed in her hotel apartment after letting me have a bath. She gave quaint names, calling my penis velvet, and at times she invited me for a quick one, suggesting that her pleated skirt did not crease; in other words, she did not have to disrobe completely.
2 May 1954 will remain a special day for me. Octavia Smith, the accomplished amateur actress, held a rooftop party above her apartment in Sundar Nagar colony. The invitation card invited guests to “a launching from Quai 25, Sundar Nagar docks on Sunday, 2nd May 1954 at 8 bells of the forenoon watch. Immediately after the ceremony all hands will lay aft to splice the mainbrace”.
On the rooftop, it was hot and crazy and booze flowed in ample quantities before we went down for a meal. I stood next to a tall, blonde Dutch woman who worked in her country’s embassy, and before I realised it, I was head over heels. Both of us had a little too much to drink and we ended up in the apartment she shared with a colleague in Man Singh Road where the Taj Hotel stands today.
To my family, it was a mismatch. Geertje Zuiderweg — Gé for short — was 11 years my senior and was divorced. I didn’t care. I was madly in love and we did crazy things like the two of us cycling to the Qutub Minar in summer during the hottest part of the day...

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