Love, Exile, Redemption : The Saga of Kashmir’s Last Pandit Prime Minister and his English Wife. Siddharth Kak and Lila Bhan. Rupa Publications India. Pages 336. Rs 541.
Reading through the memoirs written by Siddharth Kak and Lila Bhan, one wonders about the need to write a memoir of the life of Pandit Ram Chandra Kak from a certain perspective.
The personal life of Pt Kak does read as a rather fascinating one, full of shattered dreams and moments of both unrequited and requited hope and joy.
Yet, when it comes to understanding or highlighting the politics of the state of Jammu and Kashmir at the time, there seems to be a kind of myopia and a sense of conspiracy presented.
Herein surface several problems related to the story of Pt Kak and his English wife Margaret, with the book relying solely on their memories and writings to present a one-sided picture of the problem.
The main problem, however, is that the storyline seems contradictory on many levels. While the book is surprisingly frank about the conditions of the time, and the nefarious roles played both by Sheikh Abdullah and Ghulam Mohammad Abbas, it notably overlooks any discussion on the diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious nature of the region.
Were those parts not to be discussed beyond cursory reference? That question keeps coming up as we see utter silence on the question and the manner in which the book retains a Kashmir-centric focus. After all, wasn't there a bigger province, where Kashmir was just 17 per cent of the geographical landmass?
Again, a lot of questions arise as the book meanders on and on about the victimhood of Pt Kak at the hands of Maharaja Hari Singh. In that, the book tries to pass a judgment on the man, showing him as an insecure, conniving yet deluded person. To that extent, the authors even go all the way to quote Dr Karan Singh's writings to build a case.
The problem is that there are scenes where too much was made out of certain episodes, while also discounting factors of the geopolitical intrigues, which receive nothing more than, again, passing reference.
But then the contradictions and the gaps of history seem too much to ignore. As a member of the civil service, surely memories of the ghastly 1931 riot, later passed off as Martyrs' Day by Sheikh Abdullah's coterie, must have left a memory?
While Pt Kak's memories clearly are not very favourable to Sheikh Abdullah, it is puzzling to understand why he is seen as some counterweight vis-a-vis Maharaja Hari Singh.
The economy of memory seems to put more questions about why so many features of the administration of the time were left out. The huge increase in the number of schools, the infrastructure development of the time. Instead, Sant ji and his disproportionate influence seems to be the key focus to understand the Maharaja.
It's almost as if the book wanted to be judgmental about the Maharaja.
The book trips more than once on self-contradictions on this subject. At one place, the book claims that all decisions were backed by the understanding of the Maharaja. And yet, it is almost as if the bureaucracy was paralysed due to the "moody Maharaja" and only Pt Kak had the gumption to stand up.
The problem with these contradictions is that they make the man, in hindsight, look petty in stature. There seems to be a political drift to the book when it comes to remembering the Maharaja and his times.
Wasn't it under the same Maharaja that Pt. Kak became Chief Secretary and later Prime Minister, after all? Then doesn't the claim of creating a Darbar of sycophants and 'yes men' seem somewhat contradictory?
Yet again, the obsession with Sant ji and the Dogristan question seems odd. We know from public information that we have today that there are many layers to the question.
From claims of showing a crown that somehow can be found nowhere to the fact there exists a memo written by him about maintaining the secular fabric within a Muslim majority region and safeguarding the rights of Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs - none of that seems to have been recalled in the book.
Wasn't that memo telling the story of the delicate balance and the Standstill Agreement's true purpose?
When it is known that the Maharaja had as early as 1931 made the case of merger with India clear, why was this absent from the memoirs of a man who was part of the Maharaja's government?
When addressing the lack of communal tension in 1947, the book alludes to Pt Kak's influence, prompting the question of who held genuine authority if the "moody Maharaja" wielded such power?
Ultimately, the book tries to paint Pt Kak as a victim of his circumstances. Which would have perhaps been alright, had the economy with the truth not been practiced.
The book eventually though stands out for what it is - a unique love story where the hero and the heroine (Margaret, Pt Kak's British wife) stand through trials and tribulations of the kind that can not even be imagined today.
It however seems to suggest that Pt Kak was just a victim of all sides. Which is again puzzling, for it was only Maharaja Hari Singh who truly recognized his merit.
Attempting to exaggerate commonplace politics for more than its true significance appears to be a ploy to garner sympathy.
In the final analysis, the book disappoints, for in its effort to show Pt Kak as the victim, Maharaja Hari Singh gets villainised yet again. The notion that the Maharaja and Sheikh were aligned against Pt Kak is the reluctant narrative being presented.
And it is there that the economy with truth emerges the strongest. Take this book with a heap of salt, while enjoying the fascinating love story of the times.
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