BOOKS: STING IN THE TALE

India Today - - UPFRONT - —Ira Pande

Of late, there’s been a spate of mem­oirs, bi­ogra­phies and au­to­bi­ogra­phies (the lat­ter of­ten ghost-writ­ten ha­giogra­phies of a self-con­grat­u­la­tory kind). Per­haps they pro­vide for­get­table has-beens an op­por­tu­nity to jus­tify their past ac­tions and briefly re­con­jure their own Camelot. Jaya Jaitly’s mem­oir is writ­ten in a dif­fer­ent reg­is­ter: she grace­fully ac­knowl­edges that women like her, born in elite fam­i­lies, ed­u­cated in ex­clu­sive board­ing schools and univer­si­ties are de-toothed early on. She would like the reader to be­lieve that the scor­pi­ons she en­coun­tered in her po­lit­i­cal life de­stroyed her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

While that may be true, what

comes across in Jaitly’s mem­oir is that she was un­able to bal­ance her po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions with her deep com­mit­ment to pro­mot­ing and cre­at­ing a net­work of crafts­peo­ple and hand­loom work­ers. By tem­per­a­ment and up­bring­ing, she is a gen­tle­woman blessed with a great sense of aes­thet­ics and taste. Her work in set­ting up Gur­jari and later her ster­ling con­tri­bu­tion to set­ting up Dilli Haat are proof of her sin­gu­lar tal­ent in this area. Had she made that her con­stituency rather than hang­ing on to the rag­tag bunch of for­get­table so­cial­ists, she would have been able to use all the trade union les­sons she im­bibed from her men­tor Ge­orge Fer­nan­des. Sadly, her close­ness to Fer­nan­des made her a per­fect punch­ing bag for his ri­vals so that she was dragged into every po­lit­i­cal bat­tle he fought. Af­ter his po­lit­i­cal down­fall, she alone shoul­dered the at­tacks from the scor­pi­ons whose tails are ever-ready to sting. In­deed, a sting op­er­a­tion was her fi­nal po­lit­i­cal un­do­ing, lit­er­ally!

Her soft, per­sua­sive voice makes com­pelling read­ing, in­ter­spersed as it is with a near-unimag­in­able pic­ture of what Kash­mir was like in the early ’60s when she went there as a young civil ser­vant’s wife who tried to sur­vive on his salary of Rs 550. The mem­oir jumps back and forth to un­der­line one con­stant theme: she was the child of a Malay­ali ma­tri­lin­ear clan, and the bland life of a civil ser­vant’s wife made her rest­less and un­happy. Her prose bris­tles with out­rage when she re­calls the poverty and ne­glect of the crafts­peo­ple she loved both in Kash­mir as well as in Gu­jarat. Bal­anc­ing this fiery cham­pion with her timid­ity as an un­paid aide-de-camp to Fer­nan­des is a con­stant chal­lenge to the reader. Who is the real Jaya Jaitly?

One rea­son for this is that In­dia has had its share of feisty women who have tamed pow­er­ful and hos­tile po­lit­i­cal col­leagues, whip­ping them into voice­less sub­mis­sion. The Nehru-Gandhi women, Ma­mata Ban­er­jee, Mayawati or Jay­alalitha are fine ex­am­ples of women who’ve held their own and de­vel­oped their own poi­son to dec­i­mate the vipers that tried to hold them back. Even So­nia Gandhi, she who has al­ways had to con­tend with her for­eign birth, gave as good as she got. So there is much to ad­mire in the life re­vealed by this book but, equally, there are unan­swered ques­tions too.

Her close­ness to Fer­nan­des made her a per­fect punch­ing bag for ri­vals so that she was dragged into every po­lit­i­cal bat­tle he fought

LIFE AMONG THE SCOR­PI­ONS: Mem­oirs of a Woman in In­dian Pol­i­tics by Jaya Jaitly Pub­lished byRupa

352 pages ` 595

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