BOOKS: STING IN THE TALE
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