The Book I Won’t Be Writing and Other Essays By H.Y. Sharada Prasad, Chronicle, Rs 425
Bureaucrats will be bureaucrats, even when they are penning memoirs. Some of them are pedantic, while some find it very hard to resist the chance to reveal all. But H.Y. Sharada Prasad’s truly delightful The Book I Won’t Be Writing suffers from none of these vices.
Sharada Prasad was quite the quintessential bureaucrat, having served in the prime minister’s office from 1966 to 1978 and again from 1980 to 1988. He also worked with Morarji Desai before being posted as director of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications.
But the author says that he has no wish to put it all down, so to say. He has a dislike for autobiographies, which are “based on the dubious assumption that their writers are as interesting to others as they are to themselves”.
Actually, this is a collection of articles which capture a few momentous events in lucid prose, suitably imbued with wit but without any of the verbosity associated with officialdom. Thankfully, he does not have sacred cows and makes no bones about the flaws of Indian bureaucracy. The contents will be familiar to readers who follow Sharada Prasad’s regular newspaper columns.
The section titled, “One Family: three Prime Ministers”, appears for the first time in this volume. This talks about Indira Gandhi, to whom Sharada Prasad was extremely close. Thus, the author could have revealed a lot about the enigmatic lady but he chooses not to.
This is quite in the manner of Kathleen Hill, “personal private secretary to Winston Churchill and [who] then worked for six other British prime ministers from Clement Atlee to Harold Wilson. An obituary note on her in The Times said: ‘Yet the woman who knew so much never kept a diary or tried to capitalize on her memories…She divulged only the most trivial information.’”.
Despite his reticence however, Sharada Prasada does praise Indira Gandhi lavishly and glosses over her foibles. For example, the proclamation of the Emergency is mentioned only in passing.
The Book I Won’t Be Writing is full of anecdotes. Like the one about how most reporters missed Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant Gettysburg address. The author caustically remarks that Lincoln “had to wait decades until Carl Sandburg to find a biographer equal to his mettle”.
Some readers may find the section, “Art of Writing”, of particular interest. Sharada Prasad laments on the widespread use of gadgets which has made writing so easy that one does not have to labour anymore. He admires Mahatma Gandhi who spent hours everyday writing and dictating to secretaries.
Critics may cavil at some bits. But on the whole readers will find this a lively work which sheds light on an important period of Indian history.