Any student of history knows that truth about the past is one of the most difficult things to arrive at. Many would argue that truth is impossible to pin down. There can only be approximations to truth. Yet truth has many claimants to it. In a recent interview, the former minister, Natwar Singh, declared that he was not interested in facts but in truth. He thus opened up the possibility of a delightful oxymoron: ‘untrue facts’. Not to be undone by her critic’s penchant for truth, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, claimed that the truth would only be known when she wrote her book. This would suggest that Ms Gandhi has some unknown special access to truth. Or she believes that her recollection of past events is indubitably the one and only correct version and thus the truth. Ms Gandhi’s confidence in herself and her power of recall can only be marvelled at by ordinary mortals. It strikes neither Ms Gandhi nor Mr Singh that truth is always layered and memory is only a filter. Memory retains what it cares to retain and that is by no means the truth. Memory or even records offer only a version of what happened in the past. Another viewing of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece, Rashomon, would be salutary for all who believe that their remembrance of events is true and beyond dispute.
This is the season for revelations. In quick succession two books claiming to recall their writers’ days in the corridors of power have appeared. Both seek to present a view of events from the inside, as they saw the events, in one case as an involved participant and in another as a close observer. In both cases, the aim of the writer is to persuade the reader that what the writer describes is exactly how events unfolded. The emphasis on the first personal singular, however jarring, is unavoidable. These books, revelatory in nature, satisfy the curiosity of readers albeit vicariously. Readers of memoirs have an implicit desire to be a fly on the wall. These books present to them private conversations, records of meetings in which important decisions were taken and so on. Readers revel in them because this is the closest they will ever get to actual events. The simulation of truth does not immediately concern them.
The problem with books that claim to reveal is that they begin a chain reaction. Other people, with similar claims to truth, write their own revelations, as Ms Gandhi has promised to do following Mr Singh’s revelations. This process pleases publishers but debases the genre known as memoirs or autobiographies. Memoirs can be introspective. They can describe a time and places. They can recollect events without claiming that this is the only valid version. The memoirs of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Rabindranath Tagore or of Jawaharlal Nehru do all the above things in attractive prose. They do not claim to speak the truth. They do not satisfy the prurient since they have nothing to reveal. But books of revelation are not about moments of epiphany but mere recollections of the past masquerading as truth.