Friday, September 19, 2014

Book Review - One Life is Not Enough by K Natwar Singh

Verdict: 4 / 5
One Life Is Not Enough should not be read for the controversy regarding power centers in the UPA II. It should not be read to peek into misdoings of Manmohan Singh. It should not be read for seeking answer to why Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi sought audience with the author. The book is much more than that and much less about the above popularity gaining gimmicks.

Kunwar Natwar Singh is a career diplomat and Congressman of many decades. Someone who was born with a silver spoon, studied at best places in the country and abroad, got posted to coveted locations, who has been in the thick of political and bureaucratic activities in India and abroad, will always have something interesting to share. And share he does.

In the early life the way schooling was conducted, in the college years the effect of national movement, the qualifying for foreign service are interesting parts of the initial segment. The following description of the author about his stint as IFS in China is in detail. It gives a perspective of Chinese sensibilities and foreign policy. The other sector which has been detailed is Natwar Singh’s posting in the UN. In those chapters one can have an insight into how diplomats function, what challenges they face and how they react to them.

Kunwar Natwar Singh also held the tricky post of Ambassador to Pakistan. Therein his interaction with General Zia is nothing less than interesting. He has in his book not forgotten to mention the many cultural stalwarts be it Forster, R K Narayan, Ahmad Ali, Santha Rama Rao or a young MF Hussain (a lanky tall person of whom a photo is provided too), he has close association with. His scholarly work can be dated back to days when he used to review books or bring out compiled works.

Amidst all these one can sense his close association with the Nehru-Gandhi family, which was initially brought about by Mrs Hutheesing (Nehru’s sister) whom he addressed as ‘maasi’ (aunt). A mix of personal contacts coupled with astute professional skills saw the rise of Natwar Singh. His wondering about how he got into the powerful ‘Secretariat of Indira Gandhi is his trying to be modest. But all said, here is a man who was privy to top decisions of the government of the day and had access directly to the PM.

The book lacks more information about his personal life. His wedding to Hem, daughter of the King of Patiala, has only been given attention. But relationships amidst such demanding careers, untimely demise of his daughter come about, his son’s political career and other aspects have not been covered in this autobiography. If he is a good father, a good husband are questions that have no answers in this book.

Coming to the parts that stirred political wind, his shift in description of Sonia Gandhi is worth noting. Having called her an epitome of ‘debonair civility’ Mr Singh describes how she has metamorphosed into a harder skinned politician. And this shift in loyalty has been owing to his name being dragged in the Volcker committee report (food-for-oil scheme). He has not been charitable to Manmohan Singh and makes scathing remark on Indo-US nuclear deal. He even suggests that it has been an American lobby to keep him away. Towards the end the book turns vitriolic with references like ‘kettle calling the pot black’, leaving the reader wondering the backroom politics or the lack of it.

The book will interest those interested in the political stories of the past, it will interest those who have a liking for international affairs. The book is also a testimony to impermanence in politics. A man who rose to great heights, knowing giants of world politics, feasting with them, gaining unfettered access to Prime Ministers of India, relegated partly into political abyss owing to indictment in a scam, has interesting tales listed in his autobiography. It is a pleasurable read, the writing holds attention, the sequence of events placed correctly and results in considerable examination of Kunwar Natwar Singh’s life. After all the book began with Plato’s quote – “an unexamined life is not worth living”.

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