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Oh Woe is Me!

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A political memoir where the sting is the tale


Life Among the Scorpions: Memoir of a Woman in Politics | Jaya Jaitly Rupa | 308 Pages | Rs 595

BOOKS HAVE NUMEROUS purposes, but what should a political autobiography hope to achieve? It will, of course, tell the life of the protagonist, but it should also tell a larger story, of the times itself. Politicians after all are privy not only to the daily machinations, but also the large sweep of history. Jaya Jaitly’s memoir is an interesting account of a personality but it seldom rises to the level of ideas. Which is a pity, given the politician and former Samata Party president’s intellect and erudition.

Jaitly has certainly had an eventful, even tumultuous, life. She was born in Shimla in 1942, a month too early, because her mother, clad in high heels fell down a slope. She spent her childhood summers in Kerala in a sprawling house full of elders and cousins. As her father was posted to Burma and Japan, she still nurtures links with those countries. Her father died when he was India’s ambassador to Brussels. She was 13 and had to grow up overnight. She studied at Smith College, Massachusetts, married Ashok Jaitly a young Indian Administrative Service officer who was allotted Jammu and Kashmir as his state cadre. Major national events of the 70s and 80s urged her into politics. Jaitly writes, ‘My resolve to not remain apolitical was final, Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency, atrocities inflicted on Sikhs in 1984 following her assassination, and my commitment to giving craftpersons in India a platform to exhibit their immense talents, were factors that helped me make up my mind.’

Jaitly’s memoir is strongest when she talks about her engagement with artisans across the country. Her knowledge and passion for the craftspeople are all too evident. Her involvement with artists reveals not only an individual endeavour but spans the canvas of India’s rich (and often neglected) heritage and culture.

Dilli Haat is today one of the Capital’s favourite tourist sites. Its origins naturally make for an interesting read. Jaitly writes, ‘Since Gurjari’s [the Gujarat state emporium] time for serving craftspersons faithfully seemed to be over, the concept of a marketplace exclusively for them became the obvious answer to the need for sustaining their livelihoods.’ So the idea for a ‘permanent marketplace for craftpersons’ was born. Even while Dilli Haat continues to enjoy its moment in the sun, no story for Jaitly has a happy ending, and she found herself in the unenviable position of providing proof that she was indeed its founder. ‘That was like asking Sita to prove she was Lord Ram’s wife!’

The main issue with the book, which the title itself gives away, is that it all too often reads like a litany of woes. While Jaitly might have reason to feel wronged in instances (such as Operation West End, conducted by Tehelka in 2001, which investigated defence deals, and forced her to step down as party president; and her banishment from George Fernandes’ life), this memoir too often becomes a pity party. She writes that other titles which provided her inspiration included Smashed, Squashed, Splattered, Chewed, Chunked and Spewed, which she felt sounded a tad defeatist. The one she considered was The Lady Who Circumnavigated the Land of Politics and Found Herself in a Soup of Her Own Making. The title sets the tone of this memoir. Everyone in her firmament (other than her two children, pet dogs, crafts people and George Sahib) is deemed of ‘scorpion’ mentality.

As a woman in the public eye, Jaitly has had it harder than most. The media and society at large were quick to anoint her the ‘femme fatale’ or the ‘other woman’. She writes with tenderness about her relationship with the founder of the Samata Party George Fernandes, who she alternately addresses as ‘George Sahib’ and ‘George Fernandes’. She says, ‘he was probably the only man who has ever made me feel without any hesitation, or condescension, that I had an intellect and capacity worth respecting’. Her profound grief slips into the pages when she details his battle with Alzheimer’s and her exile from his life. ‘Today, I find it bizarre to describe George Sahib in the present tense since he is medically lost to us and the world at large.’ Jaitly has a gripping story to tell us, but this one too often slithers into gripes.

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