ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Glorious Heights and Terrifying Depths

Manu Bhagavan (mbhagava@hunter.cuny.edu) teaches human rights, and public policy at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York.

A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V K Krishna Menon by Jairam Ramesh, New Delhi: Penguin/Viking, 2019; pp 744, 849 (hardcover).

Jairam Ramesh is well regarded for his wide-ranging intellect, keen observational abilities, and no-nonsense, straight-talking style. All of these skills are on vivid display in the new ­biography of modern India’s mysterious Machiavelli, V K Krishna Menon.

Readers are likely to come to this book with some strongly held pre-formed views on its well-known diplomatic subject of study. Menon is today both heralded and hated for his fiery rhetoric and long-winded speeches, usually directed against the West; for his shadowy proximity to Jawaharlal Nehru; and for his bungling of India’s defence during the Sino–Indian war of 1962. It is to Ramesh’s considerable credit that he is able in just a few chapters to pry Menon free from such preconceived feelings and present a much more balanced picture.

The idea of balance itself is the key to understanding the enigmatic Menon, whose personality confounded his contemporaries and has since hindered holistic historical determinations. He had, for instance, incomparable energy and endurance, and was capable of dashing all about the world, meeting with innumerable people in shuttle diplomacy, and speaking seemingly without taking breath. At the same time, he was frail and weak, prone to collapse and bouts of bed rest, all exacerbated by the most deleterious of diets. On the one hand, he was charming and charismatic, and on the other, needy, conniving, and insecure. He could be self-effacing, situating himself in selfless service one minute, and then preening, egotistical, and arrogant the next.

This gamut of emotions is of course common to the human condition, and might be said of anyone subjected to scrutiny. What set Menon apart was just how sharply and quickly he could jump between his strengths and weaknesses. A Chequered Brilliance is in a sense a seismographic readout of a volatile figure that could frequently be found at the centre of events of earth-shaking consequence.

There have of course been other bio­graphies of Menon, and a number of smaller studies as well. But Ramesh’s lengthy and detailed take is unique in several ways. As a former journalist and politician, he has been able to draw on a vast number of connections to track down and assemble all kinds of interesting nuggets of first-hand information. These anecdotes have been supplemented with significant archival work. Most notably, Ramesh makes use for the first time of Menon’s immense collection of personal papers, which are housed at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. This material had been closed to scholars for many decades but has finally been made accessible, in large measure thanks to Ramesh’s efforts (p 701). He is careful not to be overly reliant on this one repository, though, which is voluminous enough to be overwhelming, in keeping with what appears to be one of Menon’s key characteristics. Instead, A Chequered Brilliance draws on material from archives around the world, as well as what appears to be every major work and passing reference to the man.

Setting the Record Straight

Menon’s life has long aroused curiosity and allowed for ample speculation helped in part by a relative secrecy of all that he did, and the relative opacity of available records. With his new material, Ramesh makes no claims to being the ­final word on Menon, but he does hope here to begin the process of setting the record straight.

In over 21 chapters broken into seven parts, Ramesh pulls back the curtain on Menon, and gives us a view into his inner workings. In large measure because of this overall goal, it takes Ramesh several chapters to find his rhythm.

The opening narrative of Menon’s general background and early work with Annie Besant feels cumbersome, primarily because Ramesh sees and seeks to make connections right off between these episodes and later events. For the uninitiated, this gets lost in the weeds fairly quickly. But Ramesh soon clears the brush, and Menon’s journey is revealed in the process.

This really begins in the mid-1920s, when he sailed to the United Kingdom (UK) for studies at the London School of Economics (LSE). He quickly got involved with politics, burnishing his skills in public speaking and opinion writing. He also participated in an organisation that would transform in 1932 into the ­India League, an advocacy group with which he would come to be singularly associated. India League would play a central role in championing the cause of India’s freedom in the West for the next quarter of a century. During this period, Menon was also involved with the Congress Socialist Party. And through all of these various organisations, he developed important lifelong relationships with the likes of left-wing economist Harold Laski and left-to-right stalwart Minoo Masani.

A Bond for Life

But it was a connection that he made in 1935 that was by far the most significant and that would alter the course not only of Menon’s life, but of history more broadly. Nehru had sent Menon a handwritten letter asking for help with a planned trip to England. The two developed a rapport right off, forging what would become an unbreakable bond that would last the rest of their lives.

Exactly what drove their relationship has long mystified observers of all stripes, from the general public, to peers in government, to members of the larger Nehru clan. Ramesh is not able to provide definitive answers to any of this, but he does help us better understand things, starting with an observation about Menon’s state of mind when Nehru entered the picture. Menon had just lost his father and a prospect at marriage, leaving twin voids in his life that were soon filled by his new-found acquaintance.

The chapters that follow extensively reproduce the numerous letters that the two men frequently shot back and forth to each other. Menon wrote relentlessly, and was demanding, attention seeking, and brittle. He was also brilliant. Nehru especially admired this last quality. In Menon he found what he thought was a truth-teller, someone unafraid to talk back to him, and above all an intellectual equal, far different from the fawning sycophants or petulant protestors he often encountered.

Still, Ramesh does not paint a pretty picture. Menon always seemed to harp on minor mishaps even in the midst of great success, generating controversy wherever he went. His letters to Nehru were either brimming with confident analysis and detailed plans on how to solve complex problems, or were despondent and forlorn, lamenting his inadequacies and worthlessness. The time-consuming responses in turn involved a lot of soothing, cajoling, coaxing, and hand-holding, which together seem a bizarre tax on a Prime Minister facing such a constant barrage of serious problems.

So why did Nehru put up with Menon? Perhaps the most perceptive and convincing explanation was provided by the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who observed in 1961 that Nehru

delights in his own virtuosity and has before his eyes constantly the fate of the Kuomintang, an ossified nationalist party which rotted away until it fell before communism. Hence the extraordinary position of [Krishna] Menon whom he keeps by his side not only because he is tied to him by sentimental bonds but also in order to prevent himself from selling out to comfort, appeasement, respectability, a cozy semi-capitalist regime which, he perfectly realizes, means stagnation and ultimately collapse and defeat. (pp 554–55)

The real key, Ramesh makes clear, was Menon’s capacity for work, his diplomatic savvy, his passion and drive, and above all his analytical foresight and gifts at negotiation. To be sure, Menon was a person of startling ability and breathtaking accomplishment. He was one of the founding editors of Pelican Books, the non-fiction arm of Penguin, where he worked directly with Allen Lane and other legends. The list of authors he assembled was formidable: Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, and Sigmund Freud among others (pp 76–77). He was deeply embedded in British politics and had the potential to pursue a career in Labour circles. He contributed regularly to National Herald and produced key pamphlets promoting India’s points of view in the West (pp 207, 215). He organised relief campaigns in the UK for the famine in Bengal in 1943 and 1944 (p 239). He was squarely in the middle of transfer of power negotiations, literally at times in the room where it happened with Mountbatten (Chapter 11). He was instrumental in keeping India in the Commonwealth (pp 348–50). He helped bring peace to the Korean peninsula (pp 399–406). He was a visionary with respect to Indo–China (pp 418–35).

All of this garnered Menon global fame, and he relished the attention. With this high profile, he travelled around the world for meetings, whispering in the ears of the powerful and offering his opinions and ideas wherever he went, often with constructive results.

A Tragedy

Yet Menon’s reputation suffered. Small errors multiplied, with catastrophic con­sequences as Menon tried to respond with overconfidence on the one hand, and defiance and defensiveness on the other. As the hits kept mounting, and his character and judgment were called into question, his mental health took a beating.

In a certain sense, Menon dreamt of playing in the big leagues his whole life. But when given the chance he was continually unhappy with any position he was offered, always complaining he deserved something better. He also had the exasperating habit of telling everyone on the field how to play the game. Not surprisingly, this turned many of his teammates against him. The losses mounted: a scandal involving jeeps procurement, diminishing of India’s stature over its position on Hungary, and of course defeat at the hands of China.

This was the tragedy of Menon. Ultimately, he sabotaged his own success. When Indira Gandhi spoke with a psychiatrist out of concern for Menon’s psychological stability, she was osten­sibly told that “a man in his condition should not on any account be holding any position of great responsibility” (p 602).

A Chequered Brilliance is a revealing portrait of a tortured genius. It brings into relief the glorious heights Menon scaled, and the terrifying depths to which he sunk—often in quick succession. It makes for dramatic reading.

 

 

 

Updated On : 20th Oct, 2020

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