Margaret Alva (and the Alva family) needs no introduction. She has been a lawyer, politician, MP, minister and governor, and is now retired. This is her autobiographical story, from Mangalore/Bangalore to Delhi, travelling the world in the process.
Other than a brief Prologue and a brief Epilogue, there are 28 chapters, divided under the heads of ‘The Wonder Years’, ‘The Indira Gandhi Years’, ‘The Rajiv Gandhi Years’, ‘The PV Narasimha Rao Years’, ‘In the Lok Sabha’ and ‘AICC Days’. That encapsulates her life’s progression. “But as I shut the window on my past, I have no regrets. I have lived my life in my own way.” Why do we read a book like this? First, there may be personal titbits we find interesting, they personalise the story. For instance, Indira Gandhi instructed her to attend a UN Conference. “The next morning, I drove to Kasturba Gandhi Marg to pick up my tickets, visas, etc., from the travel agent.” The parked car had been stolen. “We finally recovered it, but with parts missing.”
Unfortunately, such personalised stuff is rare. Margaret Alva’s style of writing is somewhat boring. She clearly maintained a diary. The bulk of the book reads like an expanded version of that diary. Though rare in Indian autobiographies, there are no candid personal details that make the story compelling.
Second, there may be nuggets that have political overtones. Stuff we didn’t know. Like the then minister of chemicals and fertilisers wanting a FCI contract to be given to a specific firm and punishing Margaret Alva’s husband (who worked in FCI) when this was not done. Along these lines, the one I like the most was about Rajiv Gandhi campaigning in Karnataka. Because of bad weather, the helicopter had to land in a field outside the city (Belgaum) and Rajiv Gandhi had to find a way of getting to the city. He hitched a ride from a passing vehicle. There was another occasion when several MPs went on a visit to the UN. In the hotel, the housekeeper turned up at the room of a specific MP, to turn the bed in. “As the housekeeper finished clearing the room, and asked if he required anything, the MP tried to pull her into bed with him!” There was a strike. “The MP explained what had happened. He was most apologetic. He said that when she knocked and said ‘room service’, did up the bed and drew the curtains, he presumed that she had been ‘sent’ by the hotel for the night.” Unfortunately, even such personal touches are rare. It is a very dry book. The author isn’t Margaret Alva. The author is the hat (or hats) Margaret Alva wore.
Third, we may get to know how and why some political decisions were taken. You will find sprinklings of these—the Emergency, friction with Sanjay Gandhi, the Shah Bano case, issues with the sports ministry, women’s reservation, the falling out with Sonia Gandhi.
These are interesting and revealing. But don’t expect anything salacious. However, there is one anecdote I found odd. When she upbraided PV Narasimha Rao for not taking a decision, ‘Not taking a decision is also a decision,’ he answered, unperturbed. I have heard and read several people recount this anecdote, as if it occurred with them. Did the PM make a habit of saying this? In sum, it is a book anyone interested in recent Indian politics should read. But having read it, pass it on. It is not a book worth hanging onto.