Lifestyle Books and Art 09 May 2018 Book review: Lacks o ...

Book review: Lacks objective analysis, more akin to a fiction

Published May 9, 2018, 12:42 am IST
Updated May 9, 2018, 12:42 am IST
Syama Prasad Mookerjee: Life and Times by Tathagata Roy Penguin, Rs 599.
 Syama Prasad Mookerjee: Life and Times by Tathagata Roy Penguin, Rs 599.

Tathagata Roy occupies a very exalted position in Constitutional terms — he is the Governor of Tripura. He is also no stranger to controversy — his poisonous barbs on Twitter have often landed him in trouble. Another important thing about Roy, which has a critical bearing on these two other facts, is that he is a raging Islamophobe (his Twitter diatribes reveal that). Not to say deeply sexist, parochial, and a casual and garden-variety casteist. In his biography of Syama Prasad Mookerjee he holds no prisoners, to put it mildly, and this ruins what could have been a worthy book.

It is not in itself a poor effort in terms of research. Mookerjee’s life needs to be studied in detail and depth. He was an important personality before and after Independence. Son of the famous barrister Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee, Syama Prasad became the Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University at the age of 33 — though it would be difficult to deny that it helped being the son of an illustrious father. He became deeply involved with the activities of All India Hindu Mahasabha later and rose to become a minister in the Bengal government of pre-Independence days. He joined Nehru’s Cabinet after Independence but resigned after two-and-a-half years over the government’s “inept handing of the East Bengal question, or rather the condition of Hindu Bengali minority there”. He died in Kashmir, supporting a Dogra agitation in Jammu, against the Sheikh Abdullah regime.

Roy, meanwhile, expresses glee, befitting a schoolboy posturing aggressively in front of callow friends, about the “missed chance” of a Civil War with Muslims, comparing it to the American Civil war, which was fought over abolishing slavery, a far nobler cause. He rips apart the last Muslim Premier of pre-Partition Bengal, H. S. Suhrawardy, painting him a total debauch and financially corrupt man. All the Hindu attacks on Muslims in this period and later are “reprisals” in his eyes. His almost graphic description of Muslim butchery during the riots hurts senses. Citing an incident in which Mookerjee once gave shelter to poet Nazrul Islam, he claims that Mookerjee and all Right-wing Hindus who idolise him, are “secular” while the rest, who even dare to espouse any sympathy for any Muslim, are “pseudo-secular”. 

Towards the end of the book, he also tells us that Mookerjee always insisted on a Hindu nurse while ill in Kashmir, where he also passed away. Naturally, he blames the Muslim doctor for this unfortunate incident, although a Hindu doctor was also involved in Mookerjee’s treatment.While Mookerjee is no more and his actions and biases do not influence the politics of the country anymore in real time, Roy case is different. As the sitting governor of a state, wherein he is supposed to act neutrally as per the Constitution, he seems grossly unfit for the role going by this book. This book, and his Islamophobia, put a big question mark on his suitability for a Constitutional position.

The other chief fault of the book is that it is a hagiography couched as history. Mookerjee is Roy’s hero and he can see no fault in him. He ignores his sexism — noting approvingly that his wife “surrendered” to him completely and mentioning without any comment that Mookerjee was not a fan of the women of the household wearing “sleeveless” blouses. He ignores Mookerjee’s war-mongering post-Independence over Kashmir and East Bengal. He ignores his opportunism in joining the Congress government post-Independence, after the people rejected All India Hindu Mahasabha, of which he was a big leader, electorally. Roy tries to make us believe that Nehru was jealous of Mookerjee and that he made his life difficult as a minister. Nehru’s complaint that Mookerjee had filled his ministry with Bengalis is presented as an unreasonable grudge though the figures he cites show that Nehru was right in being worried about it. He also presents it as a given that Rabindranath Tagore, Nobel Laureate or not, had some kind of a right to interfere in the functioning of Calcutta University by having his people appointed there, through Mookerjee. 

However, if one reads between the lines, it seems that Calcutta University was the last bastion of Hindu bhadralok, which the government of the time did not like. This is not a sin in politics, by any means. Possibly the government knew of such nepotism and that was the reason it wanted to change the situation. Finally, Roy’s attempts to put the blame of Mookerjee’s death on Nehru — who he accuses of masterminding a conspiracy — is ludicrous. The testimony of the nurse he cites is more suitable for fiction. Maybe he should consider writing fiction after all, of a historical variety… Historical accuracy and objective analysis seem to be beyond him.

Abhimanyu Kumar is a journalist based in Delhi. His first book of poems, Milan and the Sea, was released last year.



More From Books and Art