Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Natwar Singh Walks With Lions

A book with stories from the life of a diplomat who was also later an External Affairs Minister sounds very interesting. Unfortunately, Walking With Lions promises much and delivers very little; it would have been better titled Looking at Lions in the Zoo, because that's pretty much what the reader gets - glimpses of world leaders, each of them with about as much personality as a cardboard cutout.

Perhaps I expected too much. After all, the book is just a compilation of fifty of Natwar Singh's newspaper columns. Therefore, each story is necessarily short. The language is terse to the point of brusque. Some of the chapters feel less like stories and more like disjointed sequences of thoughts and musings, as if written at the last minute to meet a column deadline. And sadly, most of the stories are not interesting enough - I guess the juicy stories must have been kept back for diplomatic reasons. Indeed, there's barely a story or two from his period as External Affairs Minister.

Admittedly, some of the tales are interesting - Margaret Thatcher's encounter with Chandraswami, for example. Another interesting revelation was that Nargis Dutt was almost caught for shoplifting in London. His essay on MF Husain is also excellent (part of the essay here). He also claims that Begum Bhutto told him that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not hanged - he hit his head and died in a scuffle with his guards the night before he was to be executed.

Be prepared for some sickening flattery of the Nehru-Gandhi family, especially Mrs Indira Gandhi. Natwar Singh was a huge fan of Mrs Gandhi, and the reverence seems to have extended to her son as well. Many stories are about how she dealt with world leaders on her own terms. His opinion of her nemesis Morarji Desai is made clear in the very first two chapters (vengeful; questionable dietary practices). He also raves about Rajiv Gandhi's eloquence, charm and charisma multiple times.

This would have been a much better book had the author chosen to expand upon the essays, fleshed them out and put them in context. The stories aren't even in any discernible order - at least categorizing them according to the period of Natwar Singh's diplomatic life would have helped. He could also have expanded upon the personalities and quirky characteristics of some of these leaders. But perhaps he didn't know some of them well enough.

Overall - avoidable. 
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