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The Rediff Special/Vir Sanghvi

The second half

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Why should a former chief minister brother to write a novel? Well, the answer to that is another question: what does a chief minister who has just been ousted from office do with all the time on his hands?

Behind those two questions lies the story of The Insider, P V Narasimha Rao's first novel, much hyped by publishers Penguin as a roman-a-clef, as a precedent- shattering insider's look at politics by a former prime minister.

The truth is that Narasimha Rao began the book mainly because he had too much time on his hands. He was chief minister of Andhra Pradesh for less than two years, came to New Delhi and tried to find a place in the national Congress organisation. Fortunately for him, because Indira Gandhi liked him, he got to become an All India Congress Committee general secretary. Unfortunately for him, this period coincided with the Emergency which he thoroughly disapproved of.

He spent his time during the Emergency era talking about the 20-point programme and searching for a means of self-expression only to find that he had even more time because Indira Gandhi lost the 1977 election and the Congress went into Opposition.

He decided that something needed to be said about the role of chief ministers in the post-Jawaharlal Nehru era and wrote a paper on this subject which he read out a seminar at the London School of Oriental and African Studies. Despite being a fine piece of work -- elegantly written and cogently argued -- this never got the reception it deserved.

So, says Narasimha Rao now, "I decided that some of these same ideas could be better expressed in a novel. I felt people would relate better to these experiences in the form of fiction."

Accordingly he began work on the manuscript of The Other Half, a novel about a Congress worker called Niranjan who rises to become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Being Narasimha Rao, he wrote it in a style where the narrative was frequently interrupted for long dissertations on contemporary Indian history. For instance, Niranjan had only to hear that the Chinese had attacked India for the book to go into a 25-page account of the 1962 debacle, before returning in Niranjan's more mundane Andhraite preoccupations.

When much of the manuscript was ready -- the story had reached the stage where Niranjan became chief minister -- he sent out copies to various friends among them Nikhil Chakravartty, editor of Mainstream, to which Rao was a frequent but anonymous contributor. Chakravartty suggested that a copy be sent to his friend Mrinalini Sarabhai, whose daughter Mallika ran a book publishing company called Mapin.

It was through the Sarabhais that Rao was put in touch with New York literary agent Lyn Franklin, whose roster was later to include such luminaries as Bishop Tutu. Franklin told Rao that the book had potential and urged him to finish it. At that state the author wanted to end it with Niranjan's downfall as chief minister.

That is where matters remained for several years. Much to Rao's surprise -- and to the astonishment of his colleagues -- he rose from one position of influence to another, ending up as prime minister almost by accident.

He had intended to update the finish The Other Half in 1991, when he took a conscious decision to retire from active politics and move to Hyderabad. But when destiny intervened and shifted him to Race Course Road instead, the new prime minister decided that the book would have to wait. He told Franklin, who was keen to publish what she had, that he would not like any novels published while he was still prime minister.

But then, Rao lost the initiative.

Nikhil Chakravartty had retained a copy of the manuscript and he gave it to Outlook magazine which had a massive scoop for its launch issue. Unfortunately for Rao, Outlook focused on the subject of obvious interest: the many slightly naughty bits dealing with 'fornication' and the like.

Franklin was outraged (in an interview to Sunday at the time she complained about breach of copyright) and Rao was despondent that what was intended to be a noble effort to examine the role of politics in modern India had been received as the breathless scribbling of a septuagenarian pornographer.

It was clear that The Other Half would have to be published sooner rather than later. Fate appeared to agree.

In no time at all Rao lost the prime ministership and had plenty of time to revise the book. Franklin approached Penguin's David Davidar and it was decided the Viking would publish the first hardback edition.

Penguin's editors got to work and many changes were imposed on the manuscript by all sides. Out went all the naughty bits ("I was concerned that people would read only those parts," explains Rao), the central character became Anand rather than Niranjan and Rao's old friend, The Hindustan Times 's political editor Kalyani Shanker is thanked in the acknowledgements for having thought of the new title.

That is the genesis of The Insider.

Despite all the revisions, the book has not been updated significantly. It still ends with the central character as chief minister and everybody -- the publishers, the agent and the author himself -- concedes that a sequel is in the works. As Rao says, "I have him into the chief minister's chair, now I have to get him out."

As planned, the sequel will cover Anand's time as general secretary (it will be fun to see how he gets around his opposition to the Emergency), his rise to foreign minister (a triumph by most standards), and his stint as home minister (which had decidedly mixed reviews). As of now, Narasimha Rao does not intend to write about his prime ministership -- at least, not as part of fiction.

But he does wish to set the record straight in one or two areas. He is presently working on a monograph on Ayodhya. He is not sure whether it will be a long article, a pamphlet or even, a book. (Cynics have already suggested a title: Babri Masjid -- My part in its downfall).

Though the official position is that the sequel to The Insider will come next, Rao's personal staff say that he is much more obsessed with Ayodhya, and that until he has finished that manuscript, he won't go back to The Insider sequel. In any case, he hasn't written much of it. He has only updated the story to 1974 from 1973.

Nevertheless, whatever it is that Rao chooses to write next, it will be worth reading if The Insider is any guide. Not only is the book readable but it marks what could be the beginning of a new trend in which the players themselves record history as it happened.

(Courtesy: Sunday magazine)

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