Where Some Things are Remembered: Profiles and Conversations
By: Dom Moraes
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs 499
All history is a corridor of mirrors, in which adventitious images are recorded for posterity to accept or not to.” Thus writes Dom Moraes in a passage dated 1980 that fronts Where Some Things are Remembered: Profiles and Conversation, edited by Sarayu Srivatsa. The sketches included in the volume are taken from Moraes’ memoirs, anthologies, articles and from his many books, covering work of about half a century—from the late 1950s to the early 2000s.
The post-Independence years when the country was not only finding its footing but was also trying to process what it meant to be an Indian polity were undoubtedly very rich fodder for a journalist. Moraes was, strictly speaking, not one, but he did meet and write about the movers and shakers of the new nation. He was, effectively, viewing history being made and recording adventitious images for posterity.
Beginning with a profile of his father, Frank Moraes, the collection includes conversations with the likes of The Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, R P Goenka, K P S Gill and others behind the scenes in the making of the country, such as Mani Shankar Mukherjee, R V Pandit and Professor G S Dhillon. There is a long essay on Moraes’ association and eventual fall out with Indira Gandhi, whose biography, published after the Emergency, is amongst the books he is known for.
That Moraes came, and wrote from a place of privilege is undeniable. While subjectivity is an important feature of literary journalism, of which Moraes was certainly among the pioneers, his incredulousness and mild suspicion regarding those that do not speak or understand much of the English language colour his idea of the person. His own ability to converse in presumably, impeccable English is everywhere, and his impressions of the person he is writing about are often measured up against class, caste and yes, whether they can articulate well in English or not.
For instance, when their English is good, the interviewee becomes deserving of the honorific sir (in the case of K P S Gill), or worthy of the obsequious words of admiration he has to say about Indira Gandhi. When the interviewee’s English is not up to Moraes’ expectation—he thinks Laloo Prasad Yadav is speaking Bhojpuri and not English with an accent; he is quick to pass judgement, even mock. So often does the matter of English come up that it soon begins to grate, this constant measuring of a person by their knowledge of a language not their own.
To read several of these profiles and conversations in the times we live in makes for an often-uncomfortable endeavour. Moraes wrote of sections of journalists who were close to those that led the country through some of the most tumultuous years of Independent India’s history. He wrote about favours sought and given, of relationships between newspapermen and politicians. All these things, in 2019, have new, more dangerous meanings.
Perhaps dating these pieces would have made for more forgiving reading in today’s socio-political environment. Moraes’ prose style is exemplary, no doubt, but the value of these pieces belongs to an older and perhaps more accepting world. In the present, they more often than not come across as surficial, prejudiced and depending on the subject, arrogant, dismissive or sycophantic.