'A Rude Life' book review: Rude awakening in ruder times

Vir Sanghvi’s memoirs are more about a lost India than celebrity encounters

Published: 01st August 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 31st July 2021 06:06 PM   |  A+A-

Vir Sanghvi

Vir Sanghvi

A memoir is not an autobiography, since it allows the author to choose his parentheses. The elegant and ingenious writer that he is, Vir Sanghvi uses the right punctuations in the self-deprecatory tour de force, A Rude Life, to tell a larger story. You suddenly pause between chapters to realise that the book is more than just about Vir Sanghvi. It is the story of a lost India, a nation in transition, a subcontinent of desire, despair and redemption. Sanghvi’s US-educated mother Vimoo, whose family was “in the same league as the Sarabhais and other top industrial families in Ahmedabad”, elopes with Ramesh, his middle-class father who became a wanted Communist because “he cared about India”.

Vimoo insists she wants a Paris wedding with Hindu priest and all. Their story could well be a William Wyler flick titled ‘Paris Holiday’—it is she who gets Ramesh a passport and a ticket on a ship to Paris. After escaping from her “incandescent with rage” father, she decides on a proper Hindu wedding in Paris. The despairing Ramesh prevails on PN Haksar who persuades top diplomat Appa Pant to preside over the ceremony. Sure, the book has inside anecdotes about actors, politicians and tycoons, but then any journalist with Sanghvi’s professional pedigree would have them. However, the individuals who seem most real are from his formative years, like the Oxford don who helped him to study and live in London after his father passed.

Sanghvi’s journalistic principle is worth adopting—be interested in people to spot their interesting stories. The image he describes of the breast-obsessed Raj Kapoor sitting “on a gaddi; cross-legged like a Russian Buddha” could turn the page you are reading into an Ouija board. Kapoor, who was making the iconic Satyam Shivam Sundaram, was having a tiff with Lata Mangeshkar. He tells Sanghvi—“‘Take a stone,’ he said. ‘It is just a stone. But put some religious markings on it and it becomes God. (I assume he meant a Shiv Ling.) It is how you see things that matter. You hear a beautiful voice. But only later do you discover that it comes from an ugly girl...’ He paused. ‘Take out the thing about ugly girl,’ he commanded. ‘Lata will get upset.’” The Sanghvis were on visiting terms with the Vajpayee family and for three years in a row, spent Diwali at 3 Race Course Road—“always a completely non-political affair. They would light fireworks in the garden, there would be dinner afterwards and there was no sense that you were spending Diwali with the Prime Minister of India. At home, Vajpayee was just another doting grandfather who loved celebrating the festival with Niharika.” Imagine any editor celebrating Diwali at PM Modi’s home. They would become vainer peacocks.

Most editors get pomposities by middle age, and memoirs abound with statements like ‘While having dinner with the prime minister, I dissuaded him from invading China before the first course was over.’ Sanghvi does have dinner with prime ministers but all he invades is their political privacy. Do not treat this book like yet another celebrity scribe’s yarn. Sanghvi reminds us of kinder, reasonable and vulnerable times when prime ministers complained about taking barbiturates, or drove all the way to a TV studio to explain an energy deal important for the country, or vented to a young editor about a womanising, conniving president. A Rude Life is a memoir of one of India’s best-known journalists, warts and all.

I prefer to see it as an outlier history of India, warts and all, but of an India that once was and should be again. As the pages turn, you often encounter a world of elitist esoterica—the apartment in Carmichael Road and the flat in London, childhood holidays at Grosvenor House, having VK Krishna Menon and Dilip Kumar as frequent house guests, editing the Mayo College magazine and getting a taste for good dining at Brasenose. Is Sanghvi dropping names, writing about cruising South Bombay with Bob Geldof and having dinners with Amitabh Bachchan? As I read on, I get it. He isn’t showing off any more than the next guy. Sanghvi’s grandfather insisted that his grandson be brought into the world by Sir William Gilliatt, the Queen’s doctor who delivered Prince Charles. This is his life. And it is a good life. A rude life. This is the rudest compliment Sanghvi is going to get from me. 

A Rude Life
By: Vir Sanghvi
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 400
Price: Rs 699

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