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Life Among the Scorpions

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LIFE AMONG THE SCORPIONS: Memoirs of a woman in Indian politics (Rupa and Co. 2017, 294 pages, available from Amazon)

No Indian woman has written openly about the stresses and hassles of functioning in the political sphere- it would be too embarrassing to mention sexual harassment in a society that purports to revere leaders and in which women are cast as mothers, sisters, deities (or else slags). Paternalism, tokenism, being side-lined are still the norm in many countries. Indira Gandhi was referred to as gungi gudiya, dumb dolly, until one day she metamorphosed into Durga or Kali and was haloed with divine light. Harriet Harman, till recently acting leader of the Labour Party, illustrates in her memoirs the prevalence of sexist culture in the mother of parliaments; how wearing and dispiriting it is to spend decades in a male dominated environment where male primacy is continually and aggressively asserted. 

And so it is with Jaya Jaitly’s controversial account of her life in the topsy-turvy world of Indian politics. Some have questioned her legitimacy as a  mainstream player, but in surviving thirty years as an activist and confidante of the charismatic trade unionist and cabinet minister George Fernandes she has a unique story. A long standing admirer of her former civil servant husband’s boss, she quickly imbibed Fernandes’ values of plain living and straight thinking. Fernandes was clever, articulate and treated her as an equal, sometimes leaving her to sink or swim. She calls him “mentor, political guru, father mother, brother, best friend, caretaker well-wisher and confidant.” She is from Kerala, he from Karnataka, although from very different social backgrounds. He appreciated her unique qualities, her sensibility and her brains, trying for many years to get her to enter the political fray, but it was only after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the  horrendous 1984  massacre of the Sikhs that Jaya realized she couldn’t hang around on the sidelines.

She calls him George Sahib, the respectful sobriquet used by his staff (though I don’t know  why, as a good socialist,  he couldn’t have insisted on plain George). Fernandes, once a national hero and firebrand, generally branded a “maverick” by journalists, was always a puzzle. Jaya does her best to interpret the man and explain his strategies in portraying him as more sinned against than sinning: a failed seminarian, a temperamental bachelor (married but separated from Leila Kabir, daughter of Humayun Kabir) a workaholic driven by a need to bring justice and equality for the underdog. Jaya goes into painstaking detail to chronicle his efforts to placate both warring factions and allies among his colleagues and how he had to keep balancing his political interests. He almost always  operated from  Christian   values,  but also a position of weakness.  We want to understand him from her viewpoint, to empathize, but there are too many contradictions on the political stage between the mid-80s and late 90s when the play keeps getting re-written, even as the actors are performing it.

I would have profited from a coherent map of the political scene,  where Lallu, Vajpayee, Nitish, Advani and others are placed in their political and personal context, their moves plotted out and analyzed. What, for instance, are the generic reasons behind the near universal absence of principle and integrity? The bargaining games read like a thriller, full of red herrings and false clues but chapters 15-19 are a missed opportunity to try and explain why Indian politics are so convoluted, so foggy and lacking in ideology. Jaya is observant enough, but her narrative only points fingers at the villains, without providing answers to their motives. Those of us who are ignorant of the details of those times will be baffled and exasperated  by the complexity.

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George Fernandes and Jaya in happier times

Elected president of the socialist Samata Party (which allied itself with the Hindu nationalist BJP) she found she was on a tightrope act between one unsteady coalition after another.    Still, she continued to work tirelessly with traditional crafts and arts, highlighting outstanding practitioners of pottery, painting, woodwork, weaving and dyeing, whose incredible centuries old skills had never been given the value they deserve. Touchingly she got Fernandes to agree to introducing khadi homespun uniforms on railways and clay cups for station chai when he was Minister for Industries. All along she wrote books in her limpid style on regional arts, devised a stunning collection of crafts maps(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUU1lPvuxoM) of every state, and published a collection of stories called Vishvakarma’s Children (Vishvakarma is the patron of crafts folk). Her most notable public achievement was the creation of the open air  market for crafts in Delhi, Dilli HaatShe had to fight a mighty battle with bureaucrats to bring this about and now it has been taken over by a corrupt cabal of local politicians. Still, it remains one of the very few open-air fun places for families, even though it has  changed from her original intentions.
Jaya is a woman of vision, quicksilver in her thinking, who grew up an old school patriot. That she has been largely ignored in the public sphere says much about the political and social establishment. Her special field, crafts, is just not politically grandiose to merit the space it deserves. The exquisite work and amazing skills of craftspeople are largely seen as decorative embellishments for a shelf, but not worthy of a decent degree of investment. To acquire her level of knowledge has come about after years of travelling in remote places and spending long hours encouraging artisans and creatively promoting them in exhibitions and exchanges all over the world.
She is resigned to being ignored, but she must have hoped for a platform from where she could promote the people she champions. There was a rumour that she had been nominated to the Rajya Sabha (Upper House), but it came to nothing, scuppered by Sonia Gandhi and her acolytes. 
Most reviewers have fixated on the story of George and Jaya and also the machinations of the slippery Nitish Kumar. Also linked to Fernandes is the notorious Tehelka affair, which provided plenty of schadenfreude for Delhi-ites. How could one of their own, a good-looking, handloom sari, big-bindi wearing, foreign educated compatriot be drowning in sleazy allegations that graphically showed her accepting a bribe! “You can’t argue with a video, can you” went the gossip. Jaya stepped down as Samata Party president as soon as the CBI started probing allegations into a laughably small sum that she had allegedly taken in lieu of a promised introduction to the Defence Minister (Fernandes) from an arms dealer. Fernandes resigned in order to try and save the NDA alliance. He told her to address the Party on her own, with no backing from anyone except an an M.P. called Betty D’Souza. Still, Jaya has no criticism of the man for whose sake she was called “rogue, companion, mistress, sleeping partner, conspirator, corrupt, greedy wheeler-dealer who engaged with shady characters.”
Since then, and continuing now for more than 15 years, she has spent herself in trying to prove her innocence. She engaged an expert from the U.K. to prove that the video was doctored and goes into great detail to show how millions of rupees and thousands of hours have been wasted in useless court procedures.  The sting operation, conducted by a journal named Tehelka, was owned by a man languishing in a Goan jail for sexually assaulting a young woman.
Jaya defends herself with spirit. “(In) Operation West End (name of an expensive Delhi suburb)…I  was shown supposedly engaged in conspiracy and corruption with arms dealers in the presence of crooks, middlemen and army officers at the residence of the Defence Minister…I came up against a cruel mix of a gullible public, misogynists who hate women in politics, a gleeful opposition, the entire sensation-seeking lynch mob oriented media, the usual scandal-mongers et al.”
Meanwhile, Fernandes, decimated by Alzheimer’s, has been isolated by his wife, Leila Kabir, from the one person he completely trusted. Jaya is allowed to see him once a fortnight, for 15 minutes, between 11.05 am and 11.25. She must wear a mask and not touch him. He lies on his bed, mute, blank and unresponsive, a shadow of the man he once was.
In this sorry tale there is no happy ending, but it is a fascinating and eminently readable one, where the heroine- born with a silver spoon- develops her persona to become a chronicler of people and events in post-independence India. Her great grand uncle was Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair who was a member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council. Her maternal grandfather was Rajah Sir Vasudeva Rajah of Kollengode. Her paternal grandmother was a close associate of the early nationalist Annie Besant. Her three uncles had distinguished careers, one of them being a friend of W.B. Yeats and Bandaranaike at Oxford. Krishna Krsihna Chettur, her father, was India’s first head of mission to Japan.
Vinoba Bhave and Gandhiji patted her head and she was surrounded by a prevailing culture of patriotism and optimism in a glorious future. Her complete lack of fear and independent nature are rooted in the matrilineal system (Marumakkatyam)  of Kerala, where women largely rule the roost. She writes evocatively and amusingly about memories of Kollengode and Vengunad Palace: eating off banana leaves, the taste of spongy idlis, mango pickle and crisp dosas, and  how she dined separately from her Brahmin cousins (her mother was a Kshatriya), who sat apart in splendid isolation  from other castes.
Until the age of 13 she travelled with her diplomat father to Japan, Burma and Belgium and was sent to an English girl’s boarding school. One day she was called to the Head’s study to be informed that her beloved father had  died of a heart attack  on the golf course. Her world changed from limousines and grand ambassadorial residences to a tiny two room barracks apartment in Mandi House, where I first got to know her.
We both went to school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, a starchy establishment run by Irish nuns, where June/Jaya was pretty much outstanding at everything from French to basketball and art. She gave off an easy confidence and grace that attracted everyone and later, at Miranda House University of Delhi, refused to be intimidated by a fierce old hostel Warden called Miss Kurien. One night while old Kurien was patrolling the dimly lit corridors, we watched horrified as June let off a salvo of galvanized dustbins, rolling them behind the Warden. Miss K ran ahead terrified, not knowing what was pursuing her, while we collapsed in hysterical laughter.
She then spent two years at Smith College, a member of the elite Seven Sisters Ivy League colleges, and we met up again in London where we shared a flat.   After her marriage to her hip college sweetheart, Tony (Ashok) Jaitly, the couple spent some years in Kashmir where Tony was an IAS officer. Unlike Arundhati Roy, Jaya’s views on Kashmir are decidedly un-radical, but she is deeply sympathetic to its unique character and special status.
One of the chief accusations against her is her consistent defence of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. She insists he has been maligned and misrepresented.  However, too much has happened since the Godhra atrocity (where he was accused of standing by passively) to persist in blue sky thinking. When in 1996 the Samata Party formed an alliance with the nationalist BJP, she excuses Fernandes because they thought they could tame the tiger of Hindu extremism. That could have been true when Vajpayee was Prime Minister, but we are now living in very different times.
Because this memoir is much more than an apologia for Fernandes, the Samata Party and herself, it makes it difficult to categorize: the story of touching devotion to a man, to a period in history and how a ruthless system bears down on anyone not armoured with cunning and guile.
The miracle is that Jaya has retained her poise, stoicism and goodness and remains devoid of bitterness or self-pity.
One wishes she had been more circumspect, more savvy and thus saved herself from being so badly scorched. Errors of judgment inevitably  end up backfiring, with disastrous results.


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