The BS column: The Saint Sonia Syndrome

(Published in the Business Standard, June 8, 2010)

A few months ago, Norberto Fuentes wrote an autobiography of Fidel Castro, a book that starts and ends in Castro’s voice, where by page 150 the reader has forgotten that this is a fictional creation. Fuentes’ relationship with Fidel was a dark and troubled one; he was once one of Castro’s supporters, then one of Castro’s prisoners, and finally one of Cuba’s exiles.

The Autobiography of Fidel Castro, unauthorized and unacknowledged by its subject, reads like the most venomous of letters from a disillusioned lover: Fuentes was close enough to Fidel to know exactly where to put the knife in, whether he’s describing Fidel’s real thoughts on Che Guevara or his fascination with the bloody exactness of the guillotine. In its original Spanish edition, Fuentes’ fictionalized autobiography is pulling readers in, despite its thousand-page bulk—in part because it fills an unusual gap. Castro, unlike most dictators, has never written his memoirs, and inexact, fictionalized and dependent on Fuentes imagination though it is, his Autobiography fills a need among readers to know more than the sanitized, official hagiographies will offer.

In India, a biography of Sonia Gandhi is available. Written by Rasheed Kidwai, it is dutiful, thorough, respectful—not, in fact, a terribly exciting read. It sold well when it came out, in the absence of better material. In the years since Kidwai wrote his biography and since Javier Moro, the writer-nephew of Dominique Lapierre, penned his “fictional biography” of the Indian Congress Party leader, there have been no better biographies of Mrs Gandhi.

The Red Sari, Moro’s slightly breathless account of Sonia Maino’s life before and after she became Mrs Rajiv Gandhi, has been attacked in a tide of rising hysteria by Congress loyalists. Currently, Moro has been threatened with defamation suits if he publishes the book in India; his publishers, Roli Books, are holding firm and Moro is annoyed enough to have threatened his own lawsuit in turn. The question of defamation—if any—is one for the courts to decide; but defamation only applies if you get the facts of a person’s life wrong.

The Congress point of view, summarized by the arguments of spokesperson Dr Abhishek Singhvi, appears to be that since this is not an authorized biography, it shouldn’t be published. There are also allegations of defamatory material—none of these can be judged until The Red Sari is published here. Moro’s prose tends to the purple, but it’s not very likely with his background as a decent researcher and with Roli’s experience that the book contains much libelous matter. With respect, here are three things the Congress might want to consider.

1) If you’re a public figure, you’re fair game for fiction:
The ethics of the fictional biography/ autobiography have yet to be established, but as Paul Theroux knew when he wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow about his friendship with VS Naipaul, it’s perfectly kosher to write about someone who’s already in the public eye. Moro allows himself to speculate about Sonia Gandhi’s thoughts and feelings—but by calling his work a fictional biography, he’s covered his bases. The famous have lives that can be researched, are often exhaustively covered, and are of great interest to the ordinary public—as long as the writer isn’t making up stuff, he’s on safe ground. Or more bluntly, the famous make excellent raw material for a book. And free speech covers the right to speculate about the inner lives of the powerful. If Castro and Obama can take it, so can Sonia.

2) Don’t be an unpaid publicist for the other guy:
The Congress hysteria over The Red Sari has brought it front-page stories, prime time television slots and added anything from 5,000 to 10,000 potential readers to Moro’s audience. Presumably Roli Books and Moro are less than grateful because of the aggravation they’ve been caused, but the Congress PR machine might want to consider that their campaign has raised far more interest in The Red Sari than any publisher would have been able to achieve unaided.

3) Do it the Obama way: There’s no question of an unauthorized biography of Barack Obama doing anywhere as well as his own accounts of his life have done. Why? Because Obama’s autobiographical writings are searingly honest, detailed and brilliantly written. The sleazy, gossipy biography or the fictionalized biography just can’t compete. If Sonia Gandhi wrote her own memoirs, or authorized a really good biographer to write a no-holds-barred account of her life, there’d be no room for the overblown romanticism of The Red Sari. Given that its only competition is a hagiography, Moro’s book will do brilliantly. What would you rather read, the life of St Sonia, or an exaggerated but human account of Sonia Maino’s journey to become Sonia Gandhi?





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