The politics of a memoir: From Babur to Obama, the tradition lives on

December 06, 2020 12:15 AM

While the popularity of the political memoir has been unflagging, Barack Obama’s hugely successful A Promised Land is much more than just continuation of the long political tradition of a public servant accounting for their time in office

A file photo of former US President Barack Obama (Bloomberg)A file photo of former US President Barack Obama (Bloomberg)

By Suvanshkriti Singh

Barack Obama is no stranger to literary fame. Even before A Promised Land, the celebrated latest addition to the American genre of presidential memoirs, broke records to become the darling of every bestseller list, his chops as a memoirist had already been established. A much younger Obama recorded his quest for identity and belonging in the penetratingly intimate Dreams From My Father, with his authorial debut selling an impressive 3.3 million copies globally.

Yet, admire the literary merit of A Promised Land as one may, reading it, one cannot escape the weight of the cultural responsibility it bears. Obama’s memoir is a continuation of the long political tradition of a public servant accounting for their time in office: Bill Clinton produced the nearly thousand-page-long My Life in defence of his political legacy, and while George W Bush may have clothed his Decision Points in the language of leadership lessons, the justificatory impulse remained. From across the pond, there are Tony Blair’s A Journey, and David Cameron’s For the Record, to name only the most recent. A hop, skip, and a jump from there is Emmanuel Macron’s memoir-cum-manifesto Revolution.

And these cover only the last three decades. The popularity of the political memoir has been unflagging, from the Caesars of classical Rome to Babur in Mughal India to Ulysses Grant writing on the American Civil War. And, of course, Jawaharlal Nehru and MK Gandhi in British India in the inter-war years, as well as Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle in post-war Europe. George Egerton, professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia’s history department and a scholar of the political memoir as a literary genre, explains the appeal of memoirs as a function of both their purpose, and the circumstances of their production.

Memoirs, Egerton asserts, are almost always generated by moments of crisis, “by interesting times like wars and revolutions, by leadership or witness to the exercise of power”, and “the personal linkage between the author and the past in memoir transforms the description of events, behaviour, and circumstances into the narration of personal experience.” What explains A Promised Land’s 8.8 lakh first-day sales figure, then, is not only that it speaks to the Trumpian challenge facing the mythical liberal democracy that is the pride of the US, but also the empathy it evokes for Barack the son, suitor, husband, father, and friend — for Barack, the fallible human.

However, relative to the origins of the genre itself, the rising economic value of political memoirs is a rather recent phenomenon, dating back roughly to the late 19th century. Even though the memoirs of Grant, and Lloyd George earned impressive sums, for much of even the 20th century, a $65-million advance for a three-book deal — Barack’s two-part memoir, and Michelle’s Becoming — was unheard of. Before the Obamas took the publishing world by storm, the record for the steepest advance for a memoir was held by Clinton’s My Life at $15 million, with Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices a close third at $14 million. In comparison, Blair’s A Journey bagged a £4.6-million advance, equivalent to around $7 million (at 2010 exchange rate).

This puzzle is perhaps better resolved by the view that the politics — and, inevitably then, the economics — of memoirs is one of personality. Elizabeth Kuruvilla, executive editor at Penguin India, identifies two broad strains of political memoirs and autobiographies. The first are personality-driven narratives of the inspirational kind, into which she slots the books by both Obamas to explain the magnitude of their appeal. “The other style of putting out a memoir,” she says, “would be the explosive, tell-all kind.” Churchill and Cameron jump to mind.

The distinctions, of course, are not rigid. What makes the political memoir valuable as a source of contemporary historiography goes much beyond revelatory trivia: reflection on the memoirist’s growth in response to their circumstances, and an honest appraisal of the stamp the individual leaves on their socio-political environs. Equally, one appreciates the gossipy bits in an otherwise high-minded oeuvre. In India itself, one reason for the hype around Obama’s book, as Kuruvilla observes, has come from the uproar surrounding the titbits on the author’s impression of Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, as well as the nature of the BJP’s politics.

One would be amiss, having spoken of Obama and Singh in the same breath, not to state the obvious. Despite his 10 years at the helm of the Indian nation, a tenure marked by much criticism, controversy, and change, the only literature on offer from Singh seems to be academic. No memoir of scandalous — or record-straightening — revelations, nor one of reflective self-assessment. Not even one of vindication. In this, Singh is the norm, not the exception. IK Gujral’s Matters of Discretion remains the only memoir by an Indian prime minister in the last three decades.

Admittedly, the list of autobiographical works by leaders of national import is relatively more substantial. On offer is literature ranging from LK Advani’s My Country, My Life and P Chidambaram’s Speaking Truth to Power to Lalu Prasad Yadav’s (co-authored) Gopalganj to Raisina Road and Pranab Mukherjee’s multi-volume memoir. Yet, where the prevalence of political memoirs in popular culture is concerned, even a cursory comparison between the Anglophone West and India reveals glaring differences. Not the least of these is the near-absence of a global appeal to political memoirs from India.

Manasi Subramaniam, executive editor and head of literary rights at Penguin India, believes that comparing American and Indian politicians is inherently false. For her, this is a function, in part, of the relative international significance of the United States vis-à-vis any other nation. She asserts that the phenomenal success of the Obama memoirs stems, without a doubt, from the global superstardom enjoyed by the couple — he, the leader of the free world, with a rockstar status to boot, and she, an icon of both feminism and style. Subramaniam reasons that within India, an Advani or Lalu memoir enjoys a substantial readership, comparable to the one similar writing by a popular leader of any other country would find within that country. “But, I would be surprised,” she explains, “if a memoir by a politician from a small eastern European nation, for instance, finds much appeal outside its borders.”
The inequality is structural, a function of American hegemony, and universal.

Where, then, does the lack of a supply-demand equilibrium in the genre of political memoir stem from?
For Rachna Kalra, founder of marketing and communications consultancy WindWord, the answer lies, perhaps, in the culture of party politics in India, which makes politicians wary of writing a tell-all memoir. “The united party front that politics seems to call for prevents controversial revelation in memoirs, regardless of whether the individuals in question are still active in politics or not. Perhaps, people feel this would be like opening a Pandora’s box, which then can’t be shut.” she says. Kuruvilla and Subramaniam push the thought further. “In India,” they claim, “a politician never really truly retires”.

To search for the truly revelatory political memoir in India, then, one must broaden one’s scope, and define the genre as personal, reflective literature by those with a first-row view of history. When one considers the sheer immensity of contribution that bureaucrats and journalists have made to the genre, the imbalance between demand and supply becomes less stark. An exhaustive listing is an impossible task here, but a recent sampling would include Montek Singh Alhuwalia’s Backstage, Raghuram Rajan’s I Do What I Do, Vinod Mehta’s Lucknow Boy, and, among the more notorious, Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister.

This sampling is limited to literature in English. Certainly, if one were to search for memoirs written in regional languages and vernaculars, the discoveries would astound — as, lamentably, is the case with every other genre of writing in India. In fact, if one were cynically disposed, one could complain of the culture of overproduction within the genre.

Kalra points, also, to the wide readership of political biographies, a genre closely aligned with the memoir. The success of Vinay Sitapati’s biography, first, of PV Narsimha Rao, and recently, of the BJP of the Vajpayee-Advani era certainly attest to the deep interest among Indian readers about the private lives of politicos, and the inner workings of governance. And, more reassuringly, dispels the fear of cultural apathy toward political literature.

But, writing, as all writers do, with one eye on posterity and an agenda to vindicate themselves, the politician as memoirist runs the risk of committing that cardinal sin of tidying things up, narrating the past through a retrospective lens, attributing to it anachronous perspectives, motives, and meanings. And, it is here, Subramaniam believes, that the objectivity of the biographer can supplement the rich, if sometimes inaccurate, interiority of the memoirist.

The political actor is, in the ultimate analysis, also a performer. Their memoir, then, is necessarily an attempt to simultaneously create and market themselves, to reconcile their public and private selves — non-fiction, that is honest for its acknowledgment of its fictionality.

A Promised Land
Barack Obama
Penguin Random House
Pp 768, Rs 1,999

Suvanshkriti Singh is a freelancer

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