Manmohan Singh is a public figure we hardly know anything about except his public persona. And his image as an upright academic turned bureaucrat turned politician. He is also one of the world’s leading economists. His wife Gursharan, we came to know only when she became visible as Mrs. Prime Minister. Incidentally, in the era of biographies, no one actually thought of writing his biography. Or is it that he did not open up enough to anyone to allow them to get into that territory? This time an indulgent daughter probably managed to prod him enough to write this book – Strictly Personal.
Written chronologically, from the time Manmohan Singh and Gursharan Kaur were born, the narrative stops at 2004 when they moved to Race Course Road. The childhood of Manmohan Singh goes through the pre-partitioned India. And gives glimpses of the other side where he grew up amongst an extended family in the absence of his mother. As depicted by media, he definitely did not come from a poor family if his father could afford to send him to Cambridge then. His family also escaped the real wrath of partition as they moved before partition. Though, I am sure they lived through it.
Gursharan’s childhood seems pampered enough if you do not see it through the lens of present-day childhoods. The marriage, of course, was arranged. And sealed with one question about, what else? – academics. Interestingly, Daman Singh traces their individual journeys through the book. A journey that took them to various parts of the world and to various coveted positions. But it appeared they both held on to their individual personalities throughout their lives.
Post-childhood, Manmohan’s story is all about his career with some heavy doses of economics – that dominated his heart and mind. The chapters seem to get too dry for non-economists like me. But I assume people with keen interest in economics would enjoy it. There are lengthy narratives on what he did in each stint of his illustrious career. You can find the summary of his book along with all the important reviews of the same.
Till the three-fourths of the book, I wondered why Daman is talking just about economics? But towards the end, I think I got sympathetic towards her. And felt she may not have been able to get anything else from him. Overall, Manmohan Singh comes across as a man who never failed. He goes from strength to strength – moving between careers, institutes, locations. And every time he moves few notches up. He is always best at whatever he did – and probably the documented evidence also support the same. Wonder if he would be a sole case of – Never Failed.
Gursharan comes across as a vivacious woman, who supports her husband in every way. Raise her three daughters and makes time for classical music whenever possible. To me, her story represented an average wife’s story from her generation – whose fate is tied to her husband. A woman who has all the freedom to take all decisions on behalf of both of them. In between his big decisions, she takes rest of the decisions and makes adjustments as and when required. In this case, she solely keeps her family of five glued to the rest of their extended family. Including making an attempt to keep her mentally disturbed step-mother-in-law at her place. I would have wanted a deeper insight into how she felt when she had to read most of what she could have known in the morning newspapers. The story of Gursharan provides all the Rasa to this book.
The author mentions the three daughters in the outline of the lives of the two protagonists. You see that they share a very detached relationship with their father. And I could not figure out much about their relationship with their mother. But then I look back and see that most of us probably never tried to analyze our relationship with our parents. You are born with it and you just accept each other – sometimes happily and sometimes not so happily. Daman does make a point about her father enjoying playing mentor to kids of many of his colleagues & associates. While he did not really spend that kind of time with them – says something about image making process.
Reading about the Panjab University days of the family was nostalgic for me as I knew the houses they were describing. And some of the people mentioned were still there when I was a student of the university in the early 90s. For the same reason, found it annoying that the author spells Panjab as Punjab throughout the book. At various places in the book Strictly Personal, Daman mentions too many names without a context to them – people who were friends, who were neighbors or just acquaintances.
At times, I felt the author has an obligation to mention those names, for as a reader they were just names except that it tells how outgoing the seemingly reserved couple actually is. I also missed their relationship with the Gandhi family – Sonia Gandhi does not even get a mention. And I wonder why Daman chose to stop at 2004 when the book Strictly Personal, came out in 2014 when these were the most important years for her parents?
Overall, Strictly Personal is an enjoyable read. Do not expect too much that is not known in public domain about Manmohan Singh except his growing up years. He will still remain an enigma.