Karan Thapar is television’s master – and slave. He is master of it in the sense of being owner of every potential of that medium, in command of every department of it. Slave in the sense of being possessed by its magic, its power. He runs his show, his show runs him. TV shapes his thinking reflexes, choreographs his speech, sculpts his deportment. Portrait-TV makes him zero-tolerant of anything that is off the mark, sloppy, slatternly. He is the audio-visual equivalent of print-readiness.
Amazingly, in his book Devil’s Advocate he shows the book to be no less his possession than TV, and he, of the book.
Books as engaging as this are rare.
Is it an autobiography?
Much of it, much of the most tender in it, is. When he writes about himself, his family, schooling, years of “higher” study in Britain, his meeting by the chanciest of chances his future wife Nisha Meneses, her fatal illness, and then her Crossing Over. And then his being by himself, alone “in a crowd” down the friendless Street of Ink.
The book in fact tells us more about the author than a self-acknowledged memoir could – almost by default. At no point does Thapar start to speak formally about himself. The “I”s, “me”s and “mine”s are all there but you wouldn’t so much as notice them. He tells us of events in his life in which he is a witness more than a protagonist. But it is of course he, it is him, who is doing all that is becoming the experience. And yet the camera he wields is no selfie gadget. It is trained on other people, events that seem to be happening around him almost, as it were, in spite of him.
When he describes his school time experience of learning a speech to declaim, it turns out to be a word-picture of his senior contemporary at Doon, Vikram Seth. The future star of English verse and prose keeps his eyes shut tight as he listens to Thapar’s voice modulations and handling of words. The sound-word perfectionist orders repeats, not one but several and acknowledges even great improvements in the pupil’s efforts only with the merest of “Hmmm”s.
The future star of the screen brings himself into this cameo only gently, as an aside, when he says that Seth did not include in his pedagogy the importance of silence, of saying nothing, which says more than saying says. At the end of reading that particular paragraph, the reader has learnt something essential to Seth – concentration; and something quintessential in Thapar – observation.
Karan is present in all the seventeen chapters of the book as an observer of the persons concerned, interpreter and portrait-painter of their personalities, radiographer of their spines, brains and neurological systems.
He is writing about more than the persons described, interviewed. He is writing about their worlds “within” and the worlds that surround them. And so, Jaya Bachchan enriches the chapter on Amitabh Bachchan. The thespian’s slow-motion rage, after Thapar’s interview of him in which he had raised questions on his marital life, is much more than an “interview story”. And we see vignettes, vivid and vivifying, of Mrs Kaul in the Vajpayee household, Kalyani Shankar in Narasimha Rao’s, and of Mrs Advani, Mrs Sachin Tendulkar.
When Thapar is writing about men, he is writing about personalities. When writing about women, he is writing about human beings. Even in tough accounts as with Amal Clooney and J Jayalalithaa, something in him thaws and the icicle in his brain turns in. This may be disappointing on the screen, it is wholly becoming on the printed page.
Politicians are centre-stage in the book. From the tragic Jeremy Thorpe, the star-crossed Benazir Bhutto, the inscrutable Aung San Suu Kyi to Rajiv Gandhi and other prime ministers of India – P V Narasimha Rao, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, the book not just brings them to life and to account. The only exception is Pranab Mukherjee.
Thapar has sheathed his rapier for this word-picture of our former Rashtrapati, a gain to courtesy but a loss to candour. The chapter on Suu Kyi on the other hand is as raspingly interrogative of her present official avatar as it is heart-wrenchingly affectionate about her pre-office life. Thapar raises questions, rhetorically, which make her seem in need of a defence lawyer.
The LK Advani chapter is a masterpiece in frankness. “I made a terrible mistake...” is not something one expects to read in a megastar’s recounting of events. But then there it is, clear as a flute-note.
God bless the Devil in Karan. And the Devil in it, the owner of mistakes.
Corrections and clarifications.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes:
Attention has been very kindly drawn to my use of the word “euthanasia” while referring to Karan Thapar’s tender description of his wife’s passing away. That phrase has now been removed.
In terms of lego-medical accuracy and ethical appropriateness, I understand that description – euthanasia – is totally out of order and wrong. I misinterpreted the author’s profoundly moving description of the end and erroneously used “euthanasia” in carelessness. I wish to acknowledge the error and convey my deep apologies to all who in personal and/or professional capacities were associated with that highly sensitive moment and , of course, to the readers of that column for having used a word and invoked a procedure that had no place and did not figure there.