It’s an extraordinary return for the prodigal son of the Indian Independence era, VK Krishna Menon.

In this monumental biography, Jairam Ramesh has not just resurrected the man and his times but brought into life a magnificent cast of personalities through their speeches, letters and conflicting versions of the same events. Ramesh has accessed hundreds of documents that include recently made available archival material and juxtaposed them with a close re-reading of the manifold existing biographies and historical accounts made by earlier writers.

The effect is of a mosaic of tiny fragments of information that he has managed to deploy with a seemingly effortless gaze into a portrait of an age.

Ramesh describes himself as an archival biographer. Presumably it indicates many hours spent poring over manuscripts and selecting those that seem relevant. Quite apart from the extent of his research there is a certain reticence in Ramesh’s approach that is admirable. He does not pre-judge events whose conclusions are already well-known nor does he intrude by making moral affirmations. In the process he has created a deeply textured narrative both literal and evocative.

There are moments when he imparts to the lives of the protagonists the poignant grandeur of a novel such as The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Equally, there are straightforward pieces of reportage culled from different sources. If at all there’s a problem to these methods, it is that the book is inordinately long, particularly during the twilight years of his subject. That may of course be intentional.

As Ramesh explains in a succinct first word: “This new biography does not intend to eulogise Krishna Menon for his numerous contributions nor to castigate him for his many sins. It is instead meant to be a clinically objective narrative of his chequered life. I narrate a complex tale letting the written materials speak for themselves.”

Targeted as a communist

In his earlier books, Jairam Ramesh, Rajya Sabha MP and Union Minister between 2006 and 2014, had focused on relatively benign subjects. There is for instance a delicate tribute to the Nehru-Indira interest in animals in his book Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature. It reflects Ramesh’s own passionate involvement in the habitat when he was a minister for the environment and forests. In a dual portrait of PN Haksar, the diplomat and senior advisor to Indira Gandhi, titled Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi he describes a different kind of wild life.

These experiences have obviously honed him for the far more complex task that he has set himself in looking through the lens of history and decoding the trail left behind by one of the most controversial and difficult to define personalities of pre-and immediately post-Independence India. While his focus is always on Menon, Ramesh has inevitably perhaps created an equally mesmerising image of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Menon and Nehru’s affection and respect for each other’s intellectual affinities is revealed in the correspondence and public exchanges that are displayed here at length. Both combatants are equally gifted at exhibiting their colonial legacy, a delight in the use of the English language, while at the same time denouncing colonialism in what is often described as “thunderous speeches”.

The differences in their background, temperament and physical attributes, the dark Saturnine Krishna Menon with his North Malabar inheritance in a matrilineal society and the genteel fine-boned Nehru with his Anglicised from Allahabad, though not underlined by Ramesh in as many words, cannot help but make this reader conclude that it was an attraction of opposites.

Indeed, the portrait of Menon that appears on the cover endows him with the charisma of one of the gargoyles peering out from the ramparts of Notre Dame. The use of a vibrant red for the background also serves to underline why for all his brilliance Menon was distrusted in the West. He was targeted as being a communist.

We are given to understand that all through his long years of residence in Britain, when he first went there as a Theosophist and protégé of Annie Besant, or during his long internship as a student at the prestigious London School of Economics, or, later, after he had become a barrister, he was under the surveillance of Scotland Yard.

When he went to the USA in the post-McCarthy era to become the most eloquent, if not the most loquacious interlocutor of all times, speaking at the UN where he famously set the record in 1957 defending India’s position on Kashmir, the shadow of being a “Red” followed him there as well. When Menon was featured on the Cover of Time Magazine during an era when to be chosen was a sign of exceptional grace, he was inevitably also accompanied by images of snake charmer’s pipe and a serpent wriggling alongside.

On the question of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 when India abstained from censuring the Soviet action, Menon took upon him the full blunt of the opprobrium. At the height of the Cold War following the new alignment between what was then termed the super powers, India in spite of all its non-aligned rhetoric was seen as having joined the Soviet Bloc. The bête noire of the time was Krishna Menon.

In retrospect, it looks as though the West always enjoys directing its ire at some easily identifiable target that defines the “Other”. Menon offered himself up, or was conveniently set up, as that hate figure.

A humanist and a charmer

To deviate a bit from the review at hand I might be forgiven for dredging up a memory of being in the line of attack about Hungary. I was then a precocious teenager studying at the well-known international school in Geneva, where my father was the Indian Consul-General. As was the custom at the Ecolint, as the school was known, whatever events took place at the UN were also debated in class. I was chosen to defend India’s position. It could not have been a worse form of defeat by humiliation. The rest of the class rose as one to heckle and bully India and of course its representative for not condemning the Soviet action.

I would also like to take Ramesh’s invitation to make my own judgement based on his exposition and wonder whether Menon fits the ideas floated by Frantz Fanon, the Martinique born Algerian whose books Black Skins, White Masks studied the psychology of colonisation. Described as the Marx of the Third World, he would argue that it was not just labour that defined the unequal hierarchy amongst people, but race.

Based on this reading, Krishna Menon could be defined as a Marxist humanist, thereby putting to rest the accusations of being a pro-Soviet communist in the radically divided mid-20th century world. At the same time, it’s interesting to speculate whether in a reversal of Fanon’s thesis he could be said to be a person with a “Black Mask, White Skin”. Today the more descriptive term is “coconut”!

Certainly, as the record shows, Menon was able to fit in very comfortably within the elite of post-War England. He was particularly close to the Mountabattens, both in the UK and when they arrived in India in 1947. Pamela Mountabatten has recorded in her diary dated 5 April, 1947 written at the Viceregal Lodge: “I sat next to Krishna Menon, Nehru’s representative in Europe and in manner more English than an Englishman.” A month later, on 11 May, she observed, “I had a long talk with Krishna Menon, about the most cynical person I have met but very interesting.”

Pamela was not the only young woman that Menon was able to charm. The excellent portfolio of photographs that have been reprinted along with innumerable facsimiles of the lectures, posters, book covers and booklets from his 29 years in the UK reveal the reach of Menon’s intellectual and maybe also romantic interests. Towards the end Ramesh trots out a fairly long line of those interests, but never with an attempt to either satisfy curiosity or titillate with posthumous rumours of lost loves.

Minoo Masani, an early associate but a subsequent antagonist, was to write of Menon: “Clearly the India league was a one man, many women army”. The irrepressible Khushwant Singh, who was with Menon at the UK High Commission in the years 1947-49 was to write in his memoirs that Menon had a keen interest in “pretty faces, fancy suits and toys”! Apparently, this man whose burning ambition was to seek freedom for his country from colonial domination had a passion for collecting toys.

The cartoons published in Jairam’s biography show Menon’s other characteristics. He is often portrayed with his cups of tea, the beverage he consumed in large quantities and the buns that he ate alongside. The other image that persists of him is that of his soap-box oratory in Hyde Park.

Uncertainty and resolve

It also suggests that, for all his sense of being destiny’s child, it was for the longest time a very lonely struggle for Menon. It may explain why even while he was at the height of his powers, glad-handling some of the most prominent figures of the mid-20th century – we need only mention Gamal Abdel Nasser, Fidel Castro, Chou En Lai, Ho Chi Min, Vyacheslav Molotov Molotov (infamously associated with the explosive bomb fame), and John F Kennedy who refused to be charmed by him – he felt a deep sense of rejection.

Ramesh clearly indicates in his foreward that he does not intend the biography to be a psychological analysis of the man. We should also desist from attempting this, while at the same time being intrigued at how often Menon was beset by the demons of worthlessness. There are innumerable instances of his abject grovelling for validation, interminable collapses with neurotic symptoms as well as real health threatening crises, that led to him having to be ministered by his close friends. Nehru’s letters to him in this regard are particularly moving, as also those of his daughter, Indira and both the Mountbattens.

To the student of world history Ramesh’s detailed re-construction of the well-known events that come under the rubric of the post-war freedom struggles, the Suez crisis, Korean debacle, the Hungarian betrayal, the nuclear question, the Bandung blitz, the Vietnam war, depending on how we frame them within the Krishna Menon dimension, are equally fascinating. He was India’s emissary for every politically charged mission. It was a role he relished, making both admirers and enemies in the process.

To those still debating elementary questions such as those of Indian identity and hair-splitting issues of where we belong in the spectrum of the multitudinous influences that make up our choice, Menon’s single-mindedness resolution must come as a lesson. There was only one demand: freedom. There was only one country: India.

If there were many choices and unforeseen impediments such as the World Wars, the famines, leadership struggles and the temptation of acceding to lesser goals offered by the departing colonial masters with barely concealed contempt, as in the case of Churchill, they still had to make the best of the process that was available to them. The famous conundrum posed by Gandhi of means and ends would always serve as a touchstone for finding a way forward through compromise.

These chapters about the years leading to the Partition and its tragic aftermath will always be required reading for some of us. While it is now almost the norm to pillorise the Nehru era for what it did not do, the Krishna Menon saga reminds us of how much there was to be done in a country devastated by food shortages, caring for displaced persons traumatised by the loss of their homes, and fired by the need to assert itself as a champion of the oppressed.

Menon is credited for having made it possible India to become a part of the Commonwealth of. There were other quests, such as creating a Sino-Indian pact – which unravelled soon enough as the Chinese invaded Tibet and the Dalai Lama and his followers came to India in 1959 as semi-permanent refugees. One can only add that like some of the others who have taken refuge with us, they brought a special kind of lustre to the country. Menon’s view on nuclear disarmament will also resonate with today’s new generation of crusaders, even if these pacifist views never had a chance in an increasingly nuclearised world.

How the end came

In Ramesh’s biography the Partition drama is just one half of the story. If we compare the history to a Shakespearean drama of five major acts the momentum reaches its climax in Chapter 15. It’s a great fourth Act in the life of Krishna Menon, titled “The Glory and the Fall”.

We have already been primed for some of Menon’s missteps – for instance, the “Jeep scandal”, and his increasingly erratic behaviour after being inducted to the Cabinet as India’s fourth Defence Minister in the April of 1957. This major lapse in signalling for the purchase of equipping an army, which, along the lines of the Gandhian philosophy never needed to exist in the first place, was the first of many such politico-military scandals since then. Soldiers have eternally been deprived of boots, proper winter clothing and basic necessities of survival on the battlefield, never mind the guns or fighter jets.

Needless to say, for most of us who lived through the dark hours of the Chinese attack in 1962, November will always be the cruellest month. Ramesh re-creates the many alternate trajectories of the defeat as they played out within the command centres of the time. There have of course been many versions of what was not done to either anticipate or forestall the Chinese attack.

The greatest shock to the Indian establishment was when the Soviets, who had apparently been allies, sided with the Chinese. It makes one wonder whether they were merely using two Asian neighbours for target practice. Be that as it may, while it signalled Menon’s downfall and humiliating exit (though apparently not in the South), it was also the beginning of the end for Nehru’s innings as India’s first Prime Minister. He would never be the same again.

One would like to leave this review at this most dramatic of turning points.

But we leave it instead to Ramesh to have the last word.

“However, it was only a matter of time, and around 10 pm on (the) 5th October 1974, Krishna Menon told his long-time Jeeves, Mohomed Ali, ‘Give me a cup of tea. It may be my last.’ And indeed, it was.”

A Chequered Brilliance

A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon, Jairam Ramesh, Penguin Viking.