With Kashmir once again in the limelight, it could not have been a better time to publish a book about VP Menon, subtitled “The Unsung Architect of Modern India.” Nor, indeed, when recent narratives have sought to embrace Sardar Ballabhbhai Patel, the iron man of India, as the leader who, given a free hand, would have saved the country from its fractured legacy – or, at least, since Partition proved to be inevitable, as an individual who might have welded all the disparate pieces together under a different dispensation, that is to say, a Hindu Raj. That is the current narrative, not necessarily one that Patel would have endorsed.

One can also question various small niggles with regard to the title. In VP Menon’s own superb account, “The Story of the Integration of the States”, published in 1956 to fulfil a promise he had made to his mentor, Patel, he describes the trajectory that was to lead to the forming of the two nations. It’s somewhat ingenuous to ignore that along with “Modern India”, there was also Pakistan.

As far as bestowing the rubric of architect goes, it’s certainly the privilege of a great-granddaughter to view her ancestor with a certain amount of pride, not unmixed with glory. Narayani Basu has done Menon proud with her exhaustive reading and lively recapitulation of the many obstacles that had to be cleared or detonated with exhaustive negotiations with the main dramatis personae. Whether that qualifies him to be described as an “architect” can be disputed.

Lime and mortar man

Menon could at best be regarded as a lime-and-mortar man who had the energy and the opportunity to keep putting the pieces of the country together even as the forces of irredentism pulled them in various directions. Let us admit tongue firmly in cheek that it’s with a sense of deja vu that one uses words like “irredentism”, or “Balkanisation”, or the lovely phrase, “fissiparous tendencies”, that were bandied about in the early years of Indian Independence. Decisions were deferred in granting the country full independence since there were internal fissures, imagined or real, threatening to wrench the “Jewel in the Crown” and trample it in the collective dirt of wilful intransigence.

As Political Reforms Commissioner, Menon was in a unique position to witness the way the three Viceroys under whom he served – Linlithgow, Wavell and Mountbatten – went about dismantling their cherished possession. Basu is at her best in creating brilliant set-pieces on the different ways in which the Viceroys interacted to either delay or finally hastily precipitate the inevitable that led to Partition.

Winston Churchill was certainly one of those who predicted that leaving the Indian subcontinent in the hands of demagogues and regressive religious zealots would sooner than later lead to chaos. Churchill and others like him at Whitehall may well have encouraged the decline. In one telling remark, Menon suggests that the process of disintegration began in 1905, when the first attempt to define the country along religious lines was mooted.

This was to lead to its tragic climax in 1947 and all the horrors of Partition that followed. What we are witnessing now seventy-and-odd years later should be seen as a warning not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

These caveats apart, Basu has shown remarkable zest in renegotiating a well-trampled terrain by centring it around Vappala Panguni Menon (1893-1961), popularly referred to as VP. As Menon himself has written in his book, the task of integrating 565 Princely States required both sagacity and diplomacy of a very high order.

In some cases, as is well known, military action had to be used to “persuade” recalcitrant rulers like the Nawab of Junagadh and the Nizam of Hyderabad to fall in line. It was a course of action that received the nod from Patel. In others, as Menon writes, the relations with Kashmir and Pakistan required an assent from Jawaharlal Nehru, whose Achilles heel was Kashmir.

Menon also asserts how he took control of the communal riots that ushered in the bloody dawn of the birth of two countries. Following Patel’s death in 1950, Menon was one of the persons associated with forming the Swatantra Party along with Rajaji or C Rajagopalachari and a coterie of some of the more enlightened princes.

Parlaying with the princely states

While the story may not be new, or an untold one, Basu brings a fresh perspective by her extensive reading from a wide range of sources. For instance, while introducing Reginald Cripps of the doomed Cripps Mission, described by Churchill as a “lunatic”, Basu describes him thus: “A leanly build socialist and a barrister with a taste for nudity and knitting, it was already well-known that Cripps saw himself as a potential rival to both Linlithgow and Churchill.”

Her primary source is Henry Hodson from the archives of the School of African and Oriental Studies. He not only knew Menon as his boss during his tenure in India, but also subsequently recorded an extensive series of interviews with Menon about the period in which he played a vital role. Basu juxtaposes this with family history handed down through word of mouth and a few published accounts.

These, however, form a weak link in the narrative. Basu seems to lose her natural ebullience as she tiptoes around the narratives recounted by her grandmother Premilla Anantan (nee Sahgal), also known as “Precious”, to whom the book is dedicated. “Precious” was apparently a name bestowed by Menon himself.

There is a picaresque quality to the story of Menon as a young boy fleeing from his home at Ottapalam in Kerala and doing manual labour jobs to survive. Each encounter provided him with an instinct for self-preservation and taught him the art of negotiation even in dire circumstances. One of the interesting anecdotes that Menon describes is how during a brief moment alone with the Maharaja of Jodhpur Hanwant Singh after he had signed the document of accession in front of Viceroy Mountbatten, Singh pulled out a .22 caliber revolver and threatened him. Menon stood his ground.

Much later, in 1953, when elections were being held, the Maharaja sent an emissary to Bangalore, where Menon had retired, to invite him to stand from a safe seat in the Jodhpur constituency. As Basu also notes, the Maharaja was shortly to be killed in a plane crash while campaigning, with his beautiful mistress by his side. This story was made into the famous Bollywood film Zubeida, written by Khalid Mohammed and directed by Shyam Benegal.

Each of the princes and erstwhile rulers had their own compulsions for refusing to sign what was basically a death warrant to the old order. In another famous case, the Diwan of Travancore, Sir C. Ramaswami Aiyer, took the precaution of appointing a Trade Officer in Pakistan to signal that under his tutelage Travancore would not join the Indian Union. A large part of the saga covers how Patel and Menon went about cajoling and coercing the princes to bite the bullet of Independence and align themselves to the new dispensation.

There are some vivid stories that Basu tells about how, during Menon’s first stint at the Round Table negotiations in London in 1930, the Prince of Sarila advised him never to be afraid of looking straight into the eyes of the British administrators who were in command and of speaking his mind. He also learnt the importance of dressing impeccably.

Obviously, the tailors of Saville Row in London, who accoutred many a noble savage in their impeccably cut suits, have a lot to answer for in transforming a lowly Malayali Menon into a person of distinguished appearance. That, his fondness for Cuban cigars, and an ability to quaff the best whiskey, take part in tiger shoots, as some of the old photographs attest, went a long way in establishing his reputation as a friend of the princes.

Reading between the lines of Basu’s narrative, Menon seemed, at least in the earlier years, to have more of an affinity with Jinnah than with Gandhi. They must have shared the same fondness for Saville Row suits. Though Basu also mentions that as Jinnah assumed leadership of the Muslim League, he encased himself in the more forbidding black sherwanis that then became his trademark, along with his tightly curled Karakul lamb fez caps.

A personal recollection

It may not be remiss to add my personal recollections of the VP Menon household, based on the yet-to-be completed biography of my father KV Padmanabhan, Under Secretary Constituent Assembly Secretariat 1947-49, who joined the IFS cand became one of Menon’s protéges.

When my mother arrived as a bride to Delhi with my dad in 1942, the young couple were greeted by a host of well-wishers. They were part of the Malayalee community in the early nineteen forties. Foremost amongst them was “Uncle” VP Menon and his wife Kanakkamma, who everyone referred to as “Edathi” or elder sister. They treated my Dad as a member of their family. He always remained “Laddie” to them.

Kanakamma Kunnathidathil, as Mrs VP was known, was a formidable presence. She did not merely run the VP Menon household, but also presided over it with an iron hand. She ran the house in a grand style as befitted the power and prestige of VP Menon, who at the time was at the height of his position as the one person who could speak on equal terms with both the leaders of the Indian freedom movement and the colonial masters of the time.

Part of the reason was that he was fearless. As the stories of the time had it, he had run away from his impoverished home in Kerala and made a life for himself in the highest political circles of the capital through sheer force of will. There are unconfirmed stories about how he had worked as a factory hand and a coolie; of how he had nearly converted to Islam at one point but had at the last moment decided that even if he had no qualms about renouncing his religion for another faith, the idea of renouncing his foreskin was too much of a sacrifice. 

This remark alone underlines one aspect of his personality. He could explode with laughter at himself, like a small firecracker. He was dark and compact with a piercing gaze. As my Dad remembered him in later years, he had a photographic memory. “VP could just glance at a page or document and remember every word of it after just one reading. He was equally adept at reading people,” my Dad used to say. “But he was also a very kindly person. He loved people and loved having all of us in his house whenever he could. ”

Mrs VP may have been trying to protect or shield him from his tendency to invite the world into their house, once they had married in 1943.

VP Menon was her second husband. Her first husband Kothieth Anandan was from prominent Thiyya family of Cannanore, now Kannur. He had been a mentor or at least a good friend to VP Menon when he first came to Delhi. She had a daughter by her first husband, a beautiful young woman named Meenakshikutty. While VP had two sons by his first wife, whom he left to marry Kanakamma. It was by all accounts something of a scandal at the time. There were two sons by his first marriage, Anantan Menon and Sankaran Menon. In later records the three offspring are often mentioned as being their joint progeny.

As it happens, one of my earliest memories is attending the wedding of the beautiful Meenakshikutty with an army man who had become Major General Mishra by the time I interviewed him at the Taj West End Hotel in the late 1970s. All the main actors had left the stage by this time.

I cannot recall much of the proceedings of the wedding except as told to me by my mother who had a view from the inner chambers. My mother may have been “family” since her own antecedents were from Cannanore.

More to the point, however, was the announcement of the arrival of the Maharajas and their retinues. These were the Princes of India that VP Menon and of course Sardar Patel had managed to persuade through various tactics of coercion, persuasion and in some cases military action to accede their territories and hereditary rights to the Indian Union. 

In retrospect, one might add that here were the most powerful Maharajas, their gorgeously attired consorts and their heirs who had just signed away their titles, their privileges, their 21 gun salutes and their vast estates to the Indian Union, with the promise of what would prove to be an illusion – privy purses – a solemn promise made by the government at that time to sweeten the blow and they were being met and greeted as equals by the extraordinary man who had persuaded them to do so. VP was a person who could be as kind and friendly to Princes as with a common man.

“Each one of the them brought gifts for the bride that were a sight to behold,” remembers my mother. “There were diamonds, emeralds and rubies set in the most gorgeous of necklaces, waistbands and bracelets. In fact later on there was so much criticism against VP for having accepted these gifts that even though he claimed that every one of the diamond necklaces was returned, the opinion at that time was that Pandit Nehru himself ticked him off for the lavish display of wealth at the wedding. VP’s star is said to have started falling from this time on.” 

My mother then adds: “Knowing Edathi, she was not the sort of person to let go of such gifts so easily. But who can say…soon after the wedding, the grandest wedding of the day, Uncle VP’s fortunes began to get dim. His star would only get dimmer as time passed, but it never stopped him from being the most vivacious person and generous person of his generation.”

My memories of Mrs VP came mostly I imagine now from the time we would visit them when they had retired to Bangalore to a spacious house in Cox Town. She could look right through a person. From what I can recall, she had a deep masculine voice and though of a fair, almost creamy complexion, she had a heavy-jowled face. 

Here too, what I recall the most vividly was that while “Uncle” was always happy to see us and greeted us or my dad like a long lost son, Mrs VP sat in one corner of the grandly appointed drawing room and just watched us. When she felt that she had done enough to scare the daylights out of us, she would ask us to go and take a look at the birds. The Bangalore household had the most gorgeous aviary filled from floor to ceiling with nesting canaries in all the shades of turquoise blue, citrus green and yellow and every combination of colours in-between.

In retrospect I wonder if Menon during his early morning visits to his aviary looked upon his canaries and was reminded of the colourful tribe of former princes that he had managed to cajole into joining the Indian Union. Certainly, he was the cat that the Sardar had set amongst the canaries.

VP Menon: The Unsung Architect Of Modern India

VP Menon: The Unsung Architect Of Modern India, Narayani Basu, Simon & Schuster.