Review: A Chequered Brilliance by Jairam Ramesh

(Published in The Hindu, March 08 2020)

When VK Krishna Menon died in 1974, among the possessions of this “evil genius” of British imagination were 12,000 books, a “very large” quantity of walking sticks—and a heap of toys. It is a passing line in Jairam Ramesh’s colossal new book, A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon, and strangely doesn’t surprise the reader. For throughout its 700 pages, one encounters so many startling details about Menon—now remembered in connection to the 1962 China debacle chiefly—that even his eccentricities quickly become familiar. “Mercurial” is a word often used for the man, and we discover in this meticulously constructed biography why this was never an exaggeration.

While Menon’s eventful post-Independence career appears about 300 pages into the book and is of extraordinary interest, the preceding sections also hold much value. In our understanding of the freedom struggle we naturally learn of dynamics in India. But too little attention is paid to efforts by nationalists on foreign shores. In Britain, for instance, laws were more liberal than in British-ruled India, with the result that ideas could be expressed and published with greater freedom, rousing public empathy and holding a mirror to imperial claims of moral superiority. From the 1920s for two decades Menon served precisely this purpose, till he was confirmed as the voice of the Indian nationalism in the seat of the Raj.

Indeed, Menon’s pamphleteering in Britain caused the viceroy himself to complain in the 1940s about his attempts to “prejudice” parliament and the press. “I do hope,” Lord Linlithgow wrote to his superiors, “you will seriously consider the expediency of seizing some favourable occasion to get him put out of the U.K.” The authorities agreed but noted that this “mischief-maker” was “very clever” and never said anything that ran him afoul of British law. In the 1930s, when with colleagues, Krishna Menon published a 554-page report on India, it was for the same reason that the British government could not proscribe the book at home, even though it was banned by Delhi.

Ramesh painstakingly chronicles this phase of Menon’s life, showing why by the time of his appointment as independent India’s envoy in London, there was already hostility against him abroad. We also learn, amusingly, that while he was under surveillance for years, partly because of suspected Communist sympathies (a suspicion several Congressmen shared), the British establishment was not always up to developing an accurate picture of their subject. A decade after he arrived in Britain, a report named him “Vrishna Krishnu Krishna Menon” and as late as 1942 the Secretary of State believed he gave seditious speeches in Hindustani—a language Menon did not speak.

Ramesh also reproduces exchanges between Jawaharlal Nehru and Menon, telling us not only about each man’s insecurities but also of their mutual affection. In 1940 Nehru wrote how Menon’s “nerves have never been his strong point,” and in 1949 he repeated the argument in defending Menon before Sardar Patel. Menon did often believe that the world was conspiring against him, and this tested everyone’s patience. “You do not need me…I must therefore bring things to an end,” he dramatically wrote to Nehru in another near-suicidal phase, despite the fact, as Ramesh notes, that he was a cabinet minister riding a wave of acclaim after handsomely winning an election. Nehru’s sister, herself no fan of Menon, thought him a “Victorian woman” with moods.

Ramesh is even-handed and balanced in analyzing Menon as well as acknowledging rivalries within the Union cabinet in the late 1950s and early 60s, where the Defence Minister’s abrasive personality turned him also into an excuse to thwart Nehru. Menon’s “meanest and pettiest” actions are frankly discussed, and there is no avoiding responsibility for his blunders. The sequence in the book on the liberation of Goa in 1961, which placed Menon at the height of esteem, and his near-immediate toppling in 1962 are fascinating, just as details of how the Finance Ministry’s intransigence weakened India’s defence position are most interesting.

What is somewhat disappointing, however, is that there is very little covering Menon’s family. His difficult relationship with his father is, for instance, unexplored, when this appears to have generated in him that lifelong feeling of inadequacy. In that sense A Chequered Brilliance is more Menon’s political life, than a complete biography in the traditional sense. The absence of exact footnotes is another grievance. Still, the book is a massive achievement, on a man who was both an international phenomenon and a bundle of contradictions. As one of Menon’s distinguished contemporaries once wrote, “Even when he said nothing…he looked so superior.”