Extra or ordinary, how would you judge this biography?


Frederick Noronha

Goa’s larger-than-life politician, who held the chief minister’s post for as many as four (even if uncompleted) stints, and held the exalted post as the defence minister of India (though the jury could debate how successful he was in that slot), is getting his first biography in the English language, that is.

Even as the pre-launch publicity of the Gurgaon-based Penguin Random House India-published on Parrikar did the rounds, cyber warriors couldn’t help guessing what the book would eventually say. As a politician who has his devoted fans as well as bitter critics, some among the latter questioned the book’s title – An Extraordinary Life.

But, as they say, don’t judge a book by its cover. Sometimes, it can be hard to judge a book by its contents too. This could be the dilemma over a book which is, simultaneously, insightful at times yet glosses over some aspects of a Goan politician who many still struggle to adequately understand.

‘An Extraordinary Life’, by journalists Sadguru Patil and Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, is a racy, fast-paced 216-page read that paints graphic pictures from the world of Goan politics.

It visits the Dona Paula home of a dying politician, lets you encounter his childhood naughtiness, carries you through his IIT years and falling in love early, gives details of his food likes and styles of sharing (or not), and offers a ring-side view of his equations with his siblings.

Before you get that impression, no, this book isn’t about Parrikar trivia. Pages at the end are rather blunt about the ex-CM’s failures, the gap between his promises and delivery, and the “U-turns” (including on mining and casinos) he did after taking over office.

For writing style, the book deserves eight on ten. Because it has been published by one of the national level publishers – who otherwise barely have the space for tiny Goa – it is likely to get noticed. But a critique of the same should not be stifled even by a spiral of praise.

Clearly, Nagvenkar and Patil have been able to tell the story because of the access they’ve got to Parrikar’s inner circle, family, political aides and party men. This reality shapes the book, in ways that are both positive and not so. That is indeed a double-edged sword; sources can, and do, have an interest in the shaping of the story they have been close to.

The other noticeable reality is the telling of the story as a dog-fight. Rather, a series of multiple dog-fights.  So, over a certain issue, you get Fact A, Fact B and Fact C, all of which are contrary to each other.  In keeping with the standard journalistic reporting strategy, the reader is left to make sense of the emerging confusion.

Ten chapters – each carefully titled, often with alliterative titles – promise to make sense of a politician who had a meteoric rise, devoted his entire adult life to politics, and emerged as a complex man. These chapters deal with his death, and flashbacks to his youth; Manohar Parrikar’s IIT days and his love-marriage; the neta’s Opposition days; his four very diverse political stints in power in Goa; shifting to Delhi as Modi’s defence minister with mixed results; even the food he relished; and more. You might think that’s a lot, but a book (like a sculpture) depends on what it leaves out.

One chapter with a lot of promise – though it seems to pull some punches – is on ‘Parrikar and the media’. The last two chapters are more hard-hitting. These deal with the “person, parent, politician and paradox” and
Parrikar’s legacy.

Given that co-authors Nagvenkar and Patil (both journalists, the latter wrote a book on the same topic in Marathi, and it would be interesting to compare the two tomes) – have worked in Goa, this reflects a Goan gaze of Parrikar. Evaluating him as a defence minister of India would be more complex.

Many known names and places come across in the book’s pages – Dr Olavo Ribeiro’s hospital, IC Colony in Borivali, the many schools the future CM went to (Saraswat in Khorlim, Mantrawadi, Loyola’s, New Goa and St Xavier’s College at Mapusa), widely-noticed colleagues in the BJP and lesser-known names in the RSS, and the like.

At some point, the book assures you that it is not using a click-bait to lure you into the text. But, despite this, one’s subconscious thought while reading these pages was: would the many, often charming, stories narrated come in the way of elaborating on the big picture?

On the flip side, the narration is breezy, it’s an almost entertaining read (“almost”, because of the serious subject otherwise involved, and its many implications to Goa).  More importantly, one can get a pretty good idea of the skulduggery of Goan politics of our times – provided you read carefully between the lines.

Sometimes, in passing, you get a comment which makes you go back to read the sentence and wonder if you read it right. One local BJP-RSS leader of the times claims to have seen a prominent figure – not named in this review to avoid a plot-spoiler – going out with a “lota [tumbler] to relieve himself in the woods” in Bicholim.

The book gives its journalist-authors the chance of beyond their 24-hour cycle, so some facts manage to stand out.

It becomes clear, or instance, that Parrikar’s four stints in power were ended in very diverse and complex ways. In the first, he lacked a majority and preferred to seek a mid-term poll, to the surprise of even his close colleagues. In the second, he was ousted after the power dynamics at Delhi got changed.  His third term was left unfinished after he was asked by PM Modi to become the defence minister of India. And the fourth was marked by his sudden sickness and early death.

One also gets a glimpse of what it takes to survive in Goa’s politics of the day, in the midst of political ambition.

Some of the politicians who the ex-CM had targeted through corruption charges and cases, ended up as vociferous Parrikar supporters in his own party. On the other hand, the BJP which initially grew due, in significant part, to an influx from the Congress, saw those very same leaders leave the saffron party using various excuses and arguments.

Sometimes, just reading the trends described factually gives you the clue.  For instance, when you see politicians staying on in power despite the changing parties which ruled, you wonder whether politics in today’s Goa has anything at all to do with ideology, beliefs and parties or merely pure, naked self-interest, greed and survival.

Overall, this autobiography is, like the man it describes, also a complex work. It really makes for an interesting read, but maybe what it leaves unsaid is as important as what it documents. Fan or critic of Parrikar, if you buy it you might end up feeling that some aspects of Parrikar-shaped Goa have been not sufficiently explained. On the other hand, if you don’t, you’d probably be kept guessing of what you’re missing.  So take your pick….