Evolving with Subramanian Swamy: A Roller Coaster Ride
Author: Roxna Swamy
Publisher: Roxna Swamy
Price: Rs 699
Nobody likes or dislikes Subramanian Swamy; they love or hate him. He is fortunate enough that his wife, Roxna, belongs to the first category. So, her memoir, Evolving with Subramanian Swamy: A Roller Coaster Ride, is a sympathetic account of the life and times of the senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader. Without any pretence.
Somebody who doesn’t know the couple personally, not even about Swamy’s role in Indian politics—somebody like, say, a Martian who has recently landed on earth—would find the couple a companionship of equals. Very different backgrounds—he from a traditional Tamil Brahmin family, she a Parsi—but both sharing several ideals and values, both with strong likes and dislikes, both headstrong and tough. And belligerent when the occasion arises, which does frequently.
She nicely traces her family ground, her father’s personality, on which the first chapter is devoted. He was an ICS officer, a pukka sahib—angrezon ke zamane ke afsar. He had imbibed the best British ideas and virtues—honesty, uprightness, and an unwavering commitment to the rule of law. The virtues that also brought trouble, for he refused to carry out Jawaharlal Nehru’s illegitimate order.
While Roxna has explained at length about Swamy’s tumultuous life and interesting details, she is reticent about their courtship. It is summarised in two sentences: “That year, I came to Harvard and met Swamy. I married him two years later in 1966.” Nothing about what she felt and thought when she met him, how the affair bloomed, when did they decide to tie the knot. It is worth mentioning here that half a century ago in India, love marriages, especially between persons of such disparate backgrounds, happened mostly in movies, so a few details would have made the memoir more interesting.
Not that readability is a problem. Despite indifferent editing and factual errors (e.g., General Dyer of the Jallianwala Bagh infamy was not assassinated, as mentioned in the book), it’s a racy read; from the description of important events to the vignettes of daily life to personal details about Swamy—there is seldom a patch that burdens the reader.
He emerges as a difficult person right from the beginning. His father “and Swamy did not get on well; but he gave him a value system that anyone could be proud of”. The father was a “control freak” who “lavished most of concern and pride on his brilliant eldest daughter and youngest son, continually holding them up as examples to Swamy, considered the duffer of the clan. Since Swamy, typically, is someone who has never allowed himself to be ordered around, I think this created a permanent rift in his relations with his father”. Other politicians, too, must have realised that he can’t be ordered around.
The roller coaster ride takes the reader to various theatres—American and, briefly, Indian academics, politics, courts, visits to other countries, meeting important people, et al. In some detail, the author has narrated Swamy’s dramatic appearance in Parliament, and equally dramatic vanishing from the scene, in 1976 while as an absconder: how he came to India, how he entered his own residence deceiving security personnel, his sardarji guise.
No less thrilling is the narration of his harassment and an attempt on his life by the Jayalalithaa government in 1993. A large number of defamation cases were filed against him by the state administration. “On three occasions when Swamy and his Janata Party workers appeared in the criminal courts in answer to the summons in two criminal cases, they were repeatedly attacked by goondas (who had assembled even within the august premises of the Madras High Court) with lethal weapons such as acid bombs, stones, soda water bottles, etc. There was a deliberate absence of police to control the crowd, and on one occasion, Swamy was saved from the crowd only by his CRPF security force who fired on the crowd.”
On 18 June 1993, Swamy and Roxna barely managed to escape the court premises and drove directly to the airport. They managed to get “on the plane to Bangalore, which took off and then we breathed a sigh of relief”. But “what happened next was like something out of an improbable James Bond thriller”.Jayalalithaa managed to get the Madras Airport Control Tower to recall the airplane in midair.
The passengers were deplaned by way of the emergency chute. Thankfully, “it was pitch dark at the Madras airport, which was just as well as the police who had been alerted, failed to locate us”. Surely straight out of a James Bond movie, a franchise Swamy is fond of; his other favourites are cowboy movies. Not a very swadeshi choice for an ardent nationalist.
Even more enchanting revelations about the man are in the chapter, «Swamy in His Lighter Moments.» She writes, “Swamy has no feel for or curiosity whatsoever about the art of literature or cuisine or any other country’s proud traditions.” But he is fond of animals. He visits zoos. “He would have liked to stop at the reptile cages; but I don’t like snakes, human or otherwise. For years, Delhi Zoo housed a Hoolock Gibbon and Swamy would unfailingly wend his way there to listen fascinated by its howls. And to exchange making faces with it. He said he did it to entertain the children; but to me it was evident that it was for his own enjoyment. Certainly, one of the first things I learn about Swamy in the US was that it had always been his dream to keep a pet monkey; and of course I vetoed it.”
Imagine Subramanian Swamy—the patrician of conservative disposition, the scourge of the corrupt, the scholar par excellence, the brilliant non-lawyer litigant who takes on legal luminaries in courts—making faces to a gibbon in a zoo!
Roxna shares her husband’s antipathy towards former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who is “small, mean, envious, and malicious”. There are also acidic remarks about Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, Swamy’s current bête noire, though he hasn’t been named. She also looks back in anguish about how her husband was ill-treated by the saffron brotherhood at the behest of Vajpayee, though she also praises saffronites for their dedication and commitment.
A big lacuna: there is not much information on the making of Subramanian Swamy. If heroes in the political arena are people who promote the cause of individual liberty, he will be in the august company of a handful of heroes—B.R. Ambedkar, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Justice H.R. Khanna (I am not taking into account the heroes of the hoax called “freedom struggle”). Risking his own life, liberty, and limb, Swamy had fought for citizens’ freedom and democratic rights during the Emergency. He still fights against blasphemy and defamation laws; in the latter case, he is joined by Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal whom he routinely lambastes and lampoons.
Why and how did a lad from a traditional Brahmin family become a votary of as Western a concept as individual liberty? The concept is alien to the Indian intellectual tradition—a contention he is likely to contest though. Why did he become a right-wing politician—arguably, he is India’s only right-wing politician—and not a sixties’ intellectual in love with Bob Dylan, drugs, and sex? Why does a profound scholar and refined gentleman, that Swamy undoubtedly is, sometimes use the phraseology that lower-level political activists do?
But still Evolving with… is an eminently readable book, though it ends abruptly in 1991. What surprised me was the fact that four publishers refused to publish this book.
Roxna Swamy has firmly refused to write a sequel, but it would be better if she changed her mind. If the book sells well, which it just might, the publishers may also give up their defamation fears and publish the second part.