The sense of an ending — a phrase borrowed from the title of Julian Barnes’ moving book — inevitably breeds nostalgia for a year that has just passed. Fortunately, nostalgia does not regress into the welter of headlines that claimed daily attention, a toxic porridge of conceits, hypocrisy and lynch mob hysteria that often sought relevance in the name of virtue. There were more illuminating moments in solitude.
One of the great pleasures of 2013 is recent: the just-concluded first Test between India and South Africa, which I watched from the comparative loneliness of a holiday resort in Kerala. This was an absorbing Test of skill and character by two teams determined to win, and if they could not, then deny victory to the opponent. The last day was a magnum opus thriller, brilliant spurts of lightning across large patches of steady play: to watch India slip was agony, but to turn off the television was impossible.
Defeat is easy to accept. We do it every day of our normal lives. But defeat so close to victory is another story. The biggest reason for defeat is not the strength of a victor but the complacency of a loser. If you take anything for granted, the prize will slip away before your troubled eyes. I don’t know if art imitates life anymore; one suspects not. But sport certainly does. Nothing is certain until that final bell rings and the umpire — or indeed the Chief Election Commissioner — announces close of play.
The best books I read this year were both from America. The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan by Gary Bass, is less on the secret war conducted by Delhi and far more on Washington’s secret policy of indifference towards the Pakistan Army’s genocide in what was then East Pakistan during the fateful year of 1971, which ended in a war that created a new nation, Bangladesh. The second great read was The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War by Stephen Kinzer, which graphs the lives of the two brothers, one a secretary of state and the other a CIA chief. They controlled American foreign policy during the Eisenhower administration between 1952 and 1960.
If you think there are too many secrets on the cover, rest assured this is no exaggeration judging by what is revealed between the covers. If you want to revel in America-bashing, go ahead. There is enough to fuel a lifetime of fulminations. But I also marvelled at the unwritten sub-text, which neither author chose to stress: how focused and unrelenting America, with its many leaderships, is when it comes to national interest.
National interest is a moveable feast. This decade’s convictions can be the next decade’s disaster. There is probably some wrong in every right, even if the proposition does not work the other way around. But national policy is made by present vision, not hindsight. In the 1950s America believed it was fighting a cold war against world domination by Communists, and if morality became hostage to this conflict, so be it. That American and European generation of Eisenhower, Stalin and Churchill had just survived a war that could have shattered the West and the East completely [if, for instance, Germany had also been able to construct nuclear weapons by 1945]. It did not need any lessons in cynicism, or worried too much about casualties.
In 1971, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were focused on another great game that they knew would change the dynamics of international relations [as indeed it did] and impact world affairs for generations. Bangladesh was hardly on their radar; they were concentrating on how to sacrifice Chiang Kaishek’s Taiwan and correct an obvious anomaly by recognising Maoist China as the legitimate China. Russia and China had already begun to drift apart, pulled in separate directions by national compulsions; the American intervention ended all hopes of Communist solidarity. The much-vaunted concept of a Communist International reassembled into Communists Nationals. A good theorist could trace a direct line from 1971 to 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and Russian Communism disintegrated.
One wonders when India’s foreign policy will be injected with a little more steel of self-interest, instead of being a charity shop of good intentions. It is good that Indian diplomats have stood up for one of their own in America. But this is only evidence of what they can do, individually and collectively, if they are given the freedom to stand up for their country with equal backbone. The remembrance of things past, to use another book title, can be a mixed joy. On balance, I am relieved that 2013 is over, never to return. Long live 2014!