Book Review: Instant History, A Memoir by Anil Maheshwari

In the introduction of this book MJ Akbar Sahab writes, ‘Every journalist has two sets of stories. They send the boring ones for publications in their newspapers in return for the pay cheque. The interesting ones they reserve for their memoirs that they will write after the powers have stopped paying salary, free from the inhibitions of propriety and proprietor.’ That in my view sums up this book by Anil Maheshwari Sir really well. I picked it up and could not let go of it till I had finished it, such a wonderful read this book is!

My main takeaways;

1. At the outset since I had taken issues with Anil sir about the title of his earlier book, let me commend him for the title here. It indeed is ‘Instant History’! The title gels perfectly with the contents of the book. It is said that journalists write the first draft of history and you do find enough references to oral and journalistic history in this book. Some very important and interesting examples for me were the confirmation that I got about the difference of opinion between Chacha Nehru and General Thimmaya, leading to the latter submitting his resignation as the army Chief. Nehru of course prevailed upon him to withdraw his resignation. He had resigned because he found Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon interfering too much in day to day military affairs. I have come across many who say this never happened and is a figment of the imagination of the opponents of Nehru ji, but Anil Sir details how the information got leaked in the press then and how Nehru ji tried to suppress it.

The chapter on Kashmir makes for some real interesting read wherein the oral history of Kashmir finds a reference with many still believing that Nehru and Sheikh Sahab stopped the Indian army from pushing ahead in Kashmir in 1947, lest the Bakarwals and the nomads become dominant in Kashmir to the detriment of Muslims of the valley.

2. Another topic which really caught my attention was the history of the invocation of contempt of court against the press. Anil Sir delves into the issue in some depth analysing it’s historicity right from the British days. He also highlights the remarkable courage shown by editors who preferred to face incarceration rather than letting down their reporters, Mahatma’s son being one such editor.

3. The book is a must read for aspiring journalists. It highlights the good and bad in the profession, stressing on the qualities needed to succeed in the profession. Some of these I would say are need for planning and implementing those plans, maintaining good relation with sources as well as the ability to think on ones feet. The book clearly brings out the empathy which Anil Sir feels for his acquaintances and sources. MJ Akbar rightly says in the introduction,’ His (Anil Sir’s) writing has the comfortable confidence of a writer who knows that journalism is an exchange of information between fallible human beings. This is a book of smiles, not scorn.’

Here is an example of thinking on his feet; Don cum politician DP Yadav’s sister and her husband are fired upon by the rival gang in which the latter loses his life and the former is critically wounded. Anil Sir is there to do a story and the hospital is teeming with Mr. Yadav’s henchmen who are most worried that Mr Yadav is distraught and is refusing to eat or drink. Anil Sir walks into his room, holds him by his hand and asks him to collect himself for his sister and his family. His concern and empathy has an impact on Mr. Yadav who not only eats something, but let’s Anil Sir photograph his injured sister for his story.

Similarly an anecdote about planning a story; In 1953, when Raj Kanwar, a rookie sub editor of Indian express wanted to get an interview with Sir Arnold J Toynbee, the famous historian, he realised that he will not get much time with him. So not only did he write his questions down but also researched about Tonybee in such great detail, that he wrote the answers to those questions himself. On meeting Tonybee, who was coming out of the house where he was staying to board his car for the airport, he introduced himself and asked for an interview. Tonybee said he had no time to spare, so he gave him the copy of the question as well as the answers he had written explaining that he had done both and to kindly check if these indeed would be his answers. So impressed was Tonybee with the answers that he said, yes, that they indeed would have been his answers, signed on the paper and said that Mr. Kanwar could use them as his interview.

4. Written in the style of ‘kissagoi’ the book has been arranged thematically and deals with stories related to journalism and journalists (and what interesting stories they are) but also with politicians, state institutions like bureaucracy, police, courts etc. – what ails them and what gives us hope. All these stories make for a wonderful read!

An unputdownable book! Buy it and read it. You will surely enjoy it.

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