NON-FICTION: Unfading memories

Published April 26, 2015
Picture from the book
Picture from the book

Publisher, author and columnist Ashok Chopra’s book A Scrapbook of Memories raises some very pertinent questions and goes on to answer them in quite a plausible manner. Chopra’s first question, the opening sentence of his preface, is: “Who is a book publisher?”

“Is he a middleman between an author and the market… a businessman, because publishing is both an art and a business?” he asks the reader. Just as you decide to keep his book on your bedside table for reading later, he comes to your rescue when he says, “A publisher is a man of many parts, who can’t be slotted into a specific category”. One can’t agree with him more when he asserts “every successful publisher has been a businessman under the cloak of intellectual pursuits”.

At the end of the preface, he also clarifies that the book is neither an autobiography nor a memoir. It is his journey with and through the written word, and his interaction with a wide variety of people from authors and writers to painters and designers. It is somewhat disappointing that he doesn’t write about his own life, which one feels would have been quite readable given his narrative skills.

The only time he comes close to describing his personal life is when he recalls how he left journalism and entered the publishing world. As the story goes he was a junior, enthusiastic reporter of the Indian Express, based in Simla (as it was spelt then) when Shanta Kumar, the new chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, inducted Shyama Sharma into his cabinet.

Sharma was involved in one scandal after another. The reporter didn’t miss any of the scoops, but in the process annoyed both his immediate boss, Kuldip Nayar, and the owner of the Indian Express Group. Chopra was transferred to Jalandhar, a nondescript town, as punishment. He left journalism for publishing but continued to write columns, describing the experience as “an extra-marital affair”. Publishing became his life’s abiding passion: having held various senior positions, he is currently the chief executive of Hay House India.

“I have often been asked what made Khushwant Singh ‘tick’ with a cross-section of readers. Was it his posturing as the ‘Sultan of Sleaze’, which, in actuality hid a scholar of history, whose fields also passionately included nature and literature? Was it his genuine unritualistic religiosity and deep spirituality? Or was it his persona as a champion of lost causes that endeared him to millions?”— Excerpt from the book

What makes the book most interesting is the portrait gallery he creates. These caricatures of different personalities and some rare photographs lend visual appeal to the style of Chopra’s writing. There is the eccentric and unpredictable actor Raaj Kumar. When Chopra brings up the possibility of Kumar writing his autobiography, Kumar says “No…never. I guard my privacy very carefully…I am an actor. My acting should speak to the masses. Not my life…My life is not for public consumption.”

Begum Akhtar, the legendary ghazal singer, makes a cameo appearance in Chopra’s life. She kisses his forehead and says “Khush raho. Khuda lambi umar de [May you remain happy and may God grant you a long life].” He sees her when she is successfully mediating between writer Uma Vasudev and her estranged husband. Uma is moved by the pleadings of the woman who is just as great as her accomplishments in vocal music. Writes Chopra “Uma, shell-shocked, broke down as she locked the Begum in a warm embrace, which it seemed, lasted a long, long time.”

Chopra initiates many books, but on two occasions he is let down by people whom he had convinced to pen their memoirs. One is the matinee idol Dev Anand. Chopra floats the idea but the actor complains that he has no time to take up writing. After some time when the publisher brings up the subject again and suggests he can engage a biographer, the star retorts “How can someone else write about me… Only I know what I have gone through…My life is not a dinner party where the chef will cook and serve to everyone. I will have to write it my way.” When the actor eventually begins to put his thoughts on paper, he reads out passages to Chopra, who doesn’t know at that time the manuscript would be handed over to another publisher through his lawyer.

He had earlier met with a similar disappointment when the well-known artist, Satish Gujral, a friend of his father’s, backed out of a written agreement. What Chopra’s readers get, however, is an interesting character sketch of the artist.

In the earlier part of his book Chopra narrates the shocking story of Dom Moraes who races against time to present Indira Gandhi the first copy of her biography at the prime minister’s office. He is made to wait for what seems to be ages and when he finds her walking towards her car he rushes towards her and attempts to present the book. He is crestfallen when she snubs him: “Book? What book? I don’t need it. I don’t read gutter stuff. Take it away.”

As for the man he calls Dilip sahib, Chopra had to wait 24 years to get the manuscript of his autobiography which he had written with the help of a journalist. His meeting with the nonagenarian great actor, whom he gives a copy of the book, is recalled emotionally.

Two people Chopra writes about with a lot of affection are the writer Khushwant Singh, and the film actor Dilip Kumar. With Singh he had had a long association; he was his friend, philosopher and guide, and Chopra spent much time in his company. He was also Singh’s publisher and co-author.

Chopra decides to donate all profits from the sales of the book to the Khushwant Singh Foundation for the education of children. “Many a girl child of the future, I am sure, will bless Dilip Kumar and Khushwant Singh, with a prayer of thanks, for having made their lives. It was my little way of honouring the two legends whom I worship!”

To those who are interested in film music, the chapter on Raju Bharatan, whose knowledge of the subject is encyclopaedic, will make informative reading. Bharatan’s book on Lata Mangeshkar did not please her. She was happy, on the other hand, by the hagiography penned by Harish Bhimani. Bharatan’s newest book Naushadnama deals exhaustively with the late composer, Naushad Ali who was known for his Midas touch.

In chapters devoted to subjects relating to publishing, Chopra discusses at length such issues as sourcing manuscripts. He also writes about book launches and their usefulness (or lack thereof) in selling the publications. He rightly concludes that word of mouth recommendations contribute largely to the sales of books.

A Scrapbook of Memories
By Ashok Chopra
HarperCollins, India
ISBN 978-9351770954416pp.



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