As I wait in Kuldip Nayar’s office, I take in his library. Several stacks of Persian and Urdu books, including what I finally figure is Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat are on his desk, along with a mix of handwritten and typed notes, and three dauntingly large reference books.
As I notice a line of bound books, embossed with the title of Nayar’s syndicated column, Between the Lines, and neatly arranged by year, their 89-year-old author steps into the room.
He looks at least 15 years younger than he is, never asks me to repeat a question, and treats his mobile phone like it is just another technological innovation he has seen in almost a century of witnessing history.
It isn’t a good thing for an interviewer to feel awed, but it strikes me that it has less to do with the fact that I’ve seen his name in the papers for as long back as I can remember, than his remarkable honesty and aura of unassuming dignity.
When I tell him I’m here to speak to him about his memoir Beyond the Lines, extracts from which went viral on social media ahead of its release, he smiles, “It’s rather late in the day.” I laugh and tell him I don’t want it to be just about the book. “Ah, you want perspective,” he grins, “Thank you.”
Then, he asks with genuine interest, “Tell me, what did you really think of the book?” I find myself telling him I expect autobiographies to be self-indulgent, but this wasn’t his memoir so much as the memoir of the nation. He nods, and says with a peculiar brand of careless modesty that he thought he would write his autobiography, but he had been so involved in “things” that this was what happened.
His journey from Sialkot in Undivided India to Delhi ended up taking him around the globe as a journalist, envoy and politician. He explains that he had initially written 800 pages for the book, and had to slash it in half, forcing him to leave out a lot he wanted to say about the Northeast and Nepal. Over a cup of tea, he chats about his views on Partition, politics, journalism, linguistic chauvinism, censorship, and pretty much everything from Kashmir to Koodankulam.
Excerpts from the first part of the interview:
You've decided to pen your memoirs at a fairly advanced age, and yet your recollections of your childhood and youth are so very detailed. Did you maintain journals all through, or...
Memory. It’s all memory. Well, I had these articles (gestures at the volumes). Every week, I write an article for my [syndicated column] Between the Lines, and they’re bound year-wise. But, no, I didn’t consult them, because otherwise, I would have got lost in all this information. Somewhere, maybe dates and names, I’ve had to refer to those for. But it’s mostly my memory.