When autobiographies fall flat

Those who read autobiographies will be familiar with what I am about to say, namely, that there are two types of these: the reflective ones and the one-damn-thing-after-another ones. The former are the best; the latter the worst. I mean, after all, you read an autobiography for the insights the great achievers can provide, not for a chronological narration of their lives which, when the achievers are not going about achieving, are as humdrum as yours and mine.

The worst offenders, I have concluded, are the civil servants who use their autobiographies to explain and justify why they messed up. So I have stopped reading them. That leaves, for me at least, cricketers, economists, politicians and judges. And therein lies a peculiar paradox. For example, as far as cricketing ability goes, there is no comparison between Sanjay Manjrekar and Sachin Tendulkar. But while the former produced a wonderful autobiography, the latter’s book is deadly dull. In batting, they were the exact opposite: Manjrekar was quite a boring batsman and Sachin an absolute marvel. The exception is David Gower who was a batting genius and has written a wonderful autobiography as well.

It is not just the players who have insights from the stories they tell. The umpires also have many. Of all of them, Dickie Bird’s is probably the best. He has terrific stories from his long career as an umpire which started in 1974. The best is from the 1983 World Cup Final, which India won. He says around the 15th over — yes, as early as that — Kapil Dev told him India was going to win the match. Bird asked him why. Kapil said because the West Indies were taking it very easy. Bird didn’t believe him. But in the end, that’s exactly what happened.

As far as cricketing ability goes, there is no comparison between Sanjay Manjrekar and Sachin Tendulkar. But while the former produced a wonderful autobiography, the latter’s book is deadly dull.

Of the other four categories — politicians, civil servants, judges, and economists — only a few are reflective. Irritatingly, most of them tend to be boastful, either in an understated way or a loud one. Considering they have all been involved in making India what it is, they rarely discuss the choices that confronted them, and how they finally chose one course of action over all the other options. Civil servants, for the most part, simply air their grievances about their careers. This could be because they rarely get any recognition, which must hurt. But there is one redeeming feature: because they are faceless, civil servants never get any public criticism either. So they make a mess and move on to some other job to make another mess.

Politicians, however, are closely watched and they get a lot of abuse. But rarely do they get any recognition or adulation, which is a pity because the majority of them indeed do a lot of good work. But it is in the nature of things, possibly in the nature of power, that only their misdeeds receive attention, hence the need to boast.

Many judges have written their life stories and for the most part, if that sort of thing interests you, these stories are fascinating. But in the last twenty years or so, the quality of their writing has deteriorated. Nor do many of them write about how they arrived at a particular conclusion. But this could be because they have already provided this in their judgements. The only problem is that judgements are extremely tedious because Indian judges deliver such long judgements — often, as I say, in very bad English.

As for economists, very few of them write autobiographies, which is very surprising considering they always think that the world goes around because of them. Nor, for that matter, do other academics from the diverse disciplines. I asked my wife who is an academic why this was so. She said “Oh, that’s easy. They are waiting for someone to write their biographies!”

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