It was early August 1947 and India was on the cusp of its independence.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, an architect of modern India, and his trusted lieutenant Vappala Pangunni Menon, better known as V. P. Menon or just VP, the Constitutional Adviser and Political Reforms Commissioner to the last three successive British Viceroys in India, were busy getting the 565 princely states in India to sign the Instrument of Accession – a legal document that enabled rulers of the princely states to join either India or Pakistan created by the Partition of British India.
With the Sardar indisposed, VP was racing against time, crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country meeting with princes and nawabs to get them on board with India.
While most of the royals were willing to sign away their territories to India in return for certain privileges – admittedly a far cry from what they were enjoying – some had to be coaxed, others coerced and a few subtly arm-twisted into signing on the dotted line.
Maharaja Hanmant Singh of Jodhpur, having been used to enjoying the vast privileges and wealth that came with being a royal – his spectacular 347-room Umaid Bhawan Palace, for instance, was considered one of the fanciest residences in the world at the time – was reluctant to bite the bullet.
"He was the one who gave me the most trouble," VP would recall in his diary.
To get the maharja to join the union of India, VP invited him to a meeting with Louis Mountbatten, but even after extended negotiations the royal was still unwilling to fall in line until VP gave him a near ultimatum. That broke the impasse and the maharaja signed the document, albeit grudgingly.
Perhaps heaving a sigh of relief, Mountbatten stepped out of the room for a moment, and when VP turned, he found the maharaja pointing a revolver at him. "I refuse to accept your dictation," the ‘hot-headed’ royal thundered, glaring at the political reforms commissioner.
Calm and unruffled although he was staring down the barrel of a .22 calibre revolver at point blank range, VP told Hanmant Singh that he was "making a very serious mistake if he thought that by killing me or threatening to kill me he could get the accession abrogated".
A moment later, the sullen maharaja handed the pistol to VP.
Much later VP would give the pistol – which doubled as a pen – to Mountbatten who in turn would use it to gain entry into the prestigious Magic Circle, an elite club of magicians. Decades later, the pistol sold at an auction in London for 10,000 euros.
This is just one of the many eyebrow-raising incidents that pepper Narayani Basu’s brilliant biography of VP Menon, a lesser-known personality in modern Indian history but an individual who played a crucial role in the formation of India, particularly in the run up to and immediately after its independence.
More than a biography, V. P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India offers an intriguing ringside view of the back-room discussions, political tightrope walking and power-brokering that happened in the mid-1940s as India was preparing to see off its British colonial rulers.
Search for sources
The great grand-daughter of VP, Narayani, a Delhi-based historian and foreign policy analyst, confesses that she didn’t know she was related to the former Indian bureaucrat until her mother mentioned it to her when she was in her late teens.
"During a dinner table discussion years go, I mentioned a book I was reading about the summer of 1947 and how VP Menon was the reforms commissioner at the time when my mother looked up and told me ‘he is your great-grand father’," she says.
To say Narayani was shocked and overwhelmed would be an understatement. "It was a bolt from the blue," recalls the graduate in history and Chinese foreign policy, in a telephone interview from her home in New Delhi.
Keen to learn more about him, she began scouring libraries only to discover that apart from VP’s two books, The Transfer of Power and The Story of the Integration of States (it had been Patel’s dying wish that VP write about the process of transfer of power and integration – and these two books were a promise fulfilled), and a few blog posts, "there was nothing – no memoirs, biographies, nothing. I had nothing to go on except stories from my mom and my uncle".
Those would be the starting point when a few years later, after completing her MPhil in East Asian Studies from the University of Delhi and after a stint as a China research analyst at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in Delhi, Narayani would attempt to fill the void in modern Indian history by penning VP Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India.
"One thing I was clear about right from the start six years ago was that this book would not be a hagiography," she says. "VP had such an extraordinary trajectory – he came from nowhere and worked his way up to becoming possibly the topmost civil servant at the time of transfer of power and I wanted to highlight all aspects of his personality – the greys, blacks and whites."
Narayani can rest assured she has done full justice. She paints a perfect portriat of VP, warts and all.
The 440-page book details the amazing rise of a boy from a small village in Kerala who ran away from home "after setting fire to his school", slogged in a gold mine in Karnataka, before he caught the eye of a British officer and went on to become one of the few bureaucrats who would not only witness first-hand the formation of India but also play a crucial role in its integration.
Blessed with a sharp mind, a photographic memory, and immaculate note-taking and typing skills not to mention the ability to draft perfect documents under pressure and in a short time, VP was the go-to man for Sardar Patel and the last few viceroys.
Apart from holding powerful positions in the corridors of power, he was also known for picking up some of the traits of his British superiors – dressing in Saville Row suits, for instance, the first of which he got tailored when he went to London in 1930 to participate at the Round Table negotiations – and having a penchant for participating in tiger safaris, if the pictures of him with a rifle and a slain tiger at his feet are any indication.
Narayani shares several awe-inspiring incidents of the Malayali who endeared himself to not just the Sardar and a few British officials but also to a few Indian politicians of the time, although India’s first prime minister Nehru, was clearly not one of them.
"Writing the book was a pipe dream of mine," says the 33-year-old, admitting that while she did know she wanted to write the book, she wasn’t initially clear how to go about it.
Nevertheless, deciding to take the plunge, she quit her job at 26 telling her parents – Nalini Menon and Kallol Basu – that she was going to write a definitive biography of a man Indian historians had largely ignored. "Luckily, both offered me all support," she says.
With neither an agent nor a book deal in place, Narayani admits she took a gamble quitting a well-paying job. "But living with your parents has some priviliges – living rent-free was just one of them," she says, with a laugh.
Even as she was writing her book, Narayani was also juggling several jobs – as a research assistant to several professors, freelance copy-editing and writing content.
"I treated writing like a full-time job. I kept office hours and very rarely worked on weekends, because I have always felt that while a dream is important, it shouldn’t submerge your life."
For two years from 2015, she slaved in libraries perusing historical documents before putting together three sample chapters that she dashed off to an agent, Kanishka Gupta, whom an acquaintance had introduced to her. "He believed in my book project as much as I did and in 2017, I landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster India."
Getting the book deal though was the relatively easy part. "Research was extremely difficult," says the author. Although she had a copy of VP’s professional papers that were donated to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi after his death, she was keen to lay her hands on documents from as early as 1914 when he had joined the ICS as a typist.
"Not many people knew about his early years in the service because he rarely spoke about what he did and how he began," she says.
Documents from 1914 until he retired in 1951 would be crucial to shed some light on the man and his work. "This meant combing through all the papers in the National Archives of India, the private papers of viceroys and the secretaries of the states of India, the 12 volumes of the Transfer of Power by Nicholas Mansergh; and reading between the lines of the independence movement to find VP Menon."
Often, many individuals behind the scenes of power fade into the background leaving the ones who dominate to become political legends and household names, says the historian. "You might remember names of viceroys, the secretaries of state… we remember Nehru, Jinnah Gandhi, Patel… and these are easy enough to find and research because their correspondences are compiled neatly and preserved.
"But you have to read between the lines of Transfer of Power, among other historical references, to locate someone like VP and determine his career trajectory."
Searching for bits and pieces
To that end, she spent months researching in the National Archives - which houses papers of the Home Department and the Reforms branch, and documents of viceroys and secretaries of state on loan from the British Library – and at the Teen Murti Library. The latter is a repository for the personal papers of several bureaucrats of the time including VP, documents of prominent Independence activists, and newspaper reports.
While they were useful, Narayani would strike pay dirt in 2016 when she learnt that Henry Hodson’s papers were stored in the archives of the School of African and Oriental Studies (SAOS) in London. Henry, the reforms commissioner in 1941, was a close friend of VP and he relied on VP’s memories for researching his own book, The Great Divide.
"I found that Hodson had actually taped VP’s interviews [but] there was no way I could get a transcript of the interviews because the tapes had never been transcribed," she says.
Her only hope of getting access to the interviews was to visit the archives in London. Luckily for her she bagged the coveted Charles Wallace India Trust scholarship that included a £1,500 grant – "luckily I had a place to stay" – allowing her to spend a couple of months researching in London. "That archive was a gold mine," she says, the excitement of discovering the treasure trove still echoing in her words.
Hodson’s papers are preserved in three boxes; two brimming with correspondence between "Hodson and every member of the Indian Independence movement who was alive in the 60s and 70s."
Letters between Hodson and Mountbatten, and between Hodson and Cyril Radcliffe (the man who drew the boundary lines that at the time would create two countries and three parts – India, East Pakistan and West Pakistan), corroborations and clarifications about what happened and when… they were all there.
For Narayani, though, "the actual joy lay in the third box which was full of CDs". Hodson had interviewed among others, Mountbatten, and VP, and the latter’s audio CDs comprised the bulk of the box – around 18 CDs in all.
"It was the first time I was hearing my great grand father’s voice and it was an absolutely incredible moment," she gushes. For the first time she had the entire story of his professional life – from the time he was with Edwin Montague (of the Montague-Chelmsford reforms), during his travels across the states, the drafting of the Montague Chelmsford report, the back room negotiations and showdowns – all literally in the man’s own words.
Having heard audio recordings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon among others speak in perfect English, to hear VP speak with his "incredibly thick Malayali accent" was a revelation of sorts for Narayani. "He had a very excitable voice and whenever he got excited, he’d raise his voice; he also had a little lisp that just made it so much more real."
The author makes it clear that VP’s memory was as sharp as a tack. "I’ve used his voice for the majority of the book because once you have something as rare and which documented the entire independence movement, it seemed unfair for me to superimpose my voice. I felt that if this biography has to come to life it has to come through in his voce."
Although he played a key role during the independence, why did he not get the respect or position in history that he deserved? I ask.
"I think personal feelings come in the way of professional achievements," says the author. "I firmly believe he was allowed to lapse into professional obscurity given everything he had done for shaping the country until then. But largely, and I have made it clear in the book, it is because of Nehru’s personal feelings there. I don’t have too much to add other than what I have written honestly in my book."
One of the more contentious points in VP Menon is a mention by VP that Nehru did not want Sardar Patel in his Cabinet in 1947. While historian Ramachandra Guha dismissed it as "a myth", Congress leaders Shashi Tharoor and Jairam Ramesh rubbished the claim sharing documents on social media to show that Nehru had never planned to exclude Patel from the Cabinet. There was also criticism that Narayani’s revelation was based not on written documents but purely on VP’s words and that "human recollections could be weak".
What is your take on this, I ask Narayani.
"It’s not a question of whether human recollection is weak or not," she says, firmly. "VP was in full possession of his faculties speaking about the process of transfer of power.
"It’s equally important to remember that everything that goes on in politics and diplomacy, especially behind the scenes, is not always neatly recorded."
It’s all politics
While she does not dispute the existence of a couple of letters from Nehru that show he never excluded Patel from the Cabinet list, "we have to keep in mind that diplomacy and politics is not a black and white process", she says. "There are back room negotiations that happen and politicians know that better than I do. Those are not recorded. In fact, without that, some of the greatest party moves would not have been possible either. So just because it is not documented, doesn’t mean it did not happen."
Narayani insists that this is "exactly why oral history is important and should not be castigated as human recollections that can sometimes fail.
"Oral history plays an immensely important role in archiving history and helping future historians tell stories as well".
As we come to the end of the interview I ask her what she thinks were the qualities that helped VP climb up the bureaucracy ladder?
"Ambition was one; you also need a lot of pride and at some point a keen sense of preservation," says Narayani, sifting through the years of research she did on VP. "You need to adapt to circumstances you find yourself in."
This was a boy who dropped out of school, who taught himself to type, to adapt to situations and learn from them. He learnt how to negotiate his way through pressure-cooker situations, avoided getting caught in ego clashes, and learnt on the job things that no ICS training provides.
"VP was also known for his humility and self-effacement. I found he had effaced himself out of all major events. For instance, at the Shimla Conference while the credit went to Wavell, it was VP who designed the blueprint for the meet," she says.
With Sardar quite literally being placed on a pedestal (a 182m statue of the leader was unveiled two years ago in Gujarat) does she think that with this book, his protégé too will get the recognition he deserves?
"I didn’t write this book to get him political recognition because in this day and age it’s very difficult to get him neutral attention; there will always be a particular slant," she says, adding, she wrote the book to get him "back into the national consciousness, to make the lay reader aware of what this man did".
Bureaucrats are often assumed to be just pen pushers when they could be doing the real hard and important work of drafting and fine-tuning documents that would have major repercussions on a nation for years to come. "It’s important to see who was behind the scenes of the power. VP was in charge of the back room during the transfer of power and the point when independence and the partition was happening; he was the man almost everyone went to and just about every decision was passed through his gaze. I wanted the reader to think about that."
V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India, by Narayani Basu is available on amazon.ae.