The question raised by Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s ‘An Ordinary Life’: Is memory to be trusted?

A subjective account will necessarily ruffle feathers, as publishing history proves.

Acclaimed actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s memoir An Ordinary Life was to have been officially launched by publisher Penguin Random House India on November 3. Siddiqui and Penguin have now withdrawn the book from circulation after two of Siddiqui’s former girlfriends criticised his characterisation of their relationships.

This is one of the rare instances of a memoir being withdrawn for being inauthentic.

Written along with journalist Rituparna Chatterjee, An Ordinary Life traces Siddiqui’s journey from Budhana town in Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai. Among the highlights are Siddiqui’s childhood, his years at the National School of Drama, his early struggles in Mumbai, and his love affairs. Penguin drew the attention of readers to Siddiqui’s love life by releasing edited excerpts of the portions that mention his wife Aaliya and actors Niharika Singh and Sunita Rajwar.

Rajwar and Singh accused Siddiqui of mis-remembering their association with him – Rajwar called the memoir “An Ordinary Life of Extraordinary Lies’. Siddiqui issued a public apology for the “chaos around his memoir”, while Rituparna Chatterjee told, “We are remorseful that people have been hurt, but that wasn’t the intention at all. We didn’t anticipate this [reaction], and it’s a genuine mistake. Neither of us meant to hurt anybody.”

Several autobiographies and memoirs have ruffled feathers in the past, but they have not been pulped like An Ordinary Life.

In 2007, Vyjayanthimala’s autobiography Bonding...A Memoir irritated actor Rishi Kapoor for claiming that her affair with his father, the filmmaker and actor Raj Kapoor, was a publicity stunt. Kapoor pointed out that his father had been romantically involved with Vyjayanthimala, and that she was in denial.

Karan Johar’s autobiography An Unsuitable Boy angered some of the filmmaker’s relatives, who felt that he had misrepresented them in his book. One of the portions they took offence to claimed that Johar’s father was assigned the job of sitting at the counter of the family-owned sweetmeat shop, “probably because he was the only one who had been educated up to a point and spoke English well”. Johar’s extended family felt that this statement belittled the achievements and qualifications of the rest of the members. Some of the family members had “retired from noteworthy positions”, a lawyer for the family had said at the time.

Whose voice?

Authorised biographies are not free from controversy, even when the subject is married to the author, as proven by Unlikely Hero: The Story of Om Puri, written by Om Puri’s wife Nandita Puri in 2009. Om Puri was pained by the descriptions of sexual encounters in the book, including one with his maid at the age of 14. “I was shocked by her revelations,” Puri told the Times of India. “It was so cheap. She was talking about my sexual encounters as though those were my biggest achievements!”

Puri was also upset about the manner in which Nandita had written about his relationship with Laxmi, a woman who raised him and his brother’s children. “I had shared these dark secrets with my wife as all husbands do,” he said. “If she chose to make them public, at least she should’ve made sure to maintain a dignity about experiences that are a valuable part of my life.” Puri, who died in 2016, separated from his wife soon after the book’s publication.

Memoirs by film personalities (and the ensuing controversies) are relatively recent, compared to autobiographies by political figures. In 1978, MO Mathai, the private secretary of Jawaharlal Nehru, wrote Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, which was banned soon after. A chapter titled She, in which Mathai claimed that he had been Indira Gandhi’s lover for 12 years, was withheld by the publishers. Gandhi’s estranged daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi, distributed copies of the book and ensured that it got some play before it was banned.

Maneka Gandhi later played her part in censorship by securing an injunction in 1995 against Khushwant Singh’s autobiography Truth, Love and A Little Malice for the manner in which she was written about. Raj Panjwani, Gandhi’s lawyer, claimed that there were several “defamatory and derogatory references to her and her family” in the book and defined defamation as “any statement that lowers the esteem of the subject in the eyes of all right thinking people in society and causes pain and anguish to the subject.” The ban was later lifted by the Delhi High Court.

Publishing the self

George Orwell is believed to have said, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”

In an interview to in June earlier this year, lawyer Dahlia Sen Oberoi, who has been fighting cases for the publishing industry for close to 17 years, said that there is no concept of authorised or unauthorised biographies in India. “Anyone can write about anything or anyone as long as you are not violating any laws,” she said. “Basically, in a biography people want to bring up dirt and for that, yes, your sources have to be impeccable. And then there is this beast called Right to Privacy – which, personally, I think is a good thing. Why not? Our courts say that if you want to talk about a person’s private life, either get their permission or write only that which is part of public records – there’s nothing ambiguous about this law.”

The question that lingers is: what is the motivation behind a biography?

Paul Theroux’s biography of Nobel prize-winning author VS Naipaul, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, for instance, is a scathing account of his mentor. The memoir was allegedly a response to Naipaul’s suspicion that Theroux has tried to seduce his first wife. “Naipaul was a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on the brain,” Theroux wrote. “He was then, and continued to be, an excellent candidate for anger-management classes, sensitivity training, psychotherapy, marriage guidance, grief counselling and driving lessons – none of which he pursued.” After the book, Theroux and Naipaul had a fall-out that lasted for 15 years. The hostility between the writers finally ended in 2011 with a hand-shake.

A few years later, another Naipual biography created a storm. In 2008, VS Naipaul announced that he was not keen on reading Patrick French’s biography of him, The World Is What It Is. Margaret Murray, Naipaul’s mistress, said that she had been misrepresented in the book. One of the portions that offended Murray was when French claimed that Murray did not mind being abused by Naipaul. “Vidia [Naipaul] says I didn’t mind the abuse. I certainly did mind,” Murray wrote in the New York Review of Books. Murray also wrote: “I did not cooperate with Patrick French’s book [The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul]; nor have I read it. There are a number of things wrong in Ian Buruma’s review of it [NYR, November 20, 2008].”

In his response, French said that he found it surprising that Murray is refusing the fact that she did speak to him.

Irreversible and potent

Perhaps the irreversibility associated with the memoir makes it so potent. In 2014, veteran journalist Vinod Mehta had said that he felt embarrassed by his 1971 book, Bombay: A Private View, a memoir he wrote when he was 26. “Some of the contents of the book…My mother, who is dead now, was ashamed when she read it,” Mehta had told “I wrote in that book about many things which a young man of 26 years would write. About his bohemian life, his womanising, etcetera. You don’t care at that age what you write. I still have a copy of the book and the publishers are chasing me for it.”

What Mehta had found the hardest to write about was about the daughter he had outside wedlock in his memoir Lucknow Boy. “You see, already they call me a drunk on social media, even though I drink very little,” he said. “So, if that book [Bombay: A Private View] ever came out, it would be dynamite for these people. For example, I wrote about my daughter in my previous book, Lucknow Boy. They call her a prostitute on social media, because I produced an illegitimate child.”

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