An autobiography of its own kind

KVK Murthy
Name of Author : Shiv Kunal Verma
There are autobiographies and autobiographies. Customarily the genre is somewhat iffy: people, as a rule, are not interested in what one has done in or with one’s life. They belong in the realm of home videos: of interest solely to one’s family (and the few, if any, polite friends one has).
The exception is celebrities. If you are Oprah Winfrey or Zsa Zsa Gabor or Monica Lewinsky, well, you have a market and a fair readership. Shiv Kunal Verma isn’t any of these, but he attained celebrity-hood in the last few years thanks to some spectacular documentary films on wildlife and on the Indian armed forces and two outstanding works of Indian Army military history. This autobiography, however, doesn’t depend on that fame for its literary place: it is sui generis, defiant of classification. The nearest one can come to is to call it a thriller in the garb of a life story in the first person – for it is Shiv Kunal’s life story. And it reads like a thriller because it is incredible; the more so, because it is wholly true. It is the kind of life most only dream of, and very few (if any) have the good fortune to live and write about.
From the arresting, almost cinematic Prologue, the book is a Force 12 hurricane, dropping only to a 10 gale now and then, that sweeps one along breathlessly from incident to incident, place to place, name to name; these last some of the highest and mightiest in the land: generals, air marshals, admirals, a few prime ministers thrown in; even a Portuguese President in far away Lisbon for good measure, with whom the author’s relationships leave one agape in incredulity. His access and ease in the halls and corridors of power would be the despairing envy of every lobbyist, every hungry influence broker. His being the son of a distinguished general from a famous regiment may have helped, but not all army brats, however exalted, have this devil’s own luck.
There is virtually no thrill that’s not in this book. From flying fighter jets, filming on the Siachen Glacier, to flying choppers and transports – often cockpit-hopping – to sailing (and filming) on every craft and vessel in the navy; from deep-sea diving in the Andamans (with a hair’s breadth escape from a sea croc) to surviving an ambush by Nagas in the northeastern jungles; from a tense interview (posing as a foreign correspondent) with a bunch of armed Kashmiri militants (to whom he was marched blindfolded), to protecting a beleaguered family from a murderous mob during the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 with a Beretta 9mm (thrust into his hand), and much more, it’s all here. Shiv Kunal Verma has done it all.
There’s even that dream come true and envy of every schoolboy: getting your own back on an unpleasant master. In Gwalior, flying a Mirage 2000 with an air force pilot in command, the author buzzes the house of a former DOSCO master now teaching at the Scindia School: later there’s hell to pay of course (both from the school and the AF commandant), but the cheer one sends up when one reads it is every bit a ‘never-grow-up’ schoolboy’s yell, and well worth the wigging.
What else…? Hmmm… The fastest one pulled on an American school classroom by an Indian schoolboy? Read about how they rolled a globe out to find out the distance between Marina Beach (Madras/Chennai) and Australia. A minor but vital improvement made by the author to Rajiv Gandhi’s security arrangements? It’s here. A ringside view of politicking and money-laundering at the highest level? Yes, that too.
One could go on…But it’s simpler to get yourself the book and far more rewarding.
(The reviewer is a Bangalore-based critic)