Interview | Veteran journalist TJS George talks about his new book ‘The Dismantling of India’

Veteran journalist TJS George talks about his new book, ‘The Dismantling of India’, which showcases the country through the biographies of 35 personalities – from Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and Bal Thackeray, to Narendra Modi, JRD Tata and Veerappan

Veteran journalist TJS George talks about his new book, “The Breaking Up of India”, which presents the country through the biographies of 35 personalities – from Mahatma Gandhi, BR Ambedkar and Bal Thackeray, to Narendra Modi, JRD Tata and Veerappan

The maintenance man carrying a large canister walks in the garden in front of the French windows where we are seated. When he announces that he is about to release large clouds of mosquito repellent gas, TJS George briskly rises from his chair and closes the glass doors. “That other door is just screened,” he says, “it lets all the smoke into the living room.”

A wall of books dominates this living room and its tasteful interiors, including the crockery in which we are served coffee and apple pie. “The set is the work of my sister, Sheba,” says George’s son, author Jeet Thayil.

We start discussing George’s latest book, The dismantling of India — a collection of short biographies of 35 Indian personalities, which illustrates the trajectory of this nation since independence. TJS (Thayil Jacob Sony) George is uniquely qualified for such an undertaking. His 75-year career as a journalist began in 1947, the year India gained independence. He turns 94 this year and continues to be a working journalist. The book’s 35 personalities are its list of Indians who have had a significant impact on the country’s history, and therefore on our lives. They are people of art, entertainment, politics, science, business, crime and the cause.

The dismantling of India;  TJS George, Simon & Schuster, ₹899.

The dismantling of India; TJS George, Simon & Schuster, ₹899.

Typically, such a selection would have been made from a long list of prospects. But George’s subjects were decisively handpicked to create this collection. “As a journalist,” he explains, “I feel like I understand who is newsworthy. What do they call it… sixth sense? That sense…it makes me pick someone as worthy.

Equally typical would be to expect – with the anticipation of behind-the-scenes stories – that George would know most of them personally, but it is clear that the biographies were written purely from a professional point of view: “I don’t think I’ve personally interacted with many of them, or any of them for that matter.

Some names are predictable – Gandhi, Savarkar, Ambedkar, Bal Thackeray, JRD Tata. Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the Gandhi – Indira family in Rahul. Some are surprising inclusions. India’s most wanted Veerappan bandit, Dawood Ibrahim, for example. Another is stock chaser Harshad Mehta and Abdul Karim Telgi, who was convicted of counterfeiting stamp paper. “Harshad Mehta used his genius for evil purposes,” George says, “but that doesn’t detract from his importance. Bad people are also important in the making of a country. And (Telgi) when active, controlled much of public life.

Veerappan, a “favorite”

As for Veerappan – for many a rural folk hero who fought injustice and exploitation, despite his criminal excursions – George doesn’t see him as a villain: “I think he was a good man. He was misrepresented by the press and by the politicians who lost because of him. He’s one of my favorites, if I can use that word.

The outlines of each biography are a window into its own perspectives. For politicians, George reserves impatience and acerbic wit. For people of culture — musicians, artists, actors — sensitivity and respect.

While some inclusions in

Although some inclusions in ‘ The dismantling of India’ are predictable, like Gandhi, Savarkar, Ambedkar and Narendra Modi, others are surprising. For example, Veerappan and India’s most wanted bandit, Dawood Ibrahim. | Photo credit: Murali Kumar K.

“Among all the artists, I would choose Vilayat Khan as the idol in this field for people to study. He is one of the people I respect a lot.” His admiration for MF Husain is tinged with regret: “It is shameful as an Indian… that Husain was banished from this country. His name kind of marked him in the eyes of some so-called patriots. He was a great, great artist, one of the greatest artists of Indian history. And see how (the country) has dealt with it.

Dravidian ethics

The chapters on Annadurai and Karunanidhi, Jayalalithaa and MGR are definitive in tone, for the politics of the Dravidian movement – a subject on which George’s views are pointed, but not overly dogmatic.

George credits CN Annadurai with defining Dravidian ethics for the world. “Annadurai is the man who made us aware of the importance of Dravidian culture and its importance. In that sense, I think he had an impact on Indian history, which very few others have.

Books by TJS George

Books by TJS George

In this context, George is unabashedly specific about the North-South divide: “South Indian culture…Dravida culture…is incompatible with North Indian culture. This may be an unpopular point of view. This may not be an “Indian” patriotic view, I’m sorry… Because we are South Indians, we see things in a different way. We don’t have the prejudices—if I can use that word—that the northern Indians have. I feel like the Dravidian perspective is more…”

Understood? “That’s not the word I would use. More… cosmopolitan, more civilized than the Aryan point of view.

Wit and beard lurk not far beneath George’s engaged and earnest demeanor, who – when he points out a complex argument – highlights his passing resemblance to Leon Trotsky. And it’s all packed into a very precise man – one whose sense of style is as sharp as his intellect.

In the late 1990s, a local magazine, The Bangalore Monthly, voted him as one of the “sexiest men in Bangalore”. When reminded of this, his response is, “Ah yes, wonderful…wonderful.”

The writer hosts The Literary City, the Explocity podcast.

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