The Life and Times of George Fernandes

Book review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: The Life and Times of George Fernandes

Author: Rahul Ramagundam

Publisher: Penguin /Allen Lane

“Always for the people and never with the establishment”- that sums up the persona of George Fernandes. One of India’s firebrand leaders, Fernandes (1930-2019) lived his life fully and with resolve. He was a multifaceted personality: a trade union leader, a socialist, and a powerful orator. No other politician in India had risen to such heights of popularity as Fernandes was. A down–to–earth politician, he has left behind him an unparalleled legacy.

The Life and Times of George Fernandes by Rahul Ramagundam is one of its kind biographies – well-researched, colossal, and one which tells the story of a leader in minute detail. It is hard to find a biographer so immersed in the subject that it becomes a monumental work.

Reads the blurb: “George Fernandes is popularly known for leading the All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF) in 1974 and calling upon its approximately 1.7 million employees to strike, which brought India to a halt for twenty days. Often described as a rebel, he pursued every cause he took up with passionate devotion, heedless of the many ups and downs in his life. From the early years of fighting for the rights of the dock and municipal workers of Bombay through the Emergency, which he resisted by going underground, to his last private decade as a bed-ridden Alzheimer’s patient, his fights were always persistent and single-handed. It chronicles the story of George, who rose from the streets of Bombay to stride the corridors of power.”  

If Fernandes was known for trade union militancy, politically he was dauntless. A rebel political leader, he was an anti-capitalist dreamer. George could call Bombay to shut down and rose from its streets to become India’s Defense Minister.

In this amazing biography, Ramagundam records George’s political evolution and traces the course of the Socialist Party in India — from its inception in the 1930s to its dissolution into the Janata Party in the late nineteen-seventies. In the process, the book explores the trajectory of India’s Opposition parties that worked to dislodge the long-ruling Congress Party from its preeminent position in the thick of the emergency. 

Ramagundam received his doctoral degree in modern Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He was associated with a grassroots movement in the united Madhya Pradesh for many years. Presently, he teaches at a Delhi-based university and also is the author of Gandhi’s Khadi and Socially Excluded.

In the prologue, Ramagundam writes: “The book tells the story of India s tortuous post-Independence building and the role of George Fernandes in it. In some ways, the book presents a contemporary history of India through the lens of George’s life and his political work. The story has George’s political emergence at its center but does not emanate merely from his perspective.” 

Explaining the basic objective of the book, the author says, “This is not a narrative of events – however defining they might have been. A biography is a chronicle of an evolutionary process and not a conglomeration of self-standing events in the subject’s life. Events shall feature here, as they are bound to be in a book dealing with a political personality. But more than the events, the book is a delineation of processes that define Indian politics. It delves deep into the evolution of India where George lived and worked tor. He also attempts to enter the political mind and probe the political choices George made.” If the book tries to present an insider’s account it also strives to construct those processes with documentary evidence and oral testimonies.

Divided into a dozen chapters with acronyms, a chronology of events, dramatis personae, and a guide to sources, there is nothing that the author has not covered about George’s action-packed life.

From his Christian beginning to the revolutionary road, George’s Bombay days, the sobriquet that George earned — More Dangerous than the Communists– the most hunted man, George’s underground days, how he was chained and confined, the gritty years — the book has all that Fernandes was made of. But it is in the last chapter (‘They Hate My Guts’) that Ramagundam exposes the double-speak of leaders who were close to Fernandes. 

Says the book: “The pedigreed hated him. The plebeians felt jealous at his powerful expression of their predicament with a perspective they lacked. Left with Bihar alone, the English-speaking socialist imports (J.B Kripalani, Asoka Mehta, Madhu Limaye, and George) won there because of their national and wider outlook to the disadvantage of the homegrown socialists. Sooner or later, to survive in Bihar politics, when caste-parochialism was raising its monstrous head all over, it was inevitable that George would have to depend on the accruing local elements and accord them primacy.”

This particular incident was one of the saddest ones in George’s life and was played out in full glare then. Ramagundam recollects the episode in the book: “In the 2004 general elections, Nitish Kumar made his return to Muzaffarpur, where he won, but in 2009, when he again desired to stand for election from the same constituency, his party headed now by Sharad Yadav, a front of Nitish Kumar, denied him a nomination. As a consequence, a fumbling George, Alzheimer’s disease already having taken some visible grip over him, was made to fight the election as an independent and he lost his deposit, denying him a graceful exit. The unsavoriness of George contesting the election against his party was opposed by his family members, who blamed Jaya Jaitly for it. Michael Fernandes wrote to Jaya about it and asked her not to make a mockery of him. And, after the election, in which he not just lost his deposit but showed up as decrepit his inability to campaign exposed to the world, Leila Fernandes put out a public statement expressing her displeasure at the goings-on in his life and politics.”

Concludes Ramagundam: “George Fernandes lived a life driven by a commitment that was experientially born, he had ideologies to believe in, and for most of his life these ideologies seemed to be personified in his endeavors and struggles, but beyond that, he lived a life of experiences, up close and personal, that is left for future generations to sort out and sift through, and learn from.” 

Comprehensive, evocative, and unputdownable, this definitive biography of George Fernandes is a tour de force. It is not only the biography of George Fernandes but also an account of the times gone by in contemporary India.


Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of UnbiasedNo Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.




Flash Fiction: The Guava Tree

By Sushant Thapa

The guava tree always stood in seclusion. The lemon tree also grew beside it. The potential of the lemon tree was curbed by the sharpness of its thorns. Jubilant children did not care about thorns on the lemon tree and swung beside it on the guava tree where their swing was attached. The potential of children was one thing and that of a tree with respect to its thorn was another. Ah! The sharpening of the senses and the sharpening of thorns, two things related in Nature, but created differently by Nature for two different subjects. Still, children cherished the playful act of swinging from a tree.

The tree that stood in seclusion was not at all alone because children visited it regularly. Had the children not cared to visit the tree, it would have remained alone. The thorny tree was also not lonely because it stood beside the guava tree and children visited the guava tree as their swing was attached to it. Every day they visited the guava tree after school. It was their place of recreation. They embraced the joy present in the air around the tree. The tree welcomed them with its spaciousness. The lemon tree was the only thing that occupied space and interfered with the space for children to play. The children were not able to climb or swing on it because of its thorns.

The children visited the guava tree every day after four in the afternoon. Manu was among those youngsters. He was a shy lad. He didn’t talk much in school. He occupied small space in the library while he visited, and sat with his books. Ideas and words went above his head. He sat with his vacant mind in the vastness of the library. His mind dwelt around the guava tree and its spaciousness which was very lively for him in comparison to the sedate, quiet library. He liked the vastness and liveliness around the guava tree.

Manu dwelt happily on the secluded space of the orchard where those trees stood. Sometimes, he used to swing alone at the fall of dusk. He found himself even in the aloofness. The tree caught and captured his scattered self and he always felt himself to be slightly amassed when he was near it. Loneliness did not occupy any space near those trees, especially near the guava tree. Manu did not feel vacant at all; such was the ambience and the feeling, the feeling of personal space, in the vastness of nature. His heart and mind were occupied in that playful act of swinging on a tree. The freshness of the air and invigorating atmosphere made him feel lively. He did not feel alone. He was present in the wholeness of the space. He kept swinging on the guava tree beside the lemon tree, without caring about thorns of the lemon tree.

Eventually, he was able to make few friends. His shyness gave way while he played. After all, life in the orchard was not bad at all. Even beside the thorny lemon tree, goodness prevailed. Yes, the guava tree always stood there in its seclusion like in the beginning of the story.    

Sushant Thapa is a recent post-graduate in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. His short story “The Glass Slate” has been published in from Singapore. His poems and essays have been published in Republica daily from Kathmandu. His short stories and poems have also been published by The Writers’ Club, New Jersey, United States. He revels in rock music, poetry, books and movies from his home in Biratnagar, Nepal. 


Flash Fiction: The One Rupee Taker

By Sushant Thapa


Every day he visits my home and takes only a one-rupee coin. Not more and not less. If I try to give him a two-rupee coin, he asks, “Do you want me to take this coin?” and he won’t take it. He is in the habit of taking a one-rupee coin from my home and perhaps many other homes. I can only see him coming to my home to take a coin. I do not care if he visits other homes and collects coins, for I care about his visit to my home because of his regular habits.

We see him in gatherings and ceremonies at other places. He sits flat on the ground. They serve him well in many social functions. Unconcerned, he sits politely and leaves in a well-mannered way. Yet, his daily habit of taking a one-rupee coin from my home worries me.

“How very forgetful of him!” says my dad if he is late.

His tension is unlike that of a housemaid who lights a single cigarette in the afternoon after finishing her morning chores. A single cigarette puts the maid to relief. But a single coin puts the man to unrest every day.

People say he is loosely wired. Decades have passed. But he has not changed his habit. Everybody in the town has ceased to talk about him now. They are not worried about his activities. He is dressed untidily in dirty clothes often.  He is well built, stout and tall. He seems to come from a healthy family. The only thing that concerns him is the daily collection a one-rupee coin from every home. He might have hoarded a vast amount by now.

He used to talk to my grandfather in those days when I was young. He would see my grandfather having lunch at the dinner table through the window, and he’d say, “Well, you are having your lunch, should I not be having my coin?” I used to be young but now I can write his story. I’m a grown-up man now, and I can write things about the one-rupee man.

Many times, I have placed a coin in front of the man myself. I would place it on the windowsill, he would murmur something, and I would say — “It’s there.” Silently, he would feel the coin with his hand and take it. He would say nothing to me.

Once, my little niece gave him a two-rupee coin. The man asked my dad, “Why do you create such confusion? Why do you give me two rupees instead of one?”

Once a day, we see him standing in front of the window of my house, but he is very careful not to visit more than once a day. Perhaps it bothers him, and that’s why he is particular about it.

Some say he was a rich businessman, and that his business partners deceived him and he lost every penny he invested. He got detached from the business world, but he does collect a one-rupee coin from everyone. He continued to have a relationship with the monetary world in as much that he would have his daily dole of a one rupee coin. He makes sure that he comes to collect a one rupee coin from us, and we get bothered about handing him his single one-rupee coin. The give and take process dilutes the tension. Yet, it seems to be a never-ending process that holds the burden for both parties.

Sushant Thapa is a recent post-graduate in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. His short story “The Glass Slate” has been published in from Singapore. His poems and essays have been published in Republica daily from Kathmandu. His short stories and poems have also been published by The Writers’ Club, New Jersey, United States. He revels in rock music, poetry, books and movies from his home in Biratnagar, Nepal.