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The complicated V.K. Krishna Menon

V.K. Krishna Menon was abrasive, but got India noticed. He punched above his weight and strode the world stage with regal confidence

V.K. Krishna Menon (left) and Jawaharlal Nehru in London in 1949. Photo: Getty Images
V.K. Krishna Menon (left) and Jawaharlal Nehru in London in 1949. Photo: Getty Images

Setting out for London in 1924, V.K. Krishna Menon found himself in the awkward position of being the son of a very rich father with very empty pockets. “I telegraphed you yesterday that I wanted money," he wrote to his sister, weeks later, hoping again “to get 100 pounds from Father". The old man, of course, had no intention of subsidizing his son’s journey towards self-destruction. For at 28, Krishna Menon looked every inch a disappointment. He was sent to Madras (now Chennai) to qualify as a lawyer but returned to Calicut (now Kozhikode), instead, a bedazzled theosophist. He was raised to take over his father’s legal enterprise, but all he talked about was Annie Besant and the earth-shattering advent of a supposed “World Teacher". Now, to add to his erratic peregrinations, he was off to London for a diploma in education, planning to become, of all things, a humble schoolteacher.

Krishna Menon’s was a family that thought modesty overrated. His father was a legal luminary in British Malabar and the son of a local raja. They paraded elephants (Sanku, Sankaran and Gopalan were favourites) and saw Queen Victoria’s passing as tragedy unparalleled. His mother was the daughter of Koodali Nair, master of tens of thousands of acres, and played chess when she wasn’t enjoying her ample inheritance. Of the eight children born to this proud and handsome couple, Kunjikrishna, as our protagonist was originally named, was from the start considered somewhat limited. Where a sister pursued French and Latin and upheld her family’s imperious standards by discarding a husband, young Krishna was busy being sensitive and gentle, insisting on feeding his pony milk and oats from the breakfast table.

The unworthy heir who left India’s shores in 1924, however, was not the domineering, vain man who returned in 1952 cloaked in Cold War suspicions. The British saw in Menon Jawaharlal Nehru’s “evil genius", while the Americans were more colourful when they branded him a “poisonous bastard". In the 1950s, Menon was difficult to miss on the world stage: even a US president noted this “boor" who thought himself so superior. Much of this reputation was accumulated from the 1930s. A decade into his stay in London, British intelligence was already tapping Menon’s phone and reading his letters. In the 1940s, they feared he was both a prescription drug addict and a closet Communist, warning Nehru that plans to appoint him high commissioner would not be “well received" in their quarter.

Menon’s journey from aspiring schoolmaster to the 1962 cover of Time magazine as an international mischief-maker is fascinating. Soon after he arrived in London, he upped his ambitions and acquired a string of qualifications. He studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics and wrote a thesis on psychology at University College London. On the eve of his father’s death in 1934, he at last even became a lawyer. Breaking from his theosophist mentors, he was the face of the India League, and chief lobbyist for Indian independence in Britain’s political circles. He cultivated links with the Labour Party, and, in the midst of all this, helped launch Penguin, the publishing house, only to quarrel and withdraw forever. In the late 1930s, the prospect of a parliament seat too appeared, but his “double loyalty" meant plans for a political career in Britain were ill-fated from the onset.

In 1935, the collapse of a romance left Menon suicidal and he became more dependent than ever on astrology and medication. Still, when Nehru came that year to Britain, it was this complicated Malayali who was anointed local spokesman of the Congress. Nehru later dismissed views that his friend held great sway over him, but what is certain is that Menon’s meteoric ascent after India’s independence owed much to his access to the prime minister. It was no wonder, then, that from the start the man made enemies in the Congress—when they were parked in jail during the freedom struggle, Menon served the London borough of St Pancras for 14 cushy years as councillor.

His stint till 1952 as high commissioner was controversial. His arrogance, a defence mechanism to conceal lifelong insecurities, left him unapproachable. Worse, British intelligence saw in him (mistakenly) a Soviet pawn who might slip secrets through a mysterious mistress. When the Indian Army sought jeeps for Kashmir, Menon embarrassed Nehru too by delivering second-hand goods that were unserviceable. The prime minister tried to cajole him into leaving London—he was offered a vice-chancellorship, the embassy in Moscow, even a cabinet position—but Menon refused. At last he was persuaded to represent India at the UN, where, while advocating non-alignment (a word he took credit for and a concept he claimed to have co-authored), he drove paranoid Americans wild with suspicion.

Menon was abrasive, but got India noticed. He punched above his weight and strode the world stage with regal confidence. By 1956, this “thoroughly dangerous man" was in the Union cabinet, but his role as defence minister culminated six years later with the China debacle. He spent the rest of his years giving lectures, arguing cases in the Supreme Court, and quarrelling with a niece’s husband over his traditional “right" to name her children. “Krishna Menon was essentially an extremely lonely man," wrote a relation, and his was a life that married emotional instability to political petulance. But for all that, the dangers of his influence were overrated. As he himself said in an interview, “I was neither a buffoon nor a Rasputin." He was merely Krishna Menon, who did some good but invited plenty of trouble.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore.

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