Biography and autobiography are stories of real person’s life, the former written by someone other than that person while the latter is the biography of a person narrated by him or her. In both the cases it is about a person spanning from childhood to old age. Biographers normally enjoy the liberty of expressing their own views and opinions on their subjects whereas the autobiographer is the subject and speaks of that related to him only.

Biographer has the option to view their subjects with greater objectivity and authenticity. The autobiographer can either be truthful or resort to innuendos or sensationalism, depending on his or her pedigree or vocation. It is pertinent to listen to Mark Twain, extracted from his autobiography.

“In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”

Let me leave out religion, a totally personal concern; however politics and politicians always remain in the public domain. As Ronald Reagan an actor turned politician said, “Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself you can always write a book.”  It is certainly not very difficult to write a book, an autobiography, especially by those who have after pursuing a demanding profession have chosen politics to climb the ladder further as for instance bureaucrats who crawl into politics by servitude and servility and subsequently face the ignominy and dereliction from their masters. Having ensured to make the possible into impossible as a bureaucrat they live up to and continue follow the maxim, in the words of Albert Einstein, “Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work”. These parlous bureaucrat turned politicians have no qualm or compunction in sensationalizing their book with Innuendos and insinuations bereft of logic or fact. Their book sells, they are lauded or berated for a while only, as their outpourings are short lived and soon forgotten. They quickly land into that corner of intellectual discourse reserved for the anonymous and obscure. Reading such autobiographies is like watching a saas bahu Hindi soap opera on the television!

Not all politicians go public exposing their ilk. In her autobiography ‘Path to Power’, Margaret Thatcher has avoided personal attacks on her successor John Major, she clearly believed that he had squandered her legacy and was pursuing un-Thatcherite policies. In “Dreams from My Father”, Barack Obama used changed names for privacy reasons and created composite characters to expedite the narrative flow. Abdul Kalam in “Wings of Fire” inspires us with his early life, effort, hardship, fortitude, luck and chance that eventually led him to lead Indian space research, nuclear and missile programs. We find no acrimony or bitterness towards anyone in his book.

Charles Darwin’s theory on The Origin of Species was considered blasphemous by many and is debated today for different reasons. An insight into his beliefs and views extracted from his autobiography is indeed revealing, “I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came from and how it arose. Nor can I overlook the difficulty from the immense amount of suffering through the world. I am, also, induced to defer to a certain extent to the judgment of many able men who have fully believed in God; but here again I see how poor an argument this is. The safest conclusion seems to me to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty.”

Most actors may not follow or attempt to copy Charlie Chaplin, but all do get inspired by his simplicity, dedication and audacity. In his autobiography Chaplin says “I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large … I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born Charlie Chaplin.”

Leaving aside the Holy Scriptures, the book that inspired an entire nation is Mein Kamf, Hitler’s autobiography. Hitler had made about 1.2 million Reich marks from the income of his book in 1933, when the average annual income of a teacher was about 4,800 Mark. During Hitler’s years in power, the book was given free to every newlywed couple and every soldier fighting at the front. By the end of the war, about 10 million copies of the book had been sold or distributed in Germany.

Are autobiographies the weapon for slanderous and sensational exposures to settle old scores or are they means to present the travails, tribulations, failures, successes, and other attributes truthfully and honestly?

From their autobiographies do we really want to know the depth of the relationship between Dilip Kumar and Madhubala or the secrets behind their success as great actors?

Questions left for consideration.