A Little Work, a Little Play- Autobiography of Sardar H.S. Malik
A Review by Dr. Gurnam Singh Brard
I am happy to have the opportunity to read this biography of that great man; it is also a chronicle of the times from the Victorian era to the modern age. The casual sounding title, ‘A Little Work, a Little Play,’ may understate the importance of the book by Sardar H.S. Malik, but it is consistent with his style of handling history-making events and people with natural ease and equanimity. The book covers many decades of fascinating history, some of which he helped shape. The fact that he was a good sportsman in cricket, tennis and later on in golf, may have molded his character as much as the spiritual grounding did, as his family had emphasized discipline, honor and integrity as well as religious faith. Being a good sportsman ‘opened a lot of doors’ for him in early life and later provided him many opportunities to cultivate the friendships with princes, lords, kings, prime ministers, military leaders, and other world-famous, powerful, and glamorous personalities. In the book, H.S. Malik also recalls vividly, many of his interactions with ordinary people, showing his great humanity and his consideration all.
My mind was transported to a very different time and environment as I read the description of his life of privilege in a prosperous family in Rawalpindi, Punjab, starting in late 19th Century horse and carriage days; I found it to be fascinating and informative. He mentions ‘a lavish house, good food, horses and carriages, servants galore and money’ as well as private tutors, but incorporating religious devotion and convictions. The British had conquered and started their rule in Punjab only 45 years before he was born, and he describes the interactions of his father with the British officials, and their attitudes in general toward the ‘inferior’ subject races.
I enjoyed reading about his experience of travel to England at the age of 14 in the days when buses in London were still pulled by horses. He describes his attending the preparatory school, and then entrance into Eastbourne College, ‘a good public school’, and other experiences in those times, including the All India Home Rule Movement. Later at Balliol College in Oxford, he developed many important friendships and contacts as he had done at Eastbourne; students who went to such schools in those days were the elites of society and attained positions of great power in their fields. Such contacts were helpful to H.S. Malik in some critical stages, such as when trying to enter the Royal Flying Corps.
The First World War started in 1914 and when H.S. Malik finished college in 1915, he wanted to play his part in the war effort. But the British military authorities could not accept an Indian as an officer in their forces. The best he could do was to join French Red Cross, and he spent some memorable days in Cognac, France. Then it seemed possible that he could join the French Air Force and based on that possibility, one of his influential friends shamed the British Air Force general into accepting Malik as an officer as the French were willing to do. He served with great courage in the Royal Flying Corps as a fighter pilot. In one combat mission, his airplane took 400 bullets and a couple of bullets pierced his leg; so he was seriously wounded and after a crash landing he became unconscious because of loss of much blood. But after the War ended a brilliant career in Indian Civil Service, once mainly the privilege of the British elite, became possible for him; every success after that became easy It is a great credit to his convictions that he accomplished all this in a foreign country with beard and turban, starting in the days when attitudes were not so enlightened or tolerant as they are today.
As he describes the circumstances of his marriage to Parkash in the year 1919, it is quite revealing how Hindus and Sikhs comingled and inter-married, especially in the western part of Punjab, where some members of the same families could be Sikhs and others would remain traditional Hindus. I learned many new things about the days when H.S. Malik became an I.C.S. officer, setting up new district headquarters in some small towns where the British administration was still taking shape, traveling through his territories on horse back, and dealing with superiors who were all British. Just as I expected, he states that although some of the British had foibles, eccentricities and prejudices, “the average Britisher in the I.C.S. was highly intelligent, well educated and hard working.” His appointment as trade commissioner in Europe in early 1930s prepared him for the post of trade commissioner in the Americas in 1938. Just as he had good friendship with Lord Berkeley (He could land his airplane in the castle’s grassy meadow.) and later played golf with the likes of Duke of Windsor, General Eisenhower and King Leopold of Belgium in Europe, in America he played golf with the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, partied with Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine, Greer Garson, and had lunches with Aldous Huxley.
In the book the reader will find some historically important events where the author made an impact. In 1947 when he was still the Prime Minister of the princely State of Patiala, he and a few prominent Sikhs met Jinnah, who offered the Sikhs some special rights and powers if they would join Pakistan. He was farsighted enough to reject the offer. As the first ambassador of India to Canada he was able to negotiate full citizenship rights for Indians in Canada. I am also impressed with the skills he used when he was ambassador to France, to negotiate the release of French colonies in India, the only case where no military force had to be used to regain territory in India. He even did a stint as leader of the Indian delegation when the U.N. General Assembly was held in Paris. The book “A Little Work, a Little Play” depicts the exemplary character of Sardar H.S. Malik with his attitude of friendship, goodwill, and fairness toward others, and full clarity of mind to obtain what is just. It is not only pleasurable to read, but also is a treasure house of information about the times past, in our Indian Society as well as in the world. There is a generous index of references at the end.