Sagarika Ghose's book, Indira, tells us a lot about the woman who ruled the nation for two decades. No mean feat given that Ghose alone read over 80 books on her that are in the public domain, including interviews, papers and newspaper article.
Katherine Frank's work perhaps remains unchallenged for being the first intimate biography but Ghose gives her tough competition, recreating her childhood at Anand Bhawan especially well, surprised as much as the reader in how much of a "tomboy" she was.
As Ghose says: ''She could ski, ride, swim, trek, loved dogs (always had more than one dog) and headed a bird watchers society.''
Much of it was because she always wanted to make her father proud, even as she was completely ambivalent about the way she felt he treated her beloved mother.
The blurb for the book says it looks at Indira as an insecure daughter, betrayed wife, national heroine and tough dictator. Indeed the book lives up to that promise, much to the disappointment of those who expected it to be a hagiography (because, of course, Ghose is seen as being liberal and progressive).
It looks at the young woman who chose to leave Oxford (more to avoid being sent down) to join the Indian National Congress at 21, while also having formed long-lasting friendships with young radicals of the time like Mohan Kumaramangalam and Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar. And the formidable ruler she became.
There is much here that is new - refreshing insights from Natwar Singh and Maneka Gandhi in particular who recalls in the aftermath of the electoral defeat of 1977 how the family drew close: "She would play badminton. There would be long walks. The family became tightly knit because the whole Congress party disappeared. There was very little money. We didn't even have a cook."
There's much here that even those fairly knowledgeable about Indira didn't know about her. Try this list:
1) That Haksar would cook for the young couple, Feroze and Indira, when they were in London and homesick for Indian food. He recalls Indira as being thin and pale, having just returned from Les Frenes sanatorium, but she would be radiant in Feroze's presence. The couple, he said, made no secret of the sleeping arrangements in Feroze's tiny, book-filled flat.
Later, he would head her Kashmiri "cabal" of diplomats TN Kaul, spymaster RN Kao, economist PN Dhar and politician DP Dhar. He was also the man who fell foul of her later when he asked her to choose between the prime minister of India and mother of Sanjay Gandhi.
2) Her life-long antipathy towards the RSS, whom she often tried to outwit with her own pro-Hindutva actions, which began perhaps when she was in Lucknow as a young wife. She writes in a letter to her father about the "peculiar deadness" in our provincial towns where life has nothing to offer: It's not surprising that the superficial trappings of fascism attract them in their tens and thousands. The RSS are gaining strength rapidly, following the German model." This was written in 1946, mind you.
3) She was a nervous public speaker and initially she would get stomach upsets before public speeches. Her life-long physician Dr Mathur recalls that even later in 1969, when she had to present the budget, she was so nervous that she lost her voice. Ghose says it may have been why she did not enjoy parliamentary debates the way her father and husband did and scorned Parliament rather than enjoyed it.
4) She often wrote limericks for friends and sent them poems.
5) While it is well known that Richard Nixon called her an old bitch, not so well known is her reaction to him. At the state dinner, Ghose writes, Indira sat throughout with her eyes closed, claiming a headache. It was nothing of the sort - just her way of treating the American president with the elegant condescension of a professor praising a slightly backward student.
6) There are quite a few instances of Sanjay Gandhi's bad behaviour but the one for me that stands out is Sanjay Gandhi hurling a plate down the dining table because Sonia Gandhi, who ran the kitchen in the post-1977 defeat years, didn't boil his breakfast egg exactly the way he wanted.
7) She was deeply religious and superstitious, especially after Sanjay's death, but embarrassed about it. Her puja room at home was a tumult of varied divinities, writes Ghose, There was Jesus Christ, Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the Buddha, the Mother of Pondicherry, a conch shell, a plate of diyas. Her mother had taken diksha with a swamiji at the Ramakrishna Mission and in the years after Feroze's death, she turned towards them.
8) Her personal style was a blend of east and west, typified by her early travel look of mink coat and silk sari. She could coo over fashion images in Vogue but equally disliked ostentation. She liked a blend of east and west in her food as well, sending one daughter-in-law, Maneska, to learn Cordon Bleu cooking with Bhicoo Manekshaw and the other, Sonia, to learn Hindustani. Ghose describes her aesthetic sense - Raag Darbari and the Fifth Symphony. Beethoven and Tagore. Skiing and sleeping under the stars in Azamgarh. Handloom and caviar.
9) She was a compulsive letter writer, from notes with gifts to longer letters to friends. Ghose reports on some with Usha Bhagat who worked with her for three decades, including one rather amusing one on her measurements for a wax model at Madame Tussauds: "The latest! 35.27.31/2. The entire figure must be reduced by one-and-a-half inches at least."
Ghose writes letters to Indira throughout the book as a way of understanding her better. Is there something about her that still eludes her, she says: ''Who was she really close to? Her mother? Feroze? Sanjay? Who did she feel really intimate with? Still don’t quite know. She was an incredibly paradoxical person - that’s why I wrote those letters, because there were so many things about her that I found mystifying. How could someone as astute as her, for example, not see what she was doing by encouraging Sanjay the way she did? Or building up a Bhindranwale and then sending the Army into a place of worship? Could she not see the effects this would have? She must have. Her contradictory personality still foxes and intrigues me, like someone who is all sweetness and charm one minute and the next minute a cold and aloof stranger. I developed a love-hate relationship with her through the book - I found myself talking to her and asking her questions about various things like talking to a ghost!''
Indeed, doesn't she fox us all?