Sagarika Ghose‘s spellbinding portrait of Indira Gandhi excavates both the Iron Lady and the flesh-and-blood woman. Here’s an extract from the book:
Indira was used to taking charge, like a male head of family would. Widowed at forty-three, did she miss an intimate male presence? In 1966 there were rumours that Dinesh Singh, the handsome raja of Kalakankar and minister in her first cabinet, was her lover and even functioned as the power behind the throne. There were rumours of her closeness to her yoga guru Dhirendra Brahmachari in his younger days, in addition to rumours about Nehru’s secretary M.O. Mathai. ‘It was just not possible for her to have an affair,’ says Natwar Singh. ‘There were security men under the bed!’
Indira never forgot who she was, that she was Indira Nehru Gandhi and hers was the bloodline that was joined to India’s. Her identity, all her life, was defined by lineage, family and power rather than by gender. When you are the “chosen”, you don’t submit easily to the bondage of romance or to being the lesser partner in any relationship.
She loved being admired and being the centre of attention of good-looking, witty and intelligent men, but the ‘sexual side of her was underdeveloped’. ‘I do not behave like a woman,’ she confessed. ‘The “lack of sex” in me partly accounts for this. When I think of how other women behave, I realize that it is the lack of sex and with it a lack of woman’s wiles, on which most men base their views on me.’ The lack of sex, the reluctance to play a subordinate, seductive role was a subconscious resistance to male authority. She may have submitted to her father, husband and son but rebelled against them as well, entering full-time politics with gusto against her father’s wishes, refusing to be a Lucknow wife to a parliamentarian husband, lifting the Emergency in defiance of her son.
When dominating principal secretaries like P.N. Haksar asserted their wisdom too much she removed them. When American presidents thought they could take ‘the girl’ for granted, she thumbed her nose at them. ‘I’m not a feminist. Till I was 12 years old I hardly knew the difference between being a boy or a girl. I was brought up amongst boy cousins climbing trees, flying kites and playing marbles. But that is not the normal experience. Women in India . . . are so dominated and discriminated against. There is so much unnecessary cruelty and humiliation.’ She felt the pain of womanhood but did not admit it for herself. At home an old family retainer from Allahabad always called her ‘bhaiyaji’, because the firstborn, according to tradition, was always treated as a boy. She signed off Indu-boy in her letters to her father. She was the firstborn child who was treated as a male, the daughter who was brought up by a father to be a little ‘soldier-boy’. Her self-image as a child and in adulthood was more male than female, the man inside the woman often dominant in her personality. Likening herself to her grandfather Motilal, she once said, ‘He was a biform human being, both man and woman.’
Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister by Sagarika Ghose is available in bookstores and digitally on www.juggernaut.in