Idea of Indira is hardwired into the DNA of all Indian women says Sagarika Ghose

She was a James Bond in khadi. A female ‘bahubali’. But the fierce ambitions of India’s most powerful female politician, Indira Gandhi were seeded in the thought that she was a boy. She signed early letters to her father as Indu-Boy. Her father called her ‘soldier boy’. As an adult, and later as a politician, she refused to ‘nurture that feminine force in public’. In that sense she was ‘alpha female’? A woman who ‘fought against implacable hostility from powerful phallocrats all her life and emerged as the victor’. The hot off the press Indira by Sagarika Ghose is a crisp read with new focus on her life as a politician, woman, daughter and leader.

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Indira Gandhi can’t be a simple subject to write about. Certainly not a time like this in India’s political history when the Congress – her political legacy – is compassing a new direction. But the fiesty and fearless Sagarika took up the challenge to revive Indira Gandhi in her centenary year with new storytelling. Shaili Chopra catches up with the her

Why did you choose to write about Indira, a subject many authors have attempted. What would you say was the most compelling reason? Did timing and scenario of politics in India play a role?

A: This year (2017) is Indira Gandhi’s centenary year. She was born in 1917, so would have been 100 years old had she been alive today. I was commissioned to write the book by Juggernaut Publishers for her centenary year to re-tell the Indira story for a new audience and also to remind those who have forgotten her, about Indira’s life and times! This is also a good time to recall the Indira years–she stamped out democratic freedoms for 21 months and was India’s first “supremo” politician, someone who totally dominated government and her party. So there are parallels with today’s times! She was India’s first “High Command” leader, the first ‘bahubali”, who played politics with utter ruthlessness and stamped out her rivals both within and outside her party. In politics- she was James Bond in a khadi sari!

The birth of Indira Gandhi was not a celebrated moment. She was a girl after all. Motilal Nehru, her grandfather was hoping for a girl. How much did this impact Indira as she was growing up?

A: Not sure her father Jawaharlal was hoping for a boy, but in those days in the early 20th century in India, it was generally hoped that the first born child of a family be male. Plus she she was the eldest child of the eldest son, so there were even greater expectations of a son on the part of her wider family. Her early identity, as I write in the book, was more boy than girl Her mother often dressed her as a boy, she wore the boy’s uniform as a child member of the Congress and often signed off her letters to her father, as “Indu-boy”. I think all her life she was more man than woman in the conventional sense, and her identity was defined more by her aristocratic lineage and later by power than by gender. She refused to be boxed into a “woman” identity and was hardly the nurturing feminine force in public, although at home and in private she was very much mother and grandmother.

She was India’s first “High Command” leader, the first ‘bahubali”, who played politics with utter ruthlessness and stamped out her rivals both within and outside her party. In politics- she was James Bond in a khadi sari!

Her father had very high expectations of her and she was expected to swim, ride, run, be sporty and physically fit as a boy would be. To live up to a masculine ideal of physical fitness and the ability to take charge.

Her early identity was a boy? Talk to us about that.

A: Her father often called her “little soldier boy”. She was a very skinny tall adolescent so even looked more like a boy than a girl in her early years. The Nehrus were a highly accomplished aristocratic upper class family, blessed with the family hallmark of “fierce energy”. She had a bit of a complex in the beginning that she was too weak and insignificant looking to be a Nehru, so she used to gather all the domestic staff together and lecture them, trying to imitate the way she saw her father and grandfather give political speeches. She felt she had to live up to the ideal of being a forceful, commanding Nehru and once posed near a pillar saying, “I am Joan of Arc, I’m going to lead my people to freedom.” She was always conscious of her manifest destiny to lead, and inwardly she was always a forceful, formidable, alpha female.

Sagarika Ghose

Indira & her father’s relationship is well documented, but she had a special place for her mother. What was that relationship like? 

An important factor shaped the personality of a strong-willed and rebellious Indira. She bore the Nehru name, but she would stand up to those Nehrus who humiliated her beloved mother, Kamala Nehru, née Kaul. She was ferociously protective of the delicate Kamala, and whenever she saw her mother insulted or neglected by her in-laws, she would take up the cudgels on her behalf and stand guard against her father’s family. The Indian prime minister who stood for national self-reliance in the face of powerful warring blocs later in life learnt early the virtues and power of defiance.

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In the female universe at Anand Bhawan rife with hostility and resentment, while Kamala grieved and fell ill, Indira learnt to survive and fight.

‘Puphi’, Vijayalakshmi, was thus a source of early heartache. When Indira was fourteen she overheard her aunt calling her ‘ugly and stupid’,15 a cruel assessment which changed a boisterous and naughty child into an introverted and wary adolescent and tormented her youth. She never forgot those words, never forgave her aunt and bided her time for revenge.

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Vindictiveness and ruthlessness were traits Indira Gandhi often displayed, born in many ways from a constant sense of victimhood and persecution. Rather than rise to a higher level of empathy or generosity as her father did, she often responded out of vengeance. Her fierce temper simmered underneath, she bore grudges and never really forgot or forgave.