Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, “the most remarkable woman” Eleanor Roosevelt had ever met, was a pioneering politician and diplomat celebrated internationally for her brilliance, charm and glamour. Marlon Brando called her the woman he admired most in the world, while ordinary American men gave up watching sports to come hear her speak.

She was India’s first woman cabinet minister, first ambassador to the United Nations and first ambassador to the Soviet Union. She was also the first woman elected President of the UN General Assembly. Madame Pandit, as she was widely known, moved easily in global circles, even as she worked tirelessly to improve the lives of suffering millions. She traded barbs and quips with Winston Churchill, out-debated Jan Smuts, and garnered more attention than James Cagney. She was arrested for the attempted assassination of Benito Mussolini, and later told John F Kennedy not to go to Dallas. At the end of her career, she came out of retirement to battle her own niece, Indira Gandhi, in an epic clash of democracy versus authoritarianism.

Based on eight years of research and using material in five languages from seven countries and over forty archives, Manu Bhagavan has written a comprehensive biography of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. In a conversation with Scroll, the author talked about his fascinating subject and sifting through “tens of thousands” of documents to bring her to life to a modern reader. Excerpts from the interview:

Why did you want to write about Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit? What was your introduction to her and the early moments when you found yourself taking a keen interest in her life?
It’s a funny story actually. A few years ago, a colleague stopped by my office to offer me a copy of a book he had just published on the United States and world affairs. He thought this would be of particular interest to me because it featured Madame Pandit. I was embarrassed to realise, once I figured out that he meant Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, that I did not know anything about her, other than the fact that she was Nehru’s sister. The embarrassment prompted me to look into it further, and I soon discovered that there was not all that much written about her at all – she was not much more than a footnote in most accounts. Yet my colleague’s book suggested there was more to it. This set me on a journey that eventually resulted in my book, The Peacemakers. As I wrote it, I was struck by her big personality. She seemed to jump out of the page whenever she appeared.

Years later, when I was in the middle of a new, and entirely different project, I found my mind regularly wandering back to her story. I felt I was missing something, that I had only scratched the surface and that something much larger was waiting for me. I shared this with my wife one day and added that what I really wanted to do was to write Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s biography for Penguin. She nodded in sympathy and told me to get back to work. A few weeks later, I received a message from an editor at Penguin inviting me to write this very book. I took this as a cosmic sign. And here we are.

Ms Pandit came from a very illustrious family. Her success was in a way predestined. Still, in what fundamental ways did she stand out? Maybe something in her private personality that was unlike the other Nehrus…?
She certainly had a unique personality! She was brilliant, glamorous, witty and charming. She was, for the most part, a fundamentally likeable person. She generally treated everyone with dignity and respect, including – perhaps especially – those with whom she disagreed politically. These were potent traits when packaged together.

Of course, she grew up amongst great wealth and privilege, and had firebrands like Uma and Rameshwari Nehru, Annie Besant, and Sarojini Naidu as role models. These women, and elements of her family life, helped shape her. But her sister, Krishna (Betty) Hutheesing, did not break out in the same way. So we can chalk Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s success up to a combination of both nature and nurture.

While of course, we read about the extraordinary high of Ms Pandit’s life, I was pleasantly surprised to see that you wrote about her struggle with mental health too. This is unusual for Indian biographies. Tell us about making this choice.
This was important to me. Many people have mental and physical health needs. Indeed, most do. Yet stigmas associated with some conditions often keep people from openly discussing such things or seeking treatments they might need.

Yet, even someone of such talent and skill as Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had personal issues that required care. Hopefully, readers will feel seen, less isolated, and more welcomed and ready to seek support.

The inclusion of such matters is also significant from the point of view of biography writing. Hagiography to me is dreadfully boring and misleading. We can learn a lot about a person from the challenges they tackle, and from their successes and failures in dealing with them. The fact that Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit had personal struggles makes her human. And her humanity is the very thing that makes her so relatable and inspiring.

The chapter names are very interesting. What was the idea behind refashioning book titles for this purpose?
Each name is an homage to a notable work of literature by or about women. Each title correlates in some way with the topics covered in the respective chapter. For instance, Chapter Eight, “The Good Earth,” is a reference to the book by Pearl Buck that helped lead her to the Nobel Prize. The story concerns the hardships a rural family in Asia, China to be precise, had to face in the context of famine conditions. In the chapter in question, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit deals with the horrors of the Bengal famine, and Pearl Buck herself gets involved.

Ms Pandit truly was a woman extraordinaire and yet her impact on popular discourse when compared to her contemporaries like Sarojini Naidu or Kasturba Gandhi is not so pronounced. What do you think the reasons for this might be?
I think the contributions of all women, the well-known and the not-so-known, are generally under-recognised. Indeed, neither Sarojini Naidu nor Kasturba Gandhi have received anywhere near a level of attention and analysis commensurate with their accomplishments. Some pioneering scholars have been trying to tell us this for decades.

The diminishment of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit is in this sense part of a much wider pattern. Additionally, her erasure has to do with the stand she took against Indira Gandhi, who never forgave her aunt for her opposition to the Emergency. When Mrs Gandhi returned to power, she vindictively scrubbed Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit from the public record.

I am glad that my book can begin to correct the record. But there is much work to be done.

Would you say that in many ways Ms Pandit was more of a global icon than Indian – at least as a political presence? I’m thinking this in light of my previous question.
It is true that much of her work did take place in the international arena. But I think she also played a significant role domestically as well. She was, for instance, imprisoned multiple times for her anti-colonial activity in India. She was elected to a local municipal board and, later, to the UP legislative assembly. She then became the first woman Cabinet minister in India, which also led to her election as president of the All-India Women’s Conference. She fought cholera, improved schools, and battled the horrors of the Bengal famine. She was elected to the Constituent Assembly and later was elected to Parliament as well. And of course, in India’s hour of need, she came out of retirement to defend democracy from Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian takeover. So I think she very much had a domestic political presence and thus was just as much of an Indian icon as a global one.

Are there any overt ways in which you think Ms Pandit might have influenced her brother Jawaharlal Nehru’s politics, even though she was 11 years younger than him?
I am not certain what you mean by “overt” here. She often expressed her ideas forcefully in writing and in meetings with her brother. She was unafraid to disagree with him. She had nuanced assessments of the Soviet Union, the USA, and China, which she shared extensively. Where possible she tried to convince Nehru of her positions and, for a time, she had a measure of success in this regard. Eventually, Krishna Menon iced her out as Nehru’s closest counsellor, with consequences there for all to see. Though he was brilliant and talented, Menon behaved much more erratically, lacked her tact, and often took much more hard-line positions than she. The cost of her absence, in frayed relations and foreign policy mistakes, reveals just how significant the influence she had wielded truly was.

In the preface, you write, “Every archive, however comprehensive, is at the same time incomplete, a partial view, sometimes purposefully obscured, through which what is seen is as important as that which is not.” How did you read and make sense of materials that were incomplete or deliberately obscured?
Where possible, you try to replicate and verify. Is it possible to find corroborating evidence or matching accounts from another source? Having a diversity of source material is a good starting point.

I culled materials from over 40 archives, across seven countries, in five languages. I drew on secret governmental assessments, private correspondence, on public speeches. I considered the views of friends and foes alike. I chased leads wherever they took me – and that meant I had to sometimes double back from dead ends. I sifted through tens of thousands of documents to find disparate connections and coherent narratives. I had to go digging for the truth when things did not line up. So, there was a fair amount of detective work involved.

Yet life is complex and full of ambiguities. How well, for instance, do we know ourselves? We may have a certain impression only to be surprised when others sometimes perceive us very differently. We sometimes have no explanation for why we behave in a certain way. So sometimes those incomplete records truthfully reflect ambiguity. In such instances, it is important to let that live in the text as well.

You have also bemoaned the lack of reading materials about India’s women leaders. Is there anyone else about whom you’d like to write, perhaps the other Nehru sister Krishna Nehru Hutheesing?
The good news is that I think a number of new books are in the pipeline that will at last begin to fill this gap, including one on Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. For the moment, I look forward to being a reader.