Had she lived, Indira Gandhi would have turned 99 on November 19, 2016. That was the age to which her long-standing rival and former colleague, Morarji Desai, lived.
Indira was born in 1917, exactly a year after her father Jawahar Lal Nehru met Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi for the very first time, and several months after the Russian Revolution swept aside the old Tsarist order and led to the eventual rise of the Soviet Union. Nehru makes the latter connection in a letter to Indira on her thirteenth birthday, holding it out to her as a happy portend throughout her childhood. It is perhaps only fitting that the Soviet Union was to be Indira Gandhi’s most loyal ally, despite her avowed non-alignment.
Everything about her gives rise to fierce passions. There are those who declare unequivocally that she was the finest Prime Minister of India – and that one needs only look at Bangladesh for proof. There are others who hotly dispute this, stating the exact opposite, holding her responsible for rupturing the fabric of Indian democracy in the Emergency years. There are those who laud her secular politics, and those who revile her mismanagement of the Punjab situation, especially her decision to send tanks into the Golden Temple.
Five minutes and a quick hashtag search on twitter today will reveal to you the persistence of this polarisation. This strobe-lit drama of extreme positions is apt for social media, perhaps. But for those who do not wish to measure life in Prufrockian coffee spoons, what is of interest is precisely that which is invariably elided over in bang-smash assessments: the minor details of the long years. The chiaroscuro of light and shadow that, twinned in biographical material and news stories, tell the story of India too. Perhaps this is the reason why so many and such various writers have chosen to write about her life – for it was a heady mix of enigma and drama.
Out of the many biographies of Indira Gandhi, we have picked out five that matter:
Indira Gandhi: A Biography, Pupul Jaykar, 1988
Cultural activist and life-long crusader for Indian handicrafts, Pupul Jaykar was a close friend of Indira Gandhi’s – they met in their teens – and her intimate biography is filled with wonderful anecdotes and moving accounts of Indira Gandhi’s encounters with common people in the course of her travels across the country. It draws from her many recorded interviews with people who’d lived through these interesting times: RN Kao, the grand old spymaster of India; LK Jha, Cabinet Secretary and Ambassador to the United States during the historic war of liberation in Bangladesh; Ganga Saran Sinha, close associate of Jayprakash Narayan; Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Chief Minister of West Bengal; and countless others. She also records rare stories of Indira’s interactions with Jiddu Krishnamurti during the Emergency years.
“I was to visit Varanasi in August  and went to see Indira to ask if there was anything I could do. I found her agitated, reports had reached her of attempts to beautify Varanasi. ‘The city needs cleaning up,’ she said, ‘but to beautify Varanasi has ominous overtones.’ She asked me to speak to the Commissioner and attempt to discover what was happening to the city. ...
As we walked along the lane, the Commissioner said casually that the Governor desired to drive by car to Vishwanathji. I expressed surprise.
‘You cannot take a car through this lane,’ I said.
‘We are broadening the lane,’ he said.
He said, ‘We will break down the walls of some of these houses and pave the road so that a car can go through.’
‘How can you break down seventeenth-eighteen century buildings?’ I enquired in horror. ‘These stones are many centuries old.’
We drove to Kamacha, the road which was being ‘beautified’. Kamacha looked as if a bomb had fallen on it. A bulldozer stood to one side, with two eyes painted on the front.
It had finished its task of beautification. It had bulldozed, cut through the front of houses leaving sitting-rooms with half the floor space cut away; rooms were open to the road, verandas smashed. Any impediment that came in the way of broadening the road had been removed. The map used to determine what was an encroachment was dated 1920. In the eyes of the authorities, in a city of exploding population, no fresh housing was needed or had been authorised after 1920 and every house built after that was an encroachment.”
By now the furious owners of the buildings surrounded me and insisted on giving me photographs of the site, to show the Prime Minister. I was shaken and on my return to Delhi went immediately to see Indira Gandhi. I told her what I had seen, what the Commissioner had told me and handed over the photographs. She hit the ceiling. I had never seen her so angry; she picked up the telephone and asked her Special Assistant, RK Dhawan, to put her through Narayan Dutt Tiwari, then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. She exploded when she spoke to him. Did he know what was happening in Varanasi? She said she had seen the photographs and would he come immediately to Delhi to see her. She put down the phone, put her hands to her face and said, ‘What is happening in this country? No one seems to tell me.’ There was utter despair and sorrow in her voice. ‘Do you think they would have really broken down Vishwanath Gali? She was aware of the gravity and consequences of such an act.— From Chapter Four, Part VI (1975 to 1977)
Indira Gandhi: Return of The Red Rose (1966); That Woman: Her Seven Years in Power (1973); Indira Gandhi: The Last Post (1985), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas
The immensely popular novelist, film-writer and columnist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas wrote the very first biography of Indira Gandhi, Return of the Red Rose, which was dashed off in three months after she became the Prime Minister of India in 1966. The title refers to the slogans that greeted Mrs Gandhi when she disembarked from her car in front of Gate No. 1 of Parliament House, on her way to the Central Hall where votes were being cast to pick her or Morarji Desai as the next Prime Minister of India, after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri. Indira Gandhi had pinned a Nehruvian red rose to her brown Kashmiri shawl, seeing which the crowds began to chorus loudly, ‘Lal Gulaab Zindabad!’
The second volume draws its name from Yahya Khan’s dismissal of Indira Gandhi (“That Woman!”) before her dismissal of him, as it were, while The Last Post begins with her assassination, records the spiralling riots against the Sikhs in Delhi, and then goes back in time to trace the last few years of her leadership, ending with an interview with Rajiv Gandhi, the young Prime Minister in the present.
Abbas’s narrative is jaunty and anecdotal, both rooted and lofty, in a uniquely Indian way, allowing our innate oral tradition to inform the telling of every story, whether serious, comic or heroic. It is very different from the other biographies; and therein lies its charm.
“It was spring-time in Kashmir, and the flowers were all out to greet the couple [Feroze and Indira] on their honeymoon. They were as happy as any newly-wedded couple has ever been, but even in that time of bliss they could not forget the lonely man in Anand Bhawan who was sweltering in the heat of the plains to prepare the country for the final struggle.
From Gulmarg they sent a jointly signed telegram:
WISH WE COULD SEND YOU SOME COOL BREEZE FROM HERE.
He must have been touched by their affectionate concern but Jawaharlal summoned his celebrated and subtle sense of humour to promptly send the telegraphic reply.
THANKS. BUT YOU HAVE NO MANGOES.”— From "Honeymoon Behind Bars", "Return of The Red Rose"
Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi, Katherine Frank (2001)
A serious, rigorously researched book written by a professional biographer, Katherine Frank’s Indira is exquisitely detailed, and recreates Indira Gandhi’s life with a meticulous eye. While the other four biographers listed here had all known Mrs Gandhi, the person, with some degree of familiarity, Frank neither knew her nor lived in India when she was the prime minister.
Instead, liberated by this, perhaps, she recreates the life and times of Indira Gandhi through deep and sustained research – over six years, in India and England – and the degree of remove provides a certain freshness to her work. However, the Western slant also means that there are certain things that do not sit well with Frank’s own assessment of Indira Gandhi – her later religiosity, for instance, seems to contradict her secularism – and Frank seems a bit embarrassed by it. And yet, as Indians know, an embracing of Hindu rituals can co-exist with a secular practice in public life.
(Ideally, reading Jaykar and Frank together should take care of that problem completely!)
“Indira was actually in Calcutta, addressing a huge rally of half-a-million people at the Calcutta Brigade Grounds, when the Pakistani planes made their raid. Just as she was saying, ‘India stands for peace. But if a war is thrust on us we are prepared to fight, for the issues involved are our ideals as much as our security,’ an aide rushed to the podium and handed her a slip of paper on which was scrawled the news of the Pakistani attack. She made no announcement, but hurriedly wound up her talk. Privately, she said to those with her, ‘Thank god, they’ve attacked us.’ She had not wanted to be seen as the aggressor, but had approved General Manekshaw’s secret plan to strike the next day. Now Indira’s strategy of deferred action and her exquisite sense of timing had been vindicated.
That evening Indira flew back to Delhi, encircled by an escort of Indian air force planes. When they approached Delhi, there was nothing but darkness below: the capital was shrouded in a blackout. Indira went directly to her office in Parliament’s South Block and called an emergency meeting of the Cabinet. Then she met leaders of the opposition…The next morning she told the Lok Sabha:
For over nine months the military regime of West Pakistan has barbarously trampled upon freedom and basic human rights in Bangladesh. The army of occupation has committed heinous crimes unmatched for their vindictive ferocity. Many millions have been uprooted, ten millions have been pushed into our country. We repeatedly drew the attention of the world to this annihilation of a whole people, to this menace to our security…West Pakistan has escalated and enlarged the aggression against Bangladesh into full war against India.”— From “Seeing Red”
Indira Gandhi: Tryst With Power, Nayantara Sahgal (1982)
Perhaps the least sympathetic of all these biographies is the one by Indira Gandhi’s cousin, the award-winning writer Nayantara Sahgal.
Sahgal’s is an interesting perspective. As a writer, an outsider to the system, someone whose job is to critique the establishment anyway, she can retain the purity of the Nehruvian idealism, and use that filter to take a hard look at her cousin’s years in hard core politics. An admirer of Jayprakash Narayan, Nayantara Sahgal captures the revolutionary eddies surrounding Indira’s “centre”, the student movements, the trade union struggles – and her sympathy is clearly on the side of the “outsiders”.
The relationship between Sehgal’s mother Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Indira’s mother Kamala Nehru had always been strained, and in spite of the many hours Indira spent with her aunt and her family, she never really forgot the tensions of her childhood. She carried her mother’s wound deep inside her, and it invariably cast a long unfortunate shadow on her relationship with Pandit, especially after Nehru’s death. Sahgal’s prism is edged with this aspect too.
“India’s leader, from 1966 to 1977, had been a woman whose childhood, education and family tradition had provided her with unusual opportunities for training in democratic ideals, yet whose own temperament had apparently never felt entirely comfortable with this inheritance. The stages of her career as prime minister made it plain she was not a democrat in practice. She firmly believed in her own indispensability. Concessions, compromise and discussion signified weakness to her, and opposition jarred and angered her. She needed the constant assurance of acceptance and loyalty to feel secure...Democracy was not Mrs Gandhi’s style, but it remained an insistent craving.”— From “Why Mrs Gandhi Called an Election”
Mrs Gandhi, Dom Moraes (1980)
The poet Dom Moraes’s father, the journalist and newspaper editor Frank Moraes, had written a rather delightful biography of Jawaharlal Nehru. It was almost to keep up with the eccentricity of the idea that two generations would write biographies of two generations that Dom Moraes, brilliant writer and, sometimes, almost insufferable Anglophile, attempted to write Mrs Gandhi. It is an eminently readable book, enlivened by a poet’s whimsy. (Dom Moraes was married to Leela Naidu at the time, and often it was she who translated his “mumbled” questions to Mrs G.)
“I had an extraordinary lunch, in 1975, in the palace where Mountbatten had once presided over the partition of India. The hostess was Mrs Gandhi, and the occasion was in honour of Prince Charles. In the garden of the presidential palace, filled with roses and trees, the guests lined up before lunch while Mrs Gandhi introduced the royal party to them. That is, she introduced Charles, and the Duke and the Duchess of Gloucester, but for some reason she omitted to introduce Mountbatten. He wandered along, behind the rest, explaining to everyone, ‘My name is Mountbatten,’ and, ‘waving his hand around the lawns, ‘and I had those trees planted.’
After lunch, the Gloucesters shot off. I needed to see Mrs Gandhi, so, as she was saying goodbye to Prince Charles, I hovered around. The Prince having departed, I asked her for an appointment. ‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow. Phone my secretary.’ Her normally impassive face displayed some irritation. ‘Where?’ she asked, ‘are the Gloucesters? Weren’t you sitting with them?’ I said yes, but I thought they had left. ...Mrs Gandhi turned back to me and she was obviously furious. ‘They didn’t even say goodbye,’ she told me. ‘Don’t they know I am the Prime Minister of India?’”— From "Prince Consort"
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, one long-dragged-out-and-nearly-abandoned PhD thesis on the Natyashastra, and most recently of The Heat and Dust Project: The Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, which she co-wrote with husband Saurav Jha.