How Indira Gandhi gained love, gave up Oxford, and found her calling

Sagarika Ghose’s biography of Indira Gandhi brings together all the events and stories from her life.

By the time Indira joined Oxford, she had become romantically involved with Feroze. “I myself was once young and deeply in love,” she would say to Sonia Gandhi years later when meeting her for the first time as Rajiv’s fiancée. Although Feroze had proposed to her several times in the past, she finally said yes in Paris.

In 1937 on her way to join Somerville, she had met Feroze in Paris and he had proposed to her on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre. Paris was, in her words, “bathed in soft sunshine and the heart was young and gay...we ourselves were young and in love”.

Feroze had first proposed to Indira when she was only sixteen, but Kamala had insisted that her daughter was too young to marry.

For Feroze, Indira was the daughter of his adored Nehrus and he was as drawn to what she represented as much as he was to her. Ironically it would be her family and her life within it that would later become the source of Feroze’s emotional troubles.

Feroze’s aunt Dr Commissariat had agreed to finance his studies at the LSE only because she thought it would take him away from his obsession with the Nehrus. But Indira and Feroze were never closer than at this time and she was split between two worlds, trying to live out her father’s expectations to become an Oxford graduate but becoming drawn more powerfully to the activist life with Feroze in London.

With Feroze she became actively involved in the India League, a radical organisation agitating for Indian independence in Britain, led by the brilliant, brooding VK Krishna Menon, barrister, publisher and public intellectual. Nehru’s mind had already been “captured by Krishna Menon”, he was Jawaharlal’s “darker skinned, gaunt, ugly” but fiercely intelligent soulmate.

Once when Menon unexpectedly asked her to address a gathering, she acquitted herself so badly that someone in the audience shouted, “She doesn’t speak, she squeaks!” It’s a story she often told with a laugh while she was prime minister, by when she could hold a crowd rapt and engaged.

Memories of her from this period are not flattering. Photographs show her as skinny and sallow-complexioned. Her peers remember her as unwell, physically and intellectually nondescript, clinging to Feroze as if he was her lifeline. Her father’s friends weren’t too impressed either. She was described as “a mousy, shy little girl who did not seem to have any political ideas”, and was “purely her father’s daughter”.

However hard she tried, by attending the influential socialist thinker Harold Laski’s lectures at the LSE or following the debates at the Oxford Majlis, she simply wasn’t as intellectually dazzling as her father would have liked her to be. Nehru’s European friends ranged from the French author André Gide, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize, the writer and art theorist André Malraux, the biologist and internationalist Julian Huxley to the social reformer and sociologist Beatrice Webb. When Nehru met and interacted with them, some in Indira’s presence, her own lack of brilliance was sadly apparent.

At the end of her first year at Oxford, she failed after two attempts to pass the first year “Moderations” examinations that she needed to clear to begin the honours degree.

She passed all her subjects but each time failed to clear her dreaded Latin, understandably so as she had had no opportunity to master it, unlike other English students who had been studying it for years. She had only one more attempt left; if she failed again she would be faced with the humiliation of being “sent down”, or asked to leave Oxford. She fell ill with a cold, cough and exhaustion.

One of her Oxford contemporaries, Nikhil Chakravartty, believed her illnesses in these years were a “convenient fiction” to avoid being sent down from Oxford. By 1938, she decided not to make another attempt and to abandon Oxford although she evidently didn’t yet tell her father, fearing his deep disappointment.

Meanwhile Nehru arrived in Europe, caught in a whirlwind of meetings and lectures, and she set off travelling with him. Before she went, Harold Laski told her, “If you tag along with your father, you’ll just become an appendage…so you’d better not go with him. You must strike out on your own.” But she strained to be a part of Europe’s political churning and of all the excitement around Nehru, who had a hectic schedule meeting politicians and intellectuals as well as attending public meetings and delivering lectures, organised by Krishna Menon.

Together father and daughter visited Paris to participate in a world peace conference, where there were protests by Spanish groups, Indira becoming “excited” and “involved” when La Pasionaria (or Dolores Ibárruri), the communist heroine of the Spanish Civil War, was not allowed to speak. “I felt very strongly about the Spanish Civil war,” she would recall in a nostalgic moment about her youthful, radical years.

By the time they arrived in Budapest via Munich and Prague, Indira fell seriously ill with pleurisy and Nehru urged her to return to India with him, which she did. Back in India in November 1938, having just turned twenty-one, she joined the Indian National Congress as she had been longing to for a while. It was as if Oxford was behind her already, and her path ahead was clear.

She wasn’t cut out for long hours of study in ivory towers; radical campaigning excited her more.

She didn’t want to battle to learn Latin, she wanted to battle for different causes. In her mind the choice was clear: goodbye Oxford, hello political activism. She pined for the heady, politically charged days in London and for Feroze. She was a young radical, madly in love, and restless to be a greater part of the youthful ferment among Indian students in England. Her health remained fragile all the while she was in academic surroundings, but later when she joined politics she would become robust and sturdy; a wilting flower would suddenly spring to new life when she found the terrain in which she really belonged.

Excerpted with permission from Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister, Sagarika Ghose, Juggernaut.

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