On a flight from Chennai to Delhi, as I sat engrossed in Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan’s Indira, a fellow passenger, Elsa, a garrulous Malayali woman turned towards me. “Is it about Indira Gandhi?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, and shut the book to show its striking cover, an illustrated visage of the young Gandhi. Elsa took the book from me and quickly browsed through it. “I never liked both father and daughter,” she announced as she snapped it shut. She proceeded to tell me how the Emergency years were the best period in Kerala – government offices ran smoothly and people queued in front of buses. “She was an iron lady...and then she rusted,” she said with a giggle.

In many ways Elsa’s strange mixture of revulsion and begrudging admiration encapsulates Indira Gandhi who, 34 years after her assassination, continues to remain one of the most controversial figures in Indian politics. As the late great Indian political commentator Balraj Puri noted a few months after Gandhi’s assassination, “Indira Gandhi was never an ideal subject for critical evaluation. In her lifetime, she was either eulogised or maligned but rarely criticised.”

This isn’t too surprising. Indira Gandhi had the unenviable task of keeping together a Congress that was splitting up and bridging the gap between Gandhi’s populist idealism and her own father’s more pragmatic intellectualism. While her predecessors had built their idea of the nation on breaking the yoke of colonial rule, Gandhi inherited an India that, two decades on, was unsure about its place in the world.

Graphic biography meets fiction

In the years since Gandhi’s death her biographies have almost cemented a genre of their own from Pupul Jaykar’s hagiographic account to Nayantara Sahgal’s surprisingly nuanced look at her cousin’s authoritarian streak. Indira is unique. It is meant for young adults – part graphic biography and part fictionalised and oral history narrative. It’s rousingly entertaining but also troubling in what it chooses to omit.

One thread in the book follows Indira Thapa, our cerebral heroine, a sixth grader who gets interested in the history of Indira Gandhi after being assigned a school project around her name. As a result, she meets up with her kindly teacher Reema Das and her visual artist roommate, Piya Chatterjee, who in a meta touch is illustrating a graphic biography of Indira Gandhi. In fact, it’s her illustrations that we see in the book.

Given that Indira Gandhi’s story is rich with subtext about Indian democracy, nationalism, feminist power and fury, one wonders why the book needed its fictional story trappings. That being said, these sections, the spoonful of sugar to draw in younger readers, are engagingly written. One lucid chapter that works in a real-life account of the anti-Sikh pogrom is particularly terrific and includes a lovely reminder of shared solidarity between religious minorities.

The other strand brings the formidable former Prime Minister to life with Priya Kuriyan’s stunning illustrations. The narrative is time-fractured, beginning with Gandhi’s elevation to Prime Minister and then traversing her childhood days, her marriage with Feroze Gandhi, the independence of Bangladesh, the Emergency and finally culminating in her assassination.

A visual treat

Kuriyan’s work is the book’s biggest asset. The illustrations are imaginative, playful, and add nuance to a book that really needed to mine more facets of Indira Gandhi’s capacious personality. The stylistic images are all in black and white with occasional bursts of colour such as when a tiger prowls in the jungle or little children run with Bangladeshi flags after East Pakistan’s liberation – a striking effect.

There is also a clearer understanding of Indira Gandhi in the images that are sometimes lacking in words. A few panels where she is trying to study her weary-looking father – a man she had to understand both as myth and parent – as he fades away, exemplifies clarity of vision. Another memorable spread shows a literal rift between Indira Gandhi and citizens of India. Kuriyan also manages to inject some fun Where’s Waldo elements by working in herself, Devapriya Roy and the publisher of the book, Karthika VK, into crowds.

Still, there’s no escaping that Indira reduces Gandhi to a proto-feminist icon (“This girl will be equivalent to a thousand sons,” Nehru announces after her birth). Indira Gandhi, a woman of contradictions, is far too interesting to be sandpapered. Yet, any criticism levelled against her comes, when it does, in the form of clumsy conversations between four college characters. Here, she’s a well-meaning and principled woman who made some missteps along the way.

Lacking in critique

Events are uncritically presented. The creation of RAW is depicted in tandem with the Vanar Sena’s intelligence gathering during the freedom struggle. Indira Gandhi’s help offered to Mujibur Rahman and Bangladesh is presented as a humanitarian gesture instead of a calculated geopolitical chess move against Pakistan. The nuclear test is proffered as India being assertive rather than the start of the country’s nuclear arms race with Pakistan. Bhindranwale was Indira Gandhi’s Frankenstein’s monster, but the book completely ignores this connection. It is only in the section on the Emergency that the it finally seems to have some clarity on where she failed.

Moreover, Indira truly would have benefited from having some personalities play bigger roles in the proceedings. Morarji Desai, whose ambitions became subsumed by those of Indira Gandhi’s is briefly seen. Feroze Gandhi’s tumultuous marriage to Indira Gandhi is noted but not seen enough. Sanjay Gandhi, the enfant terrible who highlighted Gandhi’s hypocrisies is another void. Consider that Indira Gandhi campaigned on quasi-socialist slogans while her own son benefitted from crony capitalism (the detail of the letter of intent given to Sanjay Gandhi for building an indigenous car is only fleetingly mentioned). The thorny relationship between Sanjay and his mother is also the stuff of high drama, but in a book with panels devoted to the young Gandhi eating half-a-dozen bananas at breakfast, there is none about the infamous slap.

Lessons for today

“Somehow the complexity of her story gets overshadowed by talk of the Emergency and Operation Blue Star,” notes a fictional character in the book. Yet, these events aren’t incidental to Indira Gandhi’s politics and leadership. They are at the very heart of it. The book manages to show a Sikh man defending her when she is unseated by the Allahabad High Court. But it doesn’t grapple with the community’s hostile impression of the former Primer Minister before her assassination.

There are lessons to be learned from Indira Gandhi’s story about authoritarianism, cult of personality, militant nationalism and using the long iron arm of the government as a grip over its democratic institutions. It might seem excessive to be critical of a book that is aimed at younger audiences and doesn’t claim to be the last word on Gandhi. Admittedly, Indira is eminently readable and can also be incredibly moving as its final scene, based on Priyanka Gandhi’s personal account, is.

“Dadi’s step is light on the grass and her eyes twinkle merrily. It is almost as if she can fly but chooses not to.” Yet, promising a biography of one of our most complicated political legacies and presenting the Amar Chitra Katha version of it does children no favours.

The recent book launch of Indira where Jairam Ramesh was the special guest was a room filled with warm reminiscences of Indira Gandhi and spiffily-dressed people lobbing softball questions at Roy and Kuriyan. Right across the hall, a right-wing politician was making fiery comments about the significance of Ram Navami. It was a stark reminder that sometimes myth-making transcends political leanings.

Indira, Devapriya Roy and Priya Kuriyan, Westland.