Vijay Kalra had moved to Canada in 1985, soon after he finished his chartered accountancy in India. The Shri Ram College of Commerce graduate found himself unable to operate in India, the professional culture there beset with corruption stifling his enthusiasm. He decided to give himself the option of settling down in the West.
Vijay’s international career began in 1985 at the Deloitte offices in New York. He worked for three years in New York and obtained his CPA certifications for the US and Canada. He finally decided to set up his own business in Toronto in 1991.
In 1984, he had married Sangeeta Sabharwal, who had migrated to Canada just a year before him. Sangeeta was working at the headquarters of a large store called Simpsons. They had a son, Vikram, in 1986, and a daughter Neha, in 1991. By 1996, the personality differences between the two which had surfaced very early on in the marriage finally took their toll and they filed for divorce. Sangeeta, Vikram and Neha continue to live in Toronto.
After the separation, Vijay occupied himself with growing his chartered accountancy practice. And mingling with other singles. He had a year-long relationship with someone he met during this time. After that relationship ended, work and a poker game with buddies every Friday night kept him going.
It was the Father’s Day weekend of 2000 when Vijay first met Sunanda. He had noticed her earlier at some parties a few times, but she was with Del in those days and that for Vijay meant she was out of bounds. But at this party, as she walked in alone, “the woman draped in a red sari” blew him away.
The party had been hosted by Ashok Channa, Surinder Makkar’s brother-in-law, to celebrate his son’s first birthday. Vijay reached the banquet hall a little earlier than the rest. With just a few people around, he sauntered up to the bar to grab a Scotch and wait for some more of the invitees to show up. In some time, as the party started to warm up, Vijay decided to move over to the main area.
As he walked from the bar to the main party hall, he was stopped in his tracks by the sight of a striking woman in a red sari.
As she got closer Vijay realised that it was the same woman he had seen earlier at other parties. Except that this time the impact was much more powerful. Without thinking too much, he walked right up to her and said, “Has anyone told you, from the parking lot to here, that you are looking beautiful?”
“No, no one,” Sunanda replied with a smile.
“So let me be the first one to say it tonight,” replied a glowing Vijay.
With the almost-perfect introductory note delivered, Vijay was encouraged enough to formally introduce himself and ask her if she would like him to get her a drink. In the next few minutes Sunanda and Vijay each had a drink in their hands and conversation between them was flowing smoothly.
That was how they spent the entire evening. They would move around and talk to others but would home back to each other. They had dinner together, smoked a Cuban cigar and even danced to the foot-thumping “Ik Punjaban” from Major Saab.
Each learnt that the other was single.
All night long Vijay thought that he had not seen anything more beautiful than this woman in front of him, who was merrily laughing with a glass in her hand. Finally, when he could not contain himself anymore, he said to her, “Sunanda, do you know it’s women like you who inspire poets to write ghazals?”
“And I just love ghazals,” came the coquettish reply.
“Who’s your favourite singer?”
At this Vijay had reached inside his coat pocket and pulled out two tickets for the Ghulam Ali concert to be held in Toronto the next day! “Here. You can attend this tomorrow,” he had said, smiling.
It was now Sunanda’s turn to be dumbstruck. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “I never saw this coming.”
Vijay could not believe the fortuitous manner in which the meeting was shaping up. As they left, the overwhelming feeling sweeping over him was that surely this was the start of something bigger.
As it happened, neither of them could go for the show the next day, but that did nothing to arrest the chain of events that had been set rolling. Vijay and Sunanda met up a couple of times over the following days. He did ask her about Del and was told that he was not coming back. That relationship was as good as over.
But before Vijay could take his budding relationship any further, Sunanda informed him that she had to suddenly leave for India. Two days later she was gone.
Vijay received a few messages from her while she was away, but for the longest time there was silence. He decided to wait rather than doggedly pursue her, which he felt might put her off.
This was the time Shiv received news of Sunanda’s accident. He was staying with a friend of Sunanda’s during her visit to India.
Sunanda had gone to Mumbai and had decided, on a whim, to take an autorickshaw to a particular destination in town. She had gone just a little distance in the three-wheeler when it ran headlong into a truck. The truck was carrying iron pipes, a couple of which pierced Sunanda’s chest. She was rushed to hospital where she had to undergo surgeries on her chest and face. She was bruised and hurt all over.
She told Shiv later that while she was swinging between what seemed like life and death, she had a vision in which god asked her if she was ready to come to him.
She said the heavens looked tempting with their rainbows and waterfalls, but she told god that her young son did not have a father and still needed her. She would be ready to go only after he became an adult, old enough to look after himself. And uncannily enough, says Shiv, she died just as he turned twenty-one and was beginning to feel like an adult.
Completely unaware of these events, Vijay continued to wait for Sunanda to return. It was only after almost three weeks that he finally received an email from her in which she recounted to him her deadly accident. She apologised for not being in touch as she was still in hospital with serious injuries. Vijay was both shocked and seriously concerned. Sunanda wrote that it would be some time before she could come back to Canada as she still needed time to heal.
Finally, after another month and a half, Sunanda wrote again to say she was coming back. Elated, Vijay went to the airport to pick her up.
At long last, Sunanda landed in Toronto from Mumbai at the fag end of August 2000.
Accompanied by Jiten Trasy.
Jiten Trasy is that mystery in Sunanda’s life that remains to be unravelled. A banker by profession, Jiten was one of Sunanda’s many friends in Dubai whom she had persuaded to apply for immigration to Canada along with her. Sunanda and Jiten had even decided that if their clearances came through, they would shack up together to save on expenses.
Jiten’s immigration approval apparently came through a little later than Sunanda’s, and he now arrived with her from India and moved into the apartment she was staying in on Winston Churchill Boulevard in Mississauga. Shiv describes Jiten as a father figure. But Vijay, and everyone else who knew Sunanda in Toronto, could not quite decide where he fit into the scheme of things. He also seemed considerably older than Sunanda.
“The relationship she had with Jiten was weird. He acted more or less like her personal caretaker. His work in the house ranged from serving Shiv breakfast in the morning before school to keeping a glass of water by Sunanda’s bedside at night,” recalls Vijay.
But Jiten was clearly more than that. He was well educated and a banker by profession. He had worked in various places, including Bangalore, Manila and the Middle East. He had held fairly important posts at all his jobs. Sunanda had told Vijay that she had met Jiten in Dubai.
Jiten’s wife was not happy with his friendship with Sunanda, and this led to some misunderstanding and to Sunanda moving away from him. But Sunanda and he had applied for immigration to Canada at around the same time and were accepted individually on the basis of their qualifications. Whatever the stories, Jiten became an intrinsic part of the Pushkar household, taking on the household chores even as he started to hunt for a job.
But this was not the only twist to the story of Sunanda’s return, as Vijay would learn only much later. The other mystery was the accident itself.
Many years later, when Sunanda had shot into the limelight after her alliance with Tharoor became public and the paparazzi discovered a whole new beat for itself, one online publication ran a story about Sunanda’s alleged plastic surgery.
An article on bollywoodnewsstories.blogspot.com dated 16 April 2010 claimed that Sunanda had, in the year 2000, undergone plastic surgery of the nose as well as breast augmentation, both performed by Mumbai’s rhinoplasty surgeon Dr Ashok Gupta.
The article read:
“Sunanda Pushkar’s face recently launched a thousand IPL controversies. However, if you’ve had enough of it, you could try an older variation. A city surgeon performed three cosmetic surgeries on Shashi Tharoor’s girlfriend and fiancee 10 years ago.
When contacted, Dr Ashok Gupta, who runs a clinic at Laud Mansion, admitted, after some initial hesitation, that he had performed surgeries for Pushkar. “Many patients come to me for various things. Sunanda Pushkar was one of them. I conducted a rhinoplasty for her in 2000. She had also sought some other changes,” said Dr Gupta, who received the Padma Shri in 2009 for his contribution to the field of plastic surgery.
Pushkar wanted the size of her nose reduced as well as the bridge straightened. Sources said that Pushkar also had two other fat reduction surgeries before the nose job. She was in hospital for three days and was registered under the name “Su”. Sources said that she is fondly called by the name by her friends at the time. Pushkar came to Dr Gupta through a common friend who also knew her late second husband, sources said.
In 2000, such a surgery could have cost anywhere between Rs 3 to 4 lakh. However, sources said, she was not charged for the operation because she had come with a recommendation. Pushkar paid only the hospital charges, the sources said.”
The story was accompanied by before-and-after photographs of Sunanda’s nose – one of which showed a large swelling on the nose.
Much later, when Vijay stumbled on this news item, he was able to put two and two together and surmise what had exactly happened to Sunanda in Mumbai. It was very different from the tale he had been told when he went excitedly to pick her up from the airport. Vijay came to the conclusion that there had been no accident. Sunanda had got plastic surgery done on her and didn’t want it known, so she had made up a story about an accident. The timing of her surgery coincided exactly with that of the “accident”, he deduced later.
Excerpted with permission from The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar, Sunanda Mehta, Macmillan.