‘(The book) is both interesting and enlightening. Jayakar’s special relationship with Mrs Gandhi has given her a unique insight into her subject’s personality’.
‘This book has to be read for sheer enjoyment…It is vital, vibrant and occasionally vulgar like life itself.’
‘Indira Gandhi’s life was part of the unfolding history of India, intricately woven with Inida’s past and future. It (became) inevitable, therefore, that politics (formed) a backdrop to her public and often private action.’
Indira Gandhi’s life spanned over two-thirds of a century. By the time of her brutal assassination in 1984, she had established herself as the most significant political leader India had seen since the death of her father, Jawaharlal Nehru. In this book, written with the close cooperation of her subject, Pupul Jayakar seeks to uncover the many personalities that lay hidden within Mrs Gandhi. Much more than a political biography, the book reveals the complex personality of Indira Gandhi-her thoughts and feelings, her hates and prejudices, her insights and her faults, her loves and emotional entanglements.
Full of startling insights, Indira Gandhi: A Biography paints a magnificent portrait-at once empathetic and unprejudiced-of one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable women.
Pupul Jayakar was born in Etawah, Uttar Pradesh, in 1915. She was closely involved with the development of indigenous culture, handicrafts and textiles since the country achieved independence in 1947. She was the Chairman of the All India Handicrafts Board, Chairman of the Governing Body of the National Institute of Design, Chairman of the Handicraft and Handloom Exports Corporation of India, Chairman of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chairman of the Crafts Museum of India, Chairman of the Calico Museum of Textiles and Chairman of the Festival of India in Great Britain, France, USA and Japan, Chairman of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and a member of the Krishnamurti Foundation India.
She was also Chairman of the Krishnamurti Foundation, India, and published a bestselling biography of Krishnamurti in 1986. She wrote several other books, including The Earth Mother, The Children of Barren Women, The Buddha and God is Not a Full-Stop, a volume of short stories.
Pupul Jayakar died in 1997 in Bombay.
A serious biography is a dialogue between the author and the unfolding personality of the individual portrayed. The task becomes more complex when the life of the author has to measure her perceptions against a people’s view of the individual and her actions.
This is not a political biography, but Indira Gandhi’s life was part of the unfolding history of India, intricately woven with India’s past and future. It becomes inevitable, therefore, that politics forms a backdrop to her public and often private actions. The book seeks clues to her life through access to the many personalities that lay hidden within her. And, if possible, to uncover and reveal Indira Gandhi’s thoughts and feelings, her hates and prejudices, her insights and her ignorance, and her loves and the emotional entanglements that generated action. It is this alone that gives density to the material, enables Indira Gandhi to come alive. Unfortunately, we deify and worship our heroes and so destroy them.
It was in the 1970s that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi first asked me to write her biography. She was prepared not only to help me but to spend time with me-a Prime Minister’s time-to enable me to understand the contradictions that made her life so complex and obscure. I had hesitated, telling her that to write a biography of a friend and Prime Minister was an impossibility and would lead inevitably to the loss of a friend. Years passed and a fortnight before her death, finding Indira Gandhi in a particularly mature and mellow mood, I suggested that I start an oral biography of her life. She was quick to respond, with a swiftness that took me by surprise.
Over the next four days, two interviews were arranged. Out of this came four hours of tape recording, in which she repeated many things she had already told me but also spoke of her more intimate relationships and hinted at her vision of the future. It was an ongoing story which was to continue over the next year. Her death brought this recording to an abrupt end. I had maintained, however, over the years, several handwritten notebooks of meetings and conversations with her; these I have re-created for the biography.
Although Indira Gandhi seldom discussed politics with me, she was eager to explore the Indian mind, its strengths and its weaknesses and she was frank and free in her views of political comrades and opponents. She had a sense of humour and, at times, enjoyed gossiping and hearing what people had to say of her and her government. During the years she was out of power, I spent much time with her. It was during this period that I came to understand, to an extent, the way her mind worked. She often spoke of a time when she loved with passion and hated with an equal energy, but she said that the hatred had, over the years, faded away.
During our talks she recalled some of her conversations with world leaders. Her observations were astute and detailed and she had an extraordinary skill of reaching what lay beyond the word. Her defeat in 1977 and the manner in which many of her associates had reacted left her with a deep sense of betrayal and sorrow. ‘Sorrow comes in like a circle and cannot be rolled up as a mat,’ she had commented on an occasion. She had an intense sensitivity to beauty: beauty healed some of her wounds.
Raj mohan Gandhi, author and political pundit, grandson of the Mahatma, writing in The Washington Post of 1 November 1984, immediately after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, comments:
No unprejudiced chronicler will fail to note her ability to make the tough choice, take the hard gamble and stand unmoved before a hostile crowd. Her charm and astonishing stamina, her 1980 comeback, her fortitude when she tragically lost a son, Sanjay-these too will be recorded. And her independence. She was no one’s and no superpower’s stooge.
Indira Gandhi’s life spanned over two-thirds of a century. It coincided with monumental happenings in India and the world. At the time of her birth, the rational and liberal world of the nineteenth and early twentieth century was fading away.
Luminous figures concerned with the sacred and its relevance to humanity and nature, were born, lived and taught in India. They were the prophets of a new age. Their teachings emphasized the perennial truth that India had sought to discover through millennia of search. Every age demanded a discovery of the truth, to meet the challenges of a changing world and of a disoriented humanity.
A vital political and economic force was rising in Europe. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution coincided with the month of Indira’s birth. It was also during this period that strong and powerful figures emerged in India to fight the battle for freedom and independence. They emerged from all walks of life, for few shirked the terrors and the poverty the fight enjoined. Two great world wars were fought during her life. Their fallout generated explosions in science and technology. The concept of time, space and energy underwent immeasurable changes. A revolution in electronics and communications had invaded human consciousness. The human brain could no longer keep pace with the velocity of change or comprehend the interlinks between scientific discoveries, economic structures, religious frenzy and simple human values.
Commentators and critics have held Indira responsible for the breakdown of institutions and the distortions that entered the body politic. Unfortunately, they see the scenario as a static one where the old institutions could survive and continue at their own pace. But the world was in flux; the nuclear threat had reached its peak; whispers of doom from the ravaged environment were about to enter human consciousness; national frontiers were changing; human values were seeking new dimensions; the speed of events and a rapidly escalating population had brought an instability to the environment, to institutions and to the human psyche. Indira could at times sustain, could destroy, but she lacked the skill and the insights, in the midst of an earthquake, to structure the new or build institutions and relationships relevant to the future.
At the end of her life Indira Gandhi had one major concern: whether India could survive with its wisdom intact; for without this wisdom what was India? She died having posited the question but without finding an answer.
It was in 1986 that I decided to write the biography of Indira Gandhi. She was a controversial person and the controversies had not ended with her death. She was misunderstood and often misrepresented. I knew that I owed it to her to write and so I spoke to her son, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and it was with his support that I commenced the story. In reply to a letter from me, he commented: ‘You will recall that when you first told me about writing a book on my mother, I welcomed the idea. You knew her for so long and so well’ He had promised to make available to me her correspondence with philosophers, scientists, artists, poets and others. He had also said that it would be possible to share some of her private papers with me. What was secret would of course not be available. Yet, in the three years after 1986 that he was the Prime Minister, no papers were forthcoming from Rajiv Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi, nor were they prepared to grant me an interview. This made my task more difficult as Rajiv Gandhi’s perceptions of some of the actions of his mother would have been of great value. I had therefore to rely on my own observations, conversations, letters, diaries, newspapers and a number of interviews with her political colleagues and opponents, to tell her story.
I am deeply grateful to B.K. Nehru and Fori Nehru for making available to me their correspondence with Indira Gandhi, and to B.K. (Biju) for the time he spared for the interviews I held with him. Amongst the vast number of people who were prepared to meet and talk to me on tape, I would like to thank the late Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Atal Behari Vajpayeeji, the late Uma Shankar Dikshitji, the late Pandit Kamalapati Tripathi, C.Subramaniam, the late Achyut Patwardhan, Dev Kant Barooah, L.K. Jha, Dr P.C. Alexander, Dr P.N. Dhar, R.N. Kao, I.K. Gujral, Vasant Sathe, Dorothy Norman, N.K. Seshan, Professor Ravinder Kumar and H.Y. Sharada Prasad.
I am also grateful to Irma Oberdorf for showing me Indira Nehru’s letters to Frank Oberdorf; to Helen Ciaoux and Arriene Mnouchkaine for so gfraciously sending me and allowing me to use the notes they had collected while in India, doing research on Indira Gandhi’s life. I am deeply grateful to Dr Gisela Bonn for permission to use her photograph of Indira Gandhi, which forms the cover page, to Raghu Rai and T.S. Nagarajan for permission to use some of their photographs of Indira Gandhi, and to Dileep Padgaonkar of the Times of India for his support. My special thanks to Aroon Purie o India Today for permission to use the library which helped me greatly in locating various sources.
I would like to thank Sonia Gandhi for permission to publish letters from Freedom’s Daughter; Dorothy Norman for extracts from her Indira Gandhis-Letters to a Friend 1950-1984; the Jawaharlal Nehru Mamorial Fund for permitting extracts from the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust for their support; the Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, for permitting extracts from the Collected Words of Mahatma Gandhi; Cornelia Bessie of Harper and Row and later of Pantheon Books for help and advice; David Davidar of Penguin India who has provided support and advice; Allen Ginsberg for his kindness, and the many people who have helped me to write this book by granting permission to use extracts from their works. I also wish to thank Princeton University Press for permission to quote from “Winds” by St. John Perse. While every effort has been made to ensure that permission to reproduce copyright material included in the book was obtained, in the even of any inadvertent omission, the publishers should be notified and formal acknowledgements will be included in all future editions of this book.
The book would have been difficult to complete without the help of my daughter, Dr Radhika Herzberger, my niece, Tulsi Vatsal, and my granddaughters, Sunanda and Maya.
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