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How Katherine Frank”s Biography Of Indira Gandhi Reveals An Inside Picture Of Her Eventful Life

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By Sahil Sood:

In her letter to Dorothy Norman, a female American photographer, writer, social activist, and also Indira’s closest friend and confidante, Indira expressed what it meant to grow up in the Nehru household, in the midst of political turmoil and unrest spreading throughout India, a country on the brink of achieving independence from the bicentennial rule of British Empire: Since earliest childhood I have been surrounded by exceptional people and have participated in exceptional events…The circumstances in which I passed my girlhood- both domestic and public spheres- were not easy. The world is a cruel place for the best of us and especially so for the sensitive.

indiraIndira Gandhi, or as people fondly called her ‘The Empress of India’, was India’s second longest serving Prime Minister, and inarguably the most controversial and infamous figures of Indian politics.

Katherine Frank’s biography is the closest and the most endearing account of her remarkably eventful life. Instead of plainly and chronologically charting events that shaped her life, she tries to bring out Indira as a person- as a sum of both political and personal events.

Diagnosed at an early age, with rare pulmonary tuberculosis in the lungs, Indira, along with her mother, Kamala Nehru, who also suffered from severe ailments, spent most of her time on medical treatments that required her to travel back and forth between India and Europe. Not only did she receive disrupted formal education, but the political turbulence in the country further kept her from leading a normal, regulated life. This tense, emotional, and often revelatory phase is investigated through her correspondence with her father, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, also Indira’s guiding figure during her childhood. Given the limited (almost no) poetic license, Frank sustains Indira, and keeps her voice alive page after page, so much so that the entire narration reads and sounds like Indira’s intimate self.

As a highly observant and perceptive writer, Frank discovers many vantage points to look at Indira’s several life and political decisions. Long periods of inactivity, illness, and a relentless urge to be of worth in Indian freedom struggle in early childhood; frequent bouts of depression and melancholia, triggered by solitude and loss of dear ones; estranged relationship with her philandering husband Feroze Gandhi; petty domestic squabbles and frequent clashes with her daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi; and above all, increasing insecurity of being stripped of power in the political scene inherently dominated by men, all contributed to her taking some erroneous decisions.

Frank’s book is by no means a conventional biography, for she richly portrays the complexities and struggles of various other characters who aid Indira’s struggle into politics: Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, through his correspondence serves as the perfect father and supreme companion, who with his towering intellect and vast experience, guides Indira’s every step; Kamala Nehru, keeping her head high in the times of adversary, shows Indira the power of courage and persistence; Mahatma Gandhi, Feroze Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Indira’s sons and others, whose life stories are intelligently woven into the narrative framework; and Kashmir, the heaven’s abode, a place whose beauty and healing powers become the fuel of sustenance for Indira’s spiritual and physical recovery in times of repair and need.

I have felt like a bird in a very small cage, my wings hitting against the bars whichever way I move. The time has come for me to live my own life. What will it be? I don’t know at all. For the moment, I just want to be free…and find my own direction. The experience of being President of the Congress has been exhilarating at times, depressing at times, but certainly worthwhile. But…I can only be warped & unhappy if I have to continue.

In her late-night heartfelt confession to Dorothy Norman, Indira, shortly before assuming power, predicts how increasingly lonely and depressing she would become if forced to continue. And it proved true. Born into the Nehru family, her life was never her choice, and thus, she was slated for a life of public service.

Indira’s tenure was dotted with some remarkable achievements that brought out her assertive, domineering, forthright and often ruthless persona: India’s extended support and huge involvement in the creation of Bangladesh (East Pakistan); launching of India’s first successful nuclear test; the annexation of Sikkim with India; the successful culmination of The Green Revolution Movement transforming India from a nation heavily reliant on imported grains and prone to famine to being largely able to feed itself, and become successful in achieving its goal of food security; drawing up of Line of Control along the Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan border to settle the territorial dispute; and improved foreign relations with USSR and other countries. Thus, she transformed a crippled economy into a thriving, full-blooded nation. But several of her decisions like centralizing power, imposing the state of emergency, raiding the Golden Temple etc. met with severe criticism, and the latter cost her life.

With each phase, Indira became more insecure and reclusive; the loneliness haunted her, increasingly so after the death of her son, Sanjay. Frank’s writing achieves in making the reader empathetic with her condition. In her final moments, shortly before her assassination, Indira recounted many efforts that had been made to assassinate her, and asserted that each drop of her blood spilled shall continue to strengthen India. Thus, “India is Indira; Indira is India”, became the slogan of the millions. Indira acknowledged that India was much larger than a single family or a single person, and insisted that it would always endure.

Today, Indira Gandhi is no more; debates rage on whether the emergent actions taken were necessary; but her story is one great story of a highly flawed individual; a story born out of great solitude and courage. Frank’s book is a compelling character study, and a stunning account of one of the most equally beloved and reviled persons to have lived.

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  1. Bhawna Sharma

    Sahil first of all it very noce article…m proud of you but do explain me why samir did this?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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