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:Â 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.
Indira 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.