By the time Indira joined Oxford, she had become romantically involved with Feroze. “I myself was once young and deeply in love,” she would say to Sonia Gandhi years later, when meeting her for the first time as Rajiv’s fiancée. Although Feroze had proposed to her several times in the past, she finally said yes in Paris.
In 1937 on her way to join Somerville, she had met Feroze in Paris and he had proposed to her on the steps of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre. Paris was, in her words, “bathed in soft sunshine and the heart was young and gay… we ourselves were young and in love.”
Feroze had first proposed to Indira when she was only 16, but Kamala had insisted that her daughter was too young to marry.
For Feroze, Indira was the daughter of his adored Nehrus, and he was as drawn to what she represented as much as he was to her. Ironically, it would be her family and her life within it that would later become the source of Feroze’s emotional troubles.
Feroze’s aunt Dr Commissariat had agreed to finance his studies at the LSE only because she thought it would take him away from his obsession with the Nehrus. But Indira and Feroze were never closer than at this time and she was split between two worlds, trying to live out her father’s expectations to become an Oxford graduate but becoming drawn more powerfully to the activist life with Feroze in London.
At the end of her first year at Oxford, she failed after two attempts to pass the first year “Moderations” examinations that she needed to clear to begin the honours degree.
She passed all her subjects but each time failed to clear her dreaded Latin – understandably so, as she had had no opportunity to master it, unlike other English students who had been studying it for years. She had only one more attempt left; if she failed again she would be faced with the humiliation of being “sent down”, or asked to leave Oxford. She fell ill with a cold, cough and exhaustion.
Meanwhile, Nehru arrived in Europe, caught in a whirlwind of meetings and lectures, and she set off travelling with him. Together father and daughter visited Paris to participate in a world peace conference, where there were protests by Spanish groups – Indira becoming “excited” and “involved” when La Pasionaria (or Dolores Ibárruri), the communist heroine of the Spanish Civil War, was not allowed to speak. “I felt very strongly about the Spanish Civil war,” she would recall in a nostalgic moment about her youthful, radical years.
She didn’t want to battle to learn Latin, she wanted to battle for different causes. In her mind, the choice was clear: goodbye Oxford, hello political activism. She pined for the heady, politically charged days in London and for Feroze. She was a young radical, madly in love, and restless to be a greater part of the youthful ferment among Indian students in England.