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The private life of Indira Gandhi

There have been biographies on Indira Gandhi by Pupul Jayakar, Zareer Masani and Inder Malhotra ... does Katherine Frank's show us her feet of clay?

A FRIEND once told me a clerihew about Robert Clive which, with the appearance of Katherine Frank's biography of Indira Gandhi, seems equally suited to her:

The best thing about Lord Clive
Is that he's no longer alive.
There's a great deal to be said
For being dead.

For if Indira Gandhi were not safely dead, it is pretty certain that Katherine Frank would have been clapped in irons within Tihar Jail, locked up by the woman whose prolific love life she seems, rather eponymously, the first to have been entirely frank about.

It is in the nature of biographies of the safely dead to expose or demolish privacies long rumoured or whispered about during the subject's lifetime. But if the subject happens to be a holy cow or has achieved the status of a deity, there is usually a conservative furore in our part of the world when it is proven she had something as depraved as a normal sex life. Rushdie's foray into the Prophet's sanctum may have been provocatively calculated to stir an Islamic hornet's nest, but even ordinary depositions about the erotic relationships of sacred heroes make people deeply uncomfortable.

About five years ago, Sisir Kumar and Sugata Bose published a volume of letters exchanged between Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and his Austrian lover, later his wife, Emilie Schenkl. Of course Netaji was not dead five years ago and we know he is still alive and eating shorshe machh even as we speak, but the book did demolish the peculiarly Bengali-Victorian myth that Netaji, being God, had no sex life. Netaji's letters went so far as to show that not only did he love a being other than Bengal, he even had a daughter by her. Which self-respecting Bengali could swallow such an insult? This was even worse than the equivalent news in Britain, some years ago, that Field Marshall Montgomery was gay all along. The Forward Bloc immediately rioted and burnt the book in Calcutta, though in the end they seem to have accepted that Bengali deities too can be allowed the occasional carnality so long as everyone continues to believe they are immortal.

At roughly the same time, there appeared a surprisingly third- rate biography of Nehru by the American historian Stanley Wolpert - surprisingly because Wolpert had always possessed the most authentic credentials for being unfailingly second rate. This book suggested that Nehru's many wild oats were not sown exclusively among womankind: he had also favoured mankind when young. Wolpert's creative enthusiasm for the multiple exercise of Nehru's crotch, which had failed to intrigue earlier biographers like S. Gopal and Michael Brecher, caused him to forget that there happens to be a boundary between speculation and fact. His book was temporarily banned in India: "stopped at Customs for inspection".

Unlike her father, who himself would never have banned Wolpert, Indira Gandhi was no Voltairean liberal. During her lifetime no one would have dared openly accuse her of wanting men in bed. P. N. Haksar and P. N. Dhar, both strikingly handsome Kashmiri pandits who served her with integrity and distinction and have written fine memoirs, analyse her emotions with perception but say nothing about their boss's private life. In fact the most perceptive observation about Indira Gandhi was once made by the singer-writer Sheila Dhar (Mrs. P. N. Dhar), who knew Mrs. G. well enough to notice that "Indira Gandhi had the developed instincts of an animal, she always responded to people with her skin". The political animal that was Indira Gandhi has long been known and done to death: there have been biographies by Pupul Jayakar, Zareer Masani and Inder Malhotra. It is high time someone gave us an insight into the human animal and showed us her feet of clay.

If Katherine Frank's Emily Bronte: A Chainless Soul (Hamish Hamilton, 1990) is any indication, she is the very woman for the task. The Bronte biography is one of the most moving pictures of tragic womanhood I have ever read. Some of the phrases in Frank's Preface to her Bronte biography provide an indication of why she has also chosen to write about Indira Gandhi: "I see Emily Bronte's life as troubled, solitary and austere ... she made her own choices boldly and stuck by them ... she cared nothing for the opinions and values of others ... there was much that was dismaying, even forbidding, in her personality and the story of her life is riddled with misfortune, loss and failure ... yet there was an undercurrent of triumph in this life ... It was a life of rare and awesome autonomy".

It is an indication of the intellectual condition of the Congress Party that its old horses, who are very hoarse and very old, are in a flutter about the fact that Mrs. G. may actually have had an enjoyable sex life. My instinct is to applaud, but this just will not do. Even in an era accustomed to scurrility, sleaze and Shobha De, the Indian Caesar's daughter should be seen to be chaste, Hindu and properly womanly. Whereas, if the stories told are true - and in such matters every substantial accumulation of rumours substitutes for proof - Indira Gandhi may even have been a bad case of epitomising the brilliant parodic one-liner against Hindu hypocrisy which says caste no bar lekin sex baar-baar. Mrs. Gandhi had, it seems, nearly as much love for the pleasures of her residential bed as of her prime ministerial chair. The Kissa was as much Kursi Ka as Palang Ka.

Her list of hits is impressively long. A Parsi husband who turned philanderer, a scandal-mongering Malayali old enough to be her father's typist (he was once appropriately called a Remington Randy), a yoga teacher who degenerated into a physical instructor, a poodle Foreign Minister who never stepped far from her Home Ministrations - how wonderful to learn that even as she was shackling her country with authoritarianism, she was unshackling her libido at home. What a riproaringly wonderful and motley crew of purdah paramours our Rushdiean Widow seems to have had. Our hearts go out to poor R. K. Dhawan. How awful he must feel to be left out of this litany of lovers. Can we hope for a memoir by him which regales us with proclamations of his non- innocence? Can we hope that Mrs. Shobha De's publishers have given her an "undisclosed sum" as royalty advance for her next potboiler on a subject which seems so entirely tailor-made to suit her well-polished talons?

Anyone with half an eye can see that Indira Gandhi's life can be made, beyond the politics and jingoistic nationalism, the very stuff of sex drama, of Babban Khan's Punjabi farce "Chaddhi Javaani Buddhe Noo" (which translates roughly as "The Old Chap's Turning Horny"), of the carnivalesque Restoration Comedy tradition of parodying the aristocracy, of the "lewd" literature of subversion which has such strong popular roots in so many of the country's regional languages. Though it is now too late, the material within Frank's biography could even have been made, for instance, into an Italian romantic film starring Gina Lollobrigida as the lovely Indira, Marcello Mastroanni as Feroze, Edward G. Robinson as the seductively ugly M. O. Mathai and Anthony Quinn as the rugged yoga teacher. Surely Sonia Gandhi, liminally poised between India and Italy, could have been persuaded to script such a film? The finances would naturally have been provided by a joint venture set up between the Quattrochi Family and the Sangh Parivar. The Guests of Honour at the first screening would have been Khushwant Singh arm in arm with Maneka Gandhi. What scenario other than the private life of Indira Gandhi could possibly give such an equal measure of delight, for such diverse reasons, to secularists and feminists, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)?

By art alone might such contraries be fused, enmities overcome. As exponents of the comic tradition - from Aristophanes to Shakespeare to Swift to Rushdie to Yes Minister to Spitting Image to R. K. Laxman to Jaspal Bhatti to Black Adder - have shown, the literary inflation and consequent deflation of politicians into caricatures via comic art is the only certain method for the ordinary citizen to get even with those who exercise everyday power over us, to make us feel that our ordinariness at least transcends the insanities of their politics. Those who love the exercise of power fear ridicule even more than they fear retirement. Mrs. G. seems to have feared it most of all. In this seems to lie the psychological roots of the Emergency.

If the Congress Party were less stuffed with hypocritical geriatrics it would realise that in this epoch, when Kaliyuga has gone global and formed a multinational joint venture with the bold and the beautiful, with liberalisation and liberalism, the world of vice has, in large sections of urban India, been turned upside down into the world of virtue. If you want to be politically correct, sexuality and hedonism in the woman now betoken female power. The idea of womanly virtue, of the fallen woman, has fortunately no more stability than the Berlin Wall. It may remain generally embedded as a patriarchal ideal, but everyone knows that the winds of gender equality in sexual matters have been blowing hard and chilling the traditional Indian male's privates into a deep recession.

Yes, there is no doubt about it, Frank has done us a favour by making Indira Gandhi roll out of her Cleopatra rug, by making the skeletons in her bedsheets come tumbling out with her. It is time we took the politics out of Indira's life and started to democratically look her straight in the face. What if Katherine Frank has got minor dates and details wrong? The next printing will sort those out. Meanwhile, how delightful to know at last that Mrs. G. was only as human as any of us, that the peccadilloes for which Jawaharlal Nehru was moralistically castigated merely inaugurated a tradition which continued and flourished with his daughter. As we await the future biographies of Rajiv and Sanjay, Sonia and Maneka, Varun and Priyanka, we can only pray that this tradition of a rich and varied sexuality is being actively maintained even now by India's immortal First Family.

Rukun Advani is the author of Beethoven Among the Cows and runs Permanent Black, a publishing company in New Delhi.

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