When in 2007 Pratibha Devisingh Patil became a candidate for entering Rashtrapati Bhavan, the reaction in the Capital's media and celebrity circles was one of stunned surprise. “Who is she?” they asked in chorus, and the government responded with a detailed but typically unimaginative curriculum vitae: Member of Maharashtra's Legislative Assembly, 1962-1985; recurring ministerial tenures in the State Government till 1985; Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha, 1986 to 1988; Member of Parliament, 1991 to 1996, and Governor of Rajasthan, 2004 to 2007. The CV made passing references to her participation in sports, her law career, and her special interest in rural education and women's uplift. There was little personal information about Ms Patil other than the fact of her marriage to Devisingh Ramsingh Shekhawat and the two children born to the couple, son Rajendra Singh and daughter Jyoti. Ironically, the official reluctance only whetted media appetite, resulting in a spate of speculative stories about the presidential aspirant, who went on to become India's first woman incumbent on Raisina Hill.
This biographical account is unapologetically hagiographic, providing no answers to the questions raised during the presidential campaign. Nonetheless, it fills information gaps, offering rare insights into the President's early life and the restrictive family environment in which she was raised. What comes across is the image of one who constantly pushed the envelope, exploring new and difficult career options at a time when women rarely went out to work, let alone finding the courage to step into politics. Indira Gandhi and the few other women politicians of the time came from political families that provided a nurturing environment for the daughters.
In contrast, Ms Patil was the only girl child in a household ruled with an iron hand by a strict father who drew the red lines for conduct. The name ‘Patil' itself is misleading; it was a title given to her paternal grandfather, Ramji Solanki, who traced his origins to Tonk district in Rajasthan. The Solankis were Rajputs, and the clan moved to Maharashtra some time in the 18th century. Ms Patil's father, Nanasaheb, a lawyer who established a sprawling family home in Jalgaon, shared his father's passion for education. He asked Pratibha to take up humanities in college, though her own wish was to study medicine.
Rasika Chaube and Chhaya Mahajan, authors of the biography, note that Pratibha never openly questioned the differential treatment, aside from occasionally grumbling to her maternal aunt. In college, she learnt to play table tennis and went on to win trophies and shields, even venturing occasionally out of Jalgaon to take part in competitions.
Ms Patil was fortunate in that every time she needed to take the next big step, there was someone at hand to gently prod her reluctant father to give the nod. In college, it was the principal Y.S. Mahajan, whom she would later help with his election to Parliament.
The transition to a political career happened, courtesy the perseverance of Sonusingh Anna Patil, a close family friend who later became a central Minister in the Morarji Desai government. Anna cleverly contrived to have ‘Pratibhatai' address a Kshatriya Mahasabha; he secured Nanasaheb's consent by pointing out that she would be speaking on the education of Rajput women. Slowly, the father's mind opened to the idea of a daughter in public life. But the ward had to do her bit: drape her saree over the head and avoid even the suggestion of adornment; “not even kajal” he told her. With Chief Minister Y.B. Chavan calling upon women to participate in politics in large numbers, it was just a matter of time before Anna got ‘Pratibhatai' to contest for the Assembly.
When Ms Patil became an MLA in 1962, at the age of 27, she was the youngest in the House. It was not easy to find a groom for Nanasaheb's legislator-daughter, and Devisingh Shekhawat's family took a year to vet her credentials and background. What convinced them finally was her simple, traditional, sar pe pallu (saree over the head) appearance! The years that followed brought many assignments and challenges, but as Ms Patil told the authors, she reached where she did only because of the balance she could strike, and maintain, between her home and career.