Literary Review

‘I would prefer a vet’

The Unseen Indira Gandhi: Through Her Physician’s Eyes; K.P. Mathur, Konark Publishers, Rs. 595.  

We have seen Indira Gandhi from every angle, through the eyes of idolaters, iconoclasts, admirers and arch enemies. No part of her life is entirely untold. But the offer of an intimate account by her personal physician, who saw her regularly and travelled with her everywhere, must have been irresistible for any publisher.

Dr. K.P. Mathur has said much in the book with sensitivity about his patient who was already a celebrity when he joined her, but his purpose in writing the book is not to interpret her personality or sensationalise her life. “The book makes an effort to reveal the true personality and character of the woman who charmed the world,” the author declares.

The book reads like the personal diary of a person who felt compelled to add his bit to the extensive literature available on Gandhi in the hope that a vignette here or there might help a future historian complete the jigsaw puzzle. He is successful because, in spite of his effort to be innocuous in his observations, a keen eye and a sense of history are evident everywhere. In many instances he authenticates events and impressions the public is already familiar with. This is the real value of the book. Many myths, legends and anecdotes now have the seal of authenticity because he narrates them with clinical precision and without exaggeration.

Gandhi reluctantly accepted a personal physician after one of her flights was caught in turbulent weather and many on board were hurt, with no medical help available till the plane landed. Someone suggested that she should have a doctor with her always, and when the health department suggested Dr. Mathur, she accepted. She resisted his efforts, however, by declining to reveal much and by refusing to be examined. She once told him that she preferred a veterinary surgeon who would not ask any questions and prescribe medicines without examining patients.

Dr. Mathur’s knowledge about Gandhi’s physical condition did not go beyond her pulse and blood pressure, although he did succeed in persuading her to allow him a daily visit and a detailed examination every Saturday. Otherwise, his access was controlled by her valet. Gandhi kept him out of official meetings, but people were in awe of him because of his proximity to the ‘PM’.

The glimpses into Gandhi’s personal life have a particular charm. Her spartan lifestyle, her respect for her daughters-in-law, her love for her grandchildren and concern for friends come out well. The book reveals that she was religious-minded and a traditionalist, and explains her association with Dhirendra Brahmachari in the light of her spiritual pursuits but refers to his frequent visits with some surprise.

The chapter on Feroze Gandhi provides rare glimpses of the happy time Gandhi had with her husband before they were estranged. It was Feroze Gandhi’s “glad eye” that strained the relationship, but Gandhi remained loyal to him and attended to him in his last days. The doctor also mentions her close advisers, Dinesh Singh, Inder Gujral and Ramesh Thapar, known as the “kitchen cabinet”, among whom Dinesh Singh had a special place as adviser and friend.

The Bangladesh war, the Pokhran test and the “ominous Emergency” occupy many pages, but there are no new insights except that the doctor asserts that Siddharth Shankar Ray, Bansi Lal and R.K. Dhawan were “behind the imposition of Emergency.”

The author has no good word about the sycophants, who coined the slogan, “Indira is India and India is Indira.” He also observes that Gandhi had become a victim of the excessive love she had for her younger son. She disapproved of many of his actions, but could not break off the spell he had cast on her. Some unusual photographs enrich the volume.

T.P. Sreenivasan is a former ambassador who has represented India at the United Nations in New York, Nairobi and Vienna..

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 9:25:02 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/%E2%80%98I-would-prefer-a-vet%E2%80%99/article14517042.ece

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