“Indira: Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi” by Katherine Frank
With criticisms like “The death of democracy” by one camp, and praises like “Trains started running on time” by another, the emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between 1975 to 1977 can be termed as most controversial era of post-independent India. What is surprising is that there seems to be very little written about it in school curriculum as well as the internet. Hence, when I first read about the gruesome details of it from books, foreign newspaper archives (since the Govt had gagged press & media during emergency) and hearsays from today’s senior citizens (who were in their prime during 1970s and could passionately recollect those events from memory), I was taken aback by the fact that a woman could hold the country to ransom. I wondered how could a woman resort to such dictatorial means, while in general, women are considered to be highly tolerant & forgiving in nature.
I have always believed (psychology also says) that the character of a person is causal in nature i.e The character of a person is a result of (psychological) events encountered by the person over his/her lifetime since childhood. Was Indira a victim of her own psychological trap? What exactly was Indira trying to prove (maybe sub-consciously proving to herself and her critics) by imposing emergency? Did she feel insecure? These were some of the questions lingering in my mind few years ago and hence began my quest to find out more about Indira.
Few weeks ago, I had reviewed a banned book which gave some insights into Nehru’s rule, the inefficiency, corruption & the dynasty politics that was gaining inroads during his tenure:
One of the best books I found in this regard was the comprehensive biography of Indira Gandhi written by Katherine Frank titled “Indira: The life of Indira Nehru Gandhi“, in an unforgiving & ruthless style which was met with widespread criticism from Congress supporters & leftist thinkers but nobody has still been able to deny facts mentioned in the book. Their problem with the book was only because Katherine Frank was blunt in presenting both sides of Indira. i.e The positive side, which anyway was being propagated by state controlled media, and also the unknown side especially related to her life before politics which was hidden from public purview.
Beginning with anecdotes about the origin of Nehru family and their association with Mughals (later with East India Company), Katherine gradually introduces Jawaharlal Nehru and birth of Indira in the subsequent chapters.
What would come as a surprise here is that although the Nehrus were some of the most well educated & well-off families, when it came to gender equality, they had their own inhibitions in welcoming a girl child and instead had preferred a boy.
As Indira grew up, such gender discrimination had begun to engrave deep psychological imprints of inferiority complex in her mind. Few anecdotes suggests that she often felt ignored & unnoticed, probably due to her being a girl. In order to compensate for it, she had begun to get involved in activities and volunteering services to portray herself as someone with masculine traits and was even referred to as “Indu-boy”.
Over the next few chapters, the author goes at great lengths to describe Kamala Nehru’s (Indira’s mother) illness, her failing relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru and the atmosphere of gloom that had hung over the Nehrus with foreign treatment which required the Nehru family to move to Switzerland for few years. It might come as a surprise to find that Feroze Gandhi was initially inclined towards Kamala Nehru and there were not only rumors of their illicit relationship but smear campaigns as well to tarnish the Nehru family’s image in Allahabad which had deeply disturbed Indira.
To add to it, Indira was further more deeply disturbed when she realized that her father (Nehru) was having an affair with Padmaja Naidu (Sarojini Naidu’s daughter) which in turn had created a gulf between Nehru & Indira even to the extent that they were not on talking terms due to it.
As further chapters unfold, the reader might start sympathizing with Indira due to the unfortunate series of health jolts she had to face, pushing her to bed-rest for several months in the early 1930s. Throughout the 1930s, Indira’s frailing health due to a fatal disease had made her frail and pushed her into depression several times.
Fortunately, as Indira recovered from her illness during early 1940s and expressed her desire of marrying Feroze, the Nehru family & its well-wishers were furious & Mahatma Gandhi went on to preach her some of his philosophical advice, which she promptly discarded and went ahead with the marriage, much against the wishes of her family.With this, the book enters the next part in which the author, over the next several chapters chooses to describe the events from a broader view, detailing events leading to partition of India, Kashmir issue and more political events, along with the role played by Indira Gandhi in these events. i.e The biography turns more political than personal.
After death of Feroze Gandhi (which had drained her the color from life), there was another massive jolt to her psyche when Jawaharlal Nehru was devastated after India’s humiliation in 1962 India-China war which made him increasingly dependent on Indira and she began to consider options to settle abroad!!
But destiny had something else in store for her. After Nehru’s death in 1964, she was inducted completely in the Congress party and after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death, she had become unstoppable.
Most of the details & events explained by the author after this point are mostly well known as she had become a public figure under constant criticism and at the same time often being referred to as “Mother India”. Hence, I personally felt that the second half of the book was more like a documented history of Indira’s India while the first half was a biography of Indira’s personal life.
Overall impression: Written in an impeccable writing style which would not only enrage the reader with shocking insights, but also make the reader feel sympathetic towards Indira, the author has managed to open up the cupboard of skeletons (related to Indira’s personal life) much against the wishes of her supporters who have gone to great lengths to condemn this book and unnecessarily turn it into a controversial issue, but fortunately the book still remains in circulation and can be ordered over online bookstores. A highly recommended book for those who want to understand the events that went into making of the extraordinary woman before she entered politics and the events that shaped up India after she assumed power.