Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Two lives – a Gandhi cousin & a courtier

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Column published in Business Standard, August 15, 2014

If there isn’t a word called “octogenarianism”, it could be coined now. Two books, launched in the same hall in New Delhi to packed houses within a few days of each other, are dominated by a common theme: the complex relationship of the authors to the Nehru-Gandhi family over a long passage of time.

The first is Ritu Menon’s commendably candid and assiduously researched biography of Nayantara Sahgal, 87, novelist, activist, Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece and Indira Gandhi’s cousin (Out of Line; Fourth Estate; Rs 699). The second is the controversial, bestselling autobiography of 83-year-old career diplomat-turned-politician Natwar Singh (One Life is Not Enough; Rupa; Rs 500). Other than being contemporaries and products of a similar Indo-Western education in the halcyon days after Independence, odd incidents link their lives to India’s foremost political dynasty.
Ms Sahgal’s marriage certificate to a Punjabi executive, Gautam Sahgal, was signed by Nehru, her adored uncle, at Anand Bhawan in 1949; Indira Gandhi witnessed the document at Mr Singh’s wedding to a Sikh princess of Patiala in 1967. Mr Singh as a young man was befriended by Nehru’s sister, Krishna Hutheesing, and later served under Ms Sahgal’s mother, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, at the United Nations. Superficial connections apart, no two lives could present a sharper contrast in the unfolding trajectories of their political values and choices, personality traits and literary merits. They are as chalk and cheese.

When it came to defending democratic freedoms Ms Sahgal discarded family loyalty over the dictates of her conscience: she bitterly opposed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, threw in her lot with Jayaprakash Narayan’s call to arms, and wrote trenchant political commentary. “I spoke out against my cousin because she was my cousin … it was inconceivable to me that India could betray her tryst with destiny,” she tells her biographer. As young women they had been close, but by 1967, the arteries had hardened. Visiting Indira Gandhi after an emotionally and physically bruising divorce that also left her financially distressed, Ms Sahgal wrote to her lover, the Punjab civil servant E N Mangat Rai (whom she later married): “It was a deadening experience, with as much warmth as an Egyptian mummy’s embrace … her [Indira Gandhi’s] extreme removal from even the barest humanness chilled me to the marrow … I came home, thoroughly extinguished.” Culled from 6,000 letters between her and Mangat Rai, part of a much bigger archive, Ms Sahgal’s life stands up to the feminist dictum of “the personal is political”. She retired to Dehradun, where she continues to hone her craft as a writer of fiction.

Mr Singh’s book is conventionally more glamorous, the almanac of a globe-trotting, name-dropping diplomatic and political gadfly. It includes lessons on how to climb up the greasy pole as a consummate courtier. On a visit to Kabul with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi in 1969, Indira Gandhi bows her head at Babur’s grave outside the city. “She said to me, ‘I have had my brush with history.’ I told her I had had two. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked. I said that paying homage to Babur in the company of the Empress of India was a great honour.”

During the Emergency, he was posted as deputy high commissioner in London and found himself cornered. Faced by a fusillade of attack from the British establishment and the media, including a furious Mountbatten, he wrote “daringly” to Indira Gandhi: “I know what to say to our critics, but I do not know what to say to our friends.” She didn’t reply. Bound by his position to justify government policy, he confesses to “justifying the unjustifiable … in the process, I was disregarding my conscience. It is the one period of my life which I do not look upon with pride.”

He glosses over personal tragedy: the suicide of his young daughter Ritu gets two lines and there is no mention of his estranged daughter-in-law Natasha’s death by jumping off a hotel balcony. In the end, he says, he was a scapegoat for the Congress party over the Volcker report on Iraq’s oil-for-food pay-offs.

Both books are worth reading on the nation’s 68th birthday for all that was good, bad and terrible about a dynasty, now in the doldrums. Ms Sahgal emerges as the unreconstructed Nehruvian. Mr Singh is the unashamed camp follower – Nehruite, Indira-ite, Rajiv-ite and failed Sonia-ite. Is that the distinction between Nehruvian and Nehruite?

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