Like millions of others, Indira Gandhi is the prime minister I remember first when I recall the past. Twenty-five years after her death, her imprint is not just resilient but, perhaps, indelible. Yet if this reinforces the belief she was tough, autocratic and dour — a view that has wide currency — it would be both misleading and unfair. Such impressions may not be totally inaccurate but neither are they entirely complete.
Indira Gandhi was also petite, sensitive, shy, thoughtful and fun. The first thing that struck you was how small and compact she was. The ‘Empress of India’, one assumed, would be a powerful virago of a woman. Instead, her delicate hands and, even, her nervous twitch suggested frailty.
The first meeting I recall was over dinner at 1 Safdarjung Road in the mid 70s. A group of her children’s friends were laughing and joking at the table when the prime minister walked in. Suddenly a deathly hush descended. We all stopped talking. It took Mrs Gandhi a few minutes to realise what had happened. Her presence had cast an intimidating spell. Pushing back her chair, she smiled at all of us and said she would finish her egg in her bedroom. As the dining room door shut behind her the babble resumed.
My sisters have memories that stretch further back. In 1963 Mrs Gandhi designed a treasure hunt for Shobha’s birthday. Her plan sparkled with mischief and fun. The different teams were given clues imbedded in riddles which, when deciphered, required them to collect objects such as a policeman’s helmet or fish bones from the Alps. If I’m not mistaken, her son Sanjay’s team won because they worked out how to get the helmet — they borrowed it from one of the guards at Teen Murti House!
Perhaps the most revealing — certainly the most intriguing — memory is from the Emergency. One of the Pink Panther films had come to town and Sanjay invited us to accompany the Gandhis to a special screening at Rashtrapati Bhawan. But the coffee and conversation at breakfast were so gripping we lost sense of time until Mrs Gandhi discovered we were going to be late.
“Sanjay,” she said, with a sense of urgency, “ring Rashtrapati Bhawan and tell them to convey our apologies and ask the president to delay himself.” And then, turning to the rest of us: “Hurry children. We can’t get there after the president. That would be very wrong.”
Within minutes we were on our way. But as we raced down Teen Murti Marg and South Avenue, I remember my sister Premila’s comment: “She’s virtually a dictator yet she’s so particular about protocol and politeness. Who would have thought so?”
But there were times in the 50s or early 60s when she was like a tortured personality. This became clear when her letters to Dorothy Norman were published. Indian politics, life in Teen Murti House and the absence of her children seemed to torment her. She wanted to escape. Her letters reveal how she contemplated an anonymous retreat to the English countryside. In a review that I wrote for The Times, London, I said the voice you can hear in these letters is of a tormented bird trapped in a gilded cage.
A quarter century after her death, she’s not only the best remembered of our politicians but also, I suspect, the most misunderstood.
The views expressed by the author are personal