The Cambridge years
She also sometimes displayed a certain fiery Italian temper. One night, [Hans] Loeser and another young man (possibly one of the language teachers) were in the communal kitchen. He remembers the incident because he saw a revealing aspect of Sonia’s personality. She “was cooking spaghetti... she had done everything [to get it ready].” Behind her back, the young man added to the dish “some white powder used in cooking as a taste intensifier, sodium glutamate; if you take too much of it, it doesn’t taste very well. He must have put in quite a dose. We — the young man and I — had been drinking, and we were giggling. Sonia must have noticed that he had prepared something to tease her, and she turned around quite suddenly, astonished, and without saying anything, put the hot spaghetti on his head. He was shouting, and finally, laughing; it was really quite funny”. Sonia clearly knew how to make a point in a memorable way.
The art lover
Dalip Mehta, a former Doon School pupil who had been a few years ahead of Rajiv at Cambridge, later joined the Indian Foreign Service and was posted to Paris during a relaxing visit by Indira and Sonia. He recalls the trip with nostalgia: President Francois Mitterrand and his wife, Danielle, held Indira in high esteem, so the Gandhi ladies stayed in the guest wing of the Elysee Palace, the French presidential residence, “which was a special honour because it was a private visit. My ambassador... said to my wife, ‘They’re very interested in art. Take them to some museum which you think they may not have seen.” Mrs. Nandini Mehta, an editor for Penguin Books, took them to the Marmottan, which contains Monet’s famous painting Impression, Sunrise. Indira and Sonia were absolutely delighted. Dalip Mehta recalls that the women saw pieces by “Monet, Manet, Gauguin, all the great painters of that period. They moved around very casually within the museum... they didn’t want to be surrounded by security or to disrupt the flow of tourists. So we went there with just one police car accompanying us... They both spoke very good French.”
Sonia loved the museum: “She noticed everything carefully and reacted to everything quickly. She would appreciate beauty in all its forms.”
Frank Christopher, former director of the Parliament Library, attended a four-month, roughly three-sessions-per-week “Appreciation of Art” course in the early 1980s with Sonia at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi, though she was involved there over a longer period of time than he was. “[Sonia] was doing another course before coming to this class... Conservation and Preservation ... I remember her listening to talks and watching the slide presentations on art work, after which we all used to walk out together.” Most of the time she was chauffeured, but sometimes Rajiv would come and pick her up after class. At the end of the course, a National Gallery of Modern Art certificate was awarded by the faculty of History of Art and Conservation, which fell under the aegis of the Government of India’s Department of Culture. Christopher remembers Sonia’s “graceful beauty... her confidence”. She was at ease in this milieu, in a class of 25 or 30 students: “Of course, hailing from Italy, she must have known quite a bit about the art of her land, but her deep interest was to know more about the artworks of India. And she always used to ask questions.”
Art was just one way of Sonia to learn and grow in the company of Indira. Frank Christopher recalls an exhibition he attended in New Delhi by the eminent artist Krishan Khanna. “Despite her busy schedule Mrs. Indira Gandhi took time out to see this work, and Sonia was a companion and a friend.”
Into India’s heartland
Sonia’s visits to the heartland of India with her husband after she took office in 1984 underscored what she had learned of the philosophies of the Nehru-Gandhis. Rajiv said that Sonia was with him on “almost all” of his rural tours to distant areas of India to meet with the deprived, to listen and show them that there were those who were concerned about them. By focusing on these people, the Gandhis were also able to ascertain the extent to which antipoverty programmes were actually reaching those they were designed for. A discussion would often become a micro-investigation into what was happening, locally: Was there a grain store? Were there vegetables in the house? Rajiv would never enter without asking for permission first; once inside, he would often taste the food that had been prepared and take a sip of water. The couple would stay and move on these joint missions; in order to visit numerous villages, interactions could be as brief as two minutes or twenty minutes. They would often stay in dak bungalows or circuit houses, originally built by the British for their administrators.
During his term of office, Rajiv introduced a bill for a constitutional amendment that guaranteed women a 33 percent representation in elected local bodies. Sympathy for the underprivileged, the ordinary Indian, was never far from Sonia’s mind. The aide remembered an early occasion on a tour of a Central Indian State, Madhya Pradesh, where Sonia and Rajiv spent three or four days in dense jungle. At one point, a group of excited tribal children was running after them. He heard Sonia say softly “dolce” and “bambini” to Rajiv and deduced that she was asking her husband if they had any sweets to give to the children. Speaking in Hindi or in English would have been too obvious; she chose to ask him the question more discreetly. None of the party had any sweets with them, but it was a reflection of Sonia’s sensitivity to her situation.
The last meeting
On May 20, 1991, in Delhi, Sonia and Rajiv went to the polling station at 7.30 am. and she fretted over not finding the right tick box to cast her vote for her husband on the lengthy ballot paper with its numerous names. Sonia recalled that Rajiv had laughed and “held my hand with that gentle, reassuring touch which had always helped to dispel any feeling of anxiety and hurt.”
Rajiv was off on tour canvassing and was due to return to Delhi that afternoon in order to change from a helicopter to a plane to fly east then south, allowing him to cover three states on May 21. The last stop was a small town to support a candidate in Tamil Nadu. On the same day they cast their votes, Rajiv came back home around 4.15 p.m. to the Janpath house to spend a few precious minutes with the family. He wished his son well for an upcoming test over the telephone, and bade farewell to Priyanka. Sonia expected to see him in just two days, on May 22. The campaign would end May 24. In her photo memoir she recalled, “I watched him…till he disappeared from the view.” It was the last time Sonia would see her husband alive. She had been with Rajiv for 26 years, 23 of those in marriage.
The Sonia Spine
Now that her life is more public, even more discipline is required. All India Congress Committee secretary Major Dalbir Singh said that the she eats regularly and is “very strict” about her diet. On campaigning days, on board a helicopter, Singh said, “we used to have a food packet loaded for her, very light food.” While travelling, she prefers “soup and sandwiches.” According to him, Sonia gets up fairly early in the morning, goes to bed late, but by following a strict regimen, she remains “absolutely fit.” Sonia told one of her state presidents that she lapses sometimes and does not always follow a physical routine regularly, but that Rahul reminds her that she must exercise to maintain her energy levels, and she practices yoga. Something rarely mentioned is the Sonia spine.
Major Dalbir Singh has been at the party headquarters for more than 21 years and has attended a good many of the meetings in the capital and elsewhere. As the age spectrum for Indian politicians tends to be top-heavy, there is a plethora of the elderly on stage, and Sonia herself is now in her sixties. Sessions start around 9 or 9.30 a.m. and go until lunchtime. On the dais, there may be as many as 70 or 80 leaders. One by one, Singh has observed, each of them droops and starts looking around for the cushions, pillows, or the small mattress. “The older ones would give in a little earlier than the younger ones, but all of us, after a couple of hours, we’re shifting from side to side, and we’re twisting.” Sometimes, those sitting behind Sonia might fall asleep. “I’ve seen the most responsible of leaders doze off and she would tell me or anyone sitting next to her, ‘Just go and nudge that fellow, he’s sleeping and the media will take a shot.’” Sonia, however, always sits upright and listens carefully to everything. “She’ll put to shame even the youngest member of the party. You’ll see her sitting motionless for four hours without a cushion... I’ve never seen Madam Gandhi doze even once during sessions and proceedings.”
The author is a London-based broadcast journalist who has worked with the BBC for more than 15 years.
— These are edited extracts from Sonia Gandhi: An Extraordinary Life, An Indian Destiny (Rs 499) by
Rani Singh, published by Pan Macmillan India/Palgrave Macmillan