"You may be going to work, hmm?," Gursharan Kaur reminded her husband, Dr Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India, as guests began to disperse after the private dinner they hosted for US president Barack Obama and wife Michelle on November 7. With a half-smile, Singh called for principal secretary TKA Nair and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon — who had both left — and convened an unscheduled meeting with them to discuss the Obama visit.
Many a time, Kaur knows more than Singh what he may want to do. The Prime Minister hinted at this at a press conference in May this year when he made mention of the two women in his life whom he relies on: one, the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and the other, Kaur. "I have the benefit of being advised by (both) the Congress President and my wife," Singh said. He added in a rare attempt at humour: "Both of them deal with different subjects."
Last week, as Kaur and the PM played host to the Obamas over the four-day official visit by the US president, the rapport between the PM and his wife was clear. Restrained and elegant, she complemented Singh’s own low-key personality. At the same time, her warmth and natural graciousness embodied Indian hospitality, endearing her to millions watching the Obama visit on TV.
Like Michelle Obama, Gursharan Kaur, 73, perhaps never imagined that the man she married would one day be his country’s leader. Yet, like Michelle, when she found herself in the position, she was ready. In the years of Manmohan Singh’s job as Prime Minister, not only has she managed his household and been supportive of his role at home, she has held her own even in the glamorous First Wives Club. She accompanies Singh on foreign tours and has her own itinerary — which includes connecting with the vast network of NRI relatives who must be assured that Singh's elevation hasn't affected the warmth.
When her husband is busy taking care of matters of state, she's found her own way to forge First Wives ties. As she told a TV channel, she once joked about her short stature with Michelle Obama. "Don't worry, I'll take off my heels," Michelle reportedly replied.
While the Obamas' comfort level with Kaur during their visit showed a warm fondness, Kaur has even impressed global fashion watchers. In a story on first wives during the G-20 summit last year in London, Vogue UK made special mention of Kaur's natural elegance. The piece noted that Kaur was the only first wife to have not dyed the grey in her hair — she wore it with such grace that it marked her out to be comfortable in her own skin. Graceful yet real is the face of India that Kaur presents to the world.
Not that she hasn't been conscious of her image. Kaur, who mostly wore salwar kameezes, put together a wardrobe of silk sarees, matched with understated strings of pearls, after Singh became Prime Minister.
Naturally, she now has a personal secretary to manage her schedule — which is reasonably busy, filled with with book launches and cultural events. She also shares a good relationship with Congress top boss, Sonia Gandhi. "We mostly talk about children," Kaur once said.
Those who know the couple say she is an ebullient, expressive and humourous wife to an understated, shy, man-of-few-words husband. And many a time, Singh himself is the subject of her humour. "I will learn better, teach me," she told a prime ministerial aide who was giving Singh tips in public speaking in his first innings as Prime Minister.
When Manmohan Singh broke the news to her a couple of days prior to his taking over as prime minister on May 22, 2004, her stoic silence matched Singh's flat statement that the couple may have to move house. Sonia Gandhi had already told Singh he would be prime minister.
She has a sharp sense of humour. "I cooked for him," she once told author Khushwant Singh, who asked her what she had been doing when Singh went places — literally and figuratively.
When the residence changed from Safdarjung Road to a cluster of houses across the Race Course Road, Kaur carried her humility, along with the Maruti 800 driven by the couple for decades to the new home. Her drives to Mother Dairy to buy vegetables might have ended, but Kaur keeps the car even today so that she doesn't forget their hunble beginnings.
She continues to meticulously run the house and keep a close watch on the PM's diet. When the diabetic Singh impulsively reaches for a sweet, a subtle glance from Kaur would stop him. When he was recovering after an open-heart surgery last year, Kaur controlled all access to him. And she visited the gurudwara to pray for his speedy recovery.
She still cooks for the PM. Not only the dal-roti-sabzi, Singh's standard, but also for friends who get invited to the Singh residence. "She makes it a point to serve tea if you are at their home," says a Congress leader close to the PM. When Singh was leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Kaur would pack him a lunch consisting of dal, lauki/ghiya and two rotis. The only change Kaur made in the cooking area at the residence was to get the shelves lowered so that she could reach the cooking ingredients and condiments.
Those invited to the PM's residence on Sundays often found the couple engrossed in reading. Kaur is an avid reader, of books ranging from political biographies to religious texts. She likes music and used to sing for All India Radio.
Kaur once wanted to be a schoolteacher but ended up being the better half of the man Obama once called ‘Mr. Guru.' Her dream was carried forward by her daughter Upinder, who teaches history at Delhi University. Neither of the Singhs' other two daughters, Damandeep or the US-based Amrit, stay with the PM either.
Kaur, who joined Singh's incredible journey in 1958 through an arranged match, is devoutly religious and visits Gurudwara Rakabganj opposite Parliament House every Sunday, usually in the company of good friend Isher Ahluwalia. "Humour, humility and emotional strength are her defining characteristics," says Sanjay Baru, who worked with the PM.
"She is a very humble, warm and a forgiving person. Her brother was killed in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots but she has no sense of anger in her," says Khushwant Singh. The one occasion when she lost her cool was in 1999 when Singh lost the parliamentary elections from South Delhi. She thought the people handling his campaign could have done better.