After four years of refraining from publishing The Red Sari in India – owing to legal threats by the Congress party – author Javier Moro and his publisher, Roli Books, have released the dramatized biography of Sonia Gandhi.
It reconstructs, in unprecedented detail, her childhood in Italy and her romance with Rajiv Gandhi. The book also deals with the way she settles into married life, the Rajiv years, and her initial reluctance and then rise in the Congress party. The book ends with the 2004 win, with an epilogue on the 2014 defeat. Moro spoke to HT about the book’s troubles, the drama genre, the Gandhis and more. Excerpts:
What made you write this book?
The book attempts to tell the story of the past 60 years of India through the story of the Gandhi family, and through the eyes of a European in the Gandhi family. One day, I asked in a book shop in Rome if there was book on Sonia. The owner checked on the computer and could find nothing. And I felt that was something strange. There are so many Italian writers and authors, but no one had done it. And then I understood. That was because she totally shuts you out – her friends and family also don’t speak. It was almost like they were trying to disappoint me. But it is such a sensational story. I would not have their help. I thought of abandoning the project but then realized this was an absolutely sensational story.
When Sonia was born, her father was rather poor; he later became a mason and then a real estate entrepreneur. She then went to Cambridge for an English language course because she wanted to be a flight attendant. But she ended up marrying Rajiv. This is the story of a girl who hates politics because it has taken such a heavy toll on her family; who does not like power; who hates social life that is not family life; and this woman ends up being the most powerful woman in a country which constitutes one-fifth of humanity. I was determined in discovering this journey from a writer’s point of view, what were the inner conflicts. I was trying to look for an archetype in classical literature – someone who does not want power but ends up finding a lot of power and I could not find such an archetype. She ends up holding a lot of power inspite of herself. It is a story of a dramatic transformation of an Italian housewife to an Indian leader and mother. The drama is in that transformation.
The book ran into trouble with the Congress. Can you explain what happened?
The trouble was that I received an email from Abhishek Manu Singhvi sometime in 2010. He said they did not want the book published. For six months, my publisher and I kept receiving threatening messages that they wanted the book removed from all stores and bookshelves…even in Europe. I could not understand why. Six months later, in the second week of June 2010, on Indian television, I saw that my effigy was being burnt in front of the Spanish Embassy. And God, I thought here was a Spanish Salman Rushdie. My friends were making fun of me. And this was for a book no one had read in India because it was in Spanish. It was really stupid. The strategy was to scare off all prospective English language publishers and in that sense, they succeeded in delaying it.
What were their objections?
They said it was full of lies. They did not like the fact that she was Italian and book deals with it. Well, it is a biography and that is difficult to change, isn’t it. I went to Italy and had spoken to her father’s friends, her town’s mayor, her cousins who run restaurants and hotels. They also did not like the fact that it mentioned her humble origins, and perhaps they wanted to associate her with royalty, Gandhis. They were furious at this scene when during emergency, Sonia thinks about going to Italy – at least till things calm down – for the sake of her children. But that is a human reaction. These Congress honchos want to make a robot out of her – oh she is Indian, she is Indian, how could she think about going to Italy. I think they were trying to please the lady.
You think Sonia was not driving it?
Yes, they were acting more loyal. I think Sonia was the one who tempered the fire. She put out the water on the burnt effigy in one sense. She said don’t go so far because they were giving it the very great gift of publicity.
You think the Congress defeat helped in getting it out now.
Well, times have changed. There were business reasons too because the book was in the US markets. It was a decision by Spanish publisher with Roli, and they felt the moment had come. And there was a long process to Indianise the book.
This is a genre difficult to understand – is it fiction or non-fiction? What is made up and what is true? You couldn’t have known what was going on in Sonia’s mind, or what Rajiv and Sonia were discussing. What was your approach?
My approach was a literary one. It was recreating, reinterpreting the story of character and family. I used all available material, mostly secondary sources because I could not interact with primary sources. Most of what is in the book has been said and is public. People have short memories. Then what I did was recreating, dramatization, fictionalization. It does not mean you are telling lies. You use the material, and then invent dialogue and set up scenes based on information gathered during research.
Take an example, when Sonia was at AIIMS and Indira was dying, she was waiting for Rajiv and there were a group of Congressmen waiting. When Rajiv came, he told her he will be PM. She bursts into tears because that was not the vow they had taken. The Congress people there could hear bits of that conversation and told the story to Khushwant Singh. What did I do? I took that material. I went to the AIIMS fifth floor to see what one could from the windows, to get an idea of what one could smell. I saw pictures from that night, what were people wearing. It is my interpretation of the scene. So it is not lies, but it is fictionalized. If you are against that, you are against literature. Sonia is also a public figure, and people have a right to get informed about who she is. That’s a part of democracy.
You think the fact that the book is now out is a victory of democracy?
I think every time a book is not banned, it is a good time for democracy and freedom. It should inspire politicians not to use book banning as a political instrument.
The objections are surprising because many would say the book is way too soft. It is a sympathetic portrayal of the entire family, including Indira – to the extent of rationalizing her mistakes. Would you agree?
Yes - because this is not a history book; because this is a book I wanted to tell from the dramatic point of view. I am not interested in whether Indira was right or wrong when she did something. I am interested in why she took a particular decision, what were the consequences for her, what were the inner conflicts. It is said from her point of view. You can be pro or anti Congress. But read the book as you read a piece of literature. Of course I have been soft. I know emergency was terrible. There are fabulous books on Indira like Pupul Jayakar or Katherine Frank. I was looking for detail, human touches. I was not trying to write a political balance of her years in power.
You think the Gandhi family can bounce back?
Look, Sonia did her duty. As an Indian widow, her duty was carrying out the destiny of the family and passing on the torch. She sacrificed a lot, did what she did not want to, and succeeded at it. But what she could not do is control history. She was passing the torch, but it did not work out this time. But Gandhis have been in similar situations in the past. They have the ability to bounce back. I would not even rule out Rahul. Gandhis have all been late bloomers – Nehru, Indira and even Sanjay who became good later. Why not give the same chance to Rahul? But that is speculation.
Do you anticipate trouble for the book now?
There is nothing defamatory. I have not invented love scenes that did not happen. I didn’t enter into big controversies like Bofors because I thought it would be too boring for the western readers. I wanted the person, the human, and bring out the emotion. There should be no trouble.