Gursharan Kaur released Songs of the Gurus (Penguin/Ravi Dayal) by Arpana Caur and me at Delhi’s Le Meridien. It was the third book to be launched by Gursharan that week. As expected, there was a large turnout, not because of the book but to have her darshan and hear her speak.
She spoke very well. The audience had a hearty laugh when she said something about my boorish manner. She had come to visit me and apparently after 15 minutes or so, I told her, “Gursharan, now you go — toon hun ja.” I said so because I felt a prime minister’s wife had more important things to do than to waste time making polite conversation with an old man.
I returned home happily exhausted and served myself a hefty Patiala to re-charge my battery. I began to muse over the work of wives of men in positions of power. In Western democracies they play positive roles. Besides looking after their homes and children, they receive visiting heads of States, sit beside them at State banquets and join their husbands at social functions.
Not so in India. I went over the names of past presidents. Not one of their wives — with the marginal exception of Begum Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed — played any role in events at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. It was the same in the cases of our prime ministers.
Nehru was a widower. Shastri’s wife remained unknown during his brief tenure. Indira Gandhi’s husband was living apart when she was PM. Sonia remained largely homebound during her husband’s time as prime minister. No one heard of the wives of Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda, V.P. Singh or Narasimha Rao. And Vajpayee was a bachelor. Inder Gujral’s wife was a minor exception — a poet in her own right and evidently not an enthusiastic participant in her husband’s official activities.
Gursharan Kaur is the first woman who has performed the duties expected of the wife of the prime minister of India.
I don’t know much of her background and the Internet data on her is very scanty. She was born in Jalandhar in 1937. Her father worked for Burmah Shell. At the time of Partition, he was posted in Lahore where she had her primary schooling. They migrated to the Indian Punjab. She joined Guru Nanak Kanya Pathshala and went on to do her degree from the Government College for Women in Patiala.
Then she moved to Amritsar and got a BT from the Khalsa College, evidently intending to be a school teacher. She married Manmohan Singh in 1958. It was an arranged affair. Both are Kohlis, one of the sub-castes of the Kukrains, comprising of Anands, Chadhas, Sahnis and some others. They prefer marrying within the biradari. It was a happy union, which produced three very bright daughters who earned distinctions on their own.
Gursharan is devoutly religious and has a melodious voice. She sang keertan and songs for All India Radio several times before she accompanied her husband who took up a job in the World Bank in the US. It was in America and later in Bombay when her husband was Governor of the Reserve Bank of India that she imbibed a Western sophistication.
She was not so much in demand as the wife of the finance minister as she is now as the wife of the prime minister. She acquits herself with great poise and dignity. Perhaps wives of all our future presidents and prime ministers should do a course in a school that teaches the proper deportment for ladies in positions of importance.
Let this man go
If you can’t remember who he is, let me jog your memory — and your conscience. He is the product of the Christian Medical College, Vellore where he was given the Paul Harrison Award in 2004 for being the most outstanding student. He could have set up a lucrative practice in any city.
However, he chose to train villagers in rural centres in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh, largely inhabited by tribals suffering from malnutrition, malaria and tuberculosis. He and his wife Iliana have been doing so for the last 30 years based in village Rasulia. He is the first Asian to be honoured by the Jonathan Mann Award in 2008 for his work in health and human rights.
He did not care to distinguish between ailing villagers on the basis of their political allegiances: Naxalites or Salwa Judum. If they were sick they had to be healed.
His clinic is named after Indira Gandhi. He was arrested on charges of treason for siding with the Naxalites. He has been in jail for 18 months. His bail application has been rejected. More than 20 Nobel Prize winners have appealed to our president to intervene on his behalf.
Dr Binayak Sen continues to languish in jail. It is a slap on the face of Bharat Mata. Raise your voice against the miscarriage of justice: Write to the president, prime minister, home minister, L.K. Advani or Rajnath Singh (Chattisgarh is ruled by the BJP) to release him and allow him to resume his noble mission in life.
The digit ‘4’ appears to be significant in US president-elect Barack Obama’s life. He was born on August 4, 1961. H was elected president on November 4. He will be the 44th president of the US.
(Contributed by KJS Ahluwalia, Amritsar)