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Prince of black & white

Vinod Mehta's biography of Sanjay Gandhi presents a balanced picture of a much-reviled figure. The Sanjay Story first published in 1978 and now reissued with a new introduction. Manjula Narayan writes.

books Updated: Dec 24, 2012 12:54 IST
Manjula Narayan

The Sanjay Story
Vinod Mehta
Harper collins
Rs. 499 pp 247

Editor bounds into the room and licks the tip of your nose. It is an effusive greeting and you regret that you can't ask the esteemed personage for a raise, a column or any of those numerous requests that rank and file journalists periodically spring on their unsuspecting seniors.

For one thing, you need to be humane to the photographer cowering behind your sofa - clearly, no dog lover - and for another, you're in the middle of interviewing Vinod Mehta, editorial chairman of the Outlook Group, about The Sanjay Story, his biography of Sanjay Gandhi, first published in 1978 and now reissued with a new introduction.

"I wrote the book in three months," says Mehta as his famous pet ("We actually call him 'Ed'") is led away.

Jaico, the original publishers, wanted the book about the then most reviled man in the country on the market before the public began viewing Mrs Indira Gandhi and her younger son with nostalgic affection. At the time, Mehta was the editor of Debonair magazine.

"I realised that though we carried intelligent pieces along with pictures of girls, no one took me seriously as a journalist," he says as the conversation meanders to Debonair's struggle with Emergency-era censorship.

"The centrespreads weren't very good to begin with and the girls would pose with their hands covering their breasts," he says spreading his palms over his own chest to demonstrate how a strategic gap between the fingers could reveal enough to satisfy all those readers who turned the pages with one sweaty hand.

After Emergency was declared, Mehta had to take the colour transparencies to the censoring officer who would examine each minutely and point out when things were "too much".

"The pictures they liked best were the ones where the girl was naked but was wearing a dupatta so I usually slipped in one of those," says Mehta who, like the best raconteurs, keeps a straight face while relating the funniest stories.

For the book, Mehta travelled across the country, meeting Sanjay's old Doon School masters and friends of the Nehru-Gandhis; everyone but the subject himself.

"I tried to get to Sanjay through Maneka but he said he wanted to see the final thing before it was printed and I couldn't allow that," says Mehta.

The picture that emerges of a socially awkward young man indulged by a mother consumed by guilt for not having provided a conventional domestic environment for her sons makes for fascinating reading.

Indeed, the pages are filled with ancient but still delicious gossip - two brothers drove their car into the shuttered gates of 1, Safdarjung because Sanjay had jilted their sister; Sanjay flung his plate of eggs across the room because Sonia hadn't cooked them the way he liked them... But it also manages to provide a balanced picture of the man who was originally anointed as Indira Gandhi's heir.

His dangerous tendency to see things in black and white, his disdain for people 'with too many degrees' and his compulsive need to be in control are all served up.

There are gripping sections about the long-neglected Feroze Gandhi, the horrors of Turkman Gate and the dreaded 'nasbandi' programme which ultimately led to Mrs Gandhi's downfall.

You wonder aloud about the resurgence of interest in Sanjay Gandhi and the Emergency.

"We thought of re-releasing the book because once again people are talking about how India needs a strong leader, a man of action," says Mehta who believes a similar yearning for order and progress, for a world without greys propels the popularity of Narendra Modi.

Mehta's been talking for an hour now and he's grown weary but you aren't about to leave without pestering him about the excellent MF Husain, all swirling mauves and whites and called Nautanki, on the living room wall.

"It's one of the only investments we have," Mehta mutters as he ushers you out.

Just then, a bark escapes from some interior chamber. You wish you could kiss Editor good bye but quite happily settle for shaking hands with the editor instead.