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Only half our story

We hardly know anything about the wives of several of our great leaders. This is in keeping with our mentality that regards wives as ornamental appendages. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

columns Updated: Jan 26, 2013, 02:45 IST

Republic day is the President's Day.

The nation celebrates him, celebrates it with him.

A flurry of activity overwhelms Rashtrapati Bhavan, particularly the First Lady. As one on the President's staff, I have seen Janaki Venkataraman and Usha Narayanan interiorise the tensions of that national celebration which has its focus in their house, and maintain the composure required of their role through all the comings and goings, split-second departure and arrival timings, the evening reception arrangements and the one for the banquet in honour of the visiting dignitary from abroad. Since the presidents themselves are pre-occupied, First Ladies are besieged by childish importunings from relatives, friends and acquaintances for passes for the parade and cards for the At Home. Tact of the highest order is called for, and all this with gnawing anxieties about things, like security, that can go wrong.

Just as no two presidents are alike, no two First Ladies can be similar either and Shubhra Mukherjee will find her own way of addressing her first Republic Day as First Lady. Those who know her, speak of her deep piety and, despite several tribulations like the denial of good health, an acceptance of all that which the Almighty has chosen for her.

Quiet support from their wives has been the great and wholly unacknowledged privilege of our heads of State. But not all of them had the fortune of living in the palace with their wives beside them.

The first Indian to occupy the palace atop Raisina Hill, C Rajagopalachari, was a widower. His wife Alarmel Manga had died when he was a 36-year-young lawyer in Salem. In his biography of the only Indian Governor General of India, Rajmohan Gandhi describes a day in February 1915 thus: '… he fell seriously ill… On the 14th his condition was judged critical… Manga herself had high fever that night. Yet determined to pray befittingly for her husband's life, she … supplicated Lord Venkateshwara. If her husband recovered, she would offer… (her) jewels to the Tirupati shrine… That night CR slept surprisingly well… Manga's petition seemed granted… However Manga herself… was declining… Nights without sleep were now frequent for CR… On the afternoon of August 22… she said '… I am such a burden… There must be a limit to the endurance of the greatest love'… 'Manga' he cried. 'Manga'. There was no response. Over three decades later, on shifting to the palace, one of the first 'home' things CR did was to place a picture of Manga on his bedroom wall.

The second Indian and the first president to live in Rashtrapati Bhavan had the most appropriate name for a Rashtrapati - Rajendra, meaning King of Rajas, or The Head of the Kingdom. But his wife had an even more fortuitously apposite name - Rajbansi, meaning 'of the family of Rajas'. The word 'diminutive' may be said to have been coined for Rajbansi Devi. Four feet nothing, she moved from room to stately room with the same carefree gait with which she might have wandered in a mango grove in Bihar. Rajbansi Devi had a modest wardrobe of khadi saris, but they were simply exquisite. She could spin khadi to perfection. And though she chose not to appear at State banquets, nor accompany the President on his (rare) visits abroad, she would go with him, invariably, to Rajghat on the two annual commemorations, sit beside him and ply the charkha there for a long hour. She had a mind of her own and on the second and third floors of the presidential residence there was no doubt as to who was in total, audible and visible charge. Rajbansi Devi, unknown outside the Hill and un-recalled outside of her family, was India's first First Lady for 12 long years.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, our second President, should ideally have moved into the House with his wife Sivakamu by his side. They had been married 53 years and she had travelled with him to set up home in places as diverse as Madras, Waltair, Oxford, Moscow and New Delhi. When, in 1956, while he was vice-president, she passed away in their home in Madras. Their son, the historian S Gopal writes in his remarkably candid biography of Radhakrishnan: "He recognised that she was the foundation of his life…and a happy marriage , as he saw it, did not require the husband's monogamous attitude. ...She was a devoted wife by any standards; he was a devoted husband according to his lights…" The vice-president, who was in Delhi on the day, rushed back to Madras. Gopal: "To those present it was clear he had been devastated by grief, even at one time sobbing like a child…Doubtless he lived through again in his mind the years when she had supported him and recollected his need for her love at later times even though he had not rejected self-indulgence elsewhere." Sivakamu Radhakrishnan, as First Lady, would have been a golden buttress to that flagstaff of India's collective consciousness.

Our First Ladies have been taken for granted by the conventions of chronicling. This is in keeping with our mentality that regards wives, especially wives of active and prominent men, as ornamental appendages. Records of the presidencies of the US, for instance, show how deeply impactful were the personalities of the First Ladies on the respective presidents and their presidencies. Why is this not the case with us? Have our First Ladies been any less schooled in life and its trials, any less aware of the pulsations of our land, of the strengths and weaknesses of their husbands? Certainly not. It is just that our minds open the door wide to the man, doormat the woman. This is not a loss to the women concerned as much as it is to ourselves and to our understanding of our history.

Kasturba Gandhi and Kamala Nehru have managed, almost miraculously, to obtain some attention, but we do not even know the names of the wives of several of our great leaders - Maulana Azad's wife, the extraordinary Zuleikha Begum, who died when he was in the Ahmednagar Fort Prison, Sardar Patel's wife Jhaverba, who seems to have been obliterated from all accounts, even his own, or the two women Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan was married to. We know not nearly enough about the wives of Lokamanya Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, or of Ramabai, Dr BR Ambedkar's first wife, to whom he was married for nearly 30 formative and troubled years until her death.

Prabhavati, wife of the Loknayak, Jayaprakash Narayan, is an exception. She has a place of her own in our political history and many believe JP's response to the Emergency would have been less strident had Prabhavati been alive at the time. Whether that would have been good for India or not is of course another matter.

Unseeing eyes and un-recognising minds notice but half our story. And not necessarily the more worthy half.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal

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