A funereal gathering. Row upon row of mourning white and vacant stares. And in the middle of it all, a child’s face. The rosebud mouth half-open in confusion, tiny fists clenched, and his little body sandwiched between the towering figures of his mother and grandmother.
This image of the one-year-old Feroze Varun Gandhi, on the first death anniversary of his father Sanjay Gandhi was burnt in the memory of a nation. It was to India what the sight of the three-year-old ‘John-John’ saluting the assassinated JFK was to America — a significant punctuation in a complex political script.
That was 1981.
Since then, Varun’s public appearances have been few and sporadic. Of the few, even fewer come to mind: The launch of his volume of poems in 2000, campaigning for his mother in Pilibhit in 2004. And, of course, ‘the speech’.
When he was about eight years old, Varun was sent to a boarding school in ‘Maps’ or Madanapalle in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh. Rishi Valley School (RV) had been founded by philosopher and educationist Jiddu Krishnamurti, and it is perhaps more than a coincidence that the spiritual leader was once closely associated with Pupul Jayakar, and through her with Indira Gandhi.
Quasar Thakore-Padamsee (son of Alyque Padamsee and Dolly Thakore), an alumnus of Rishi Valley, and Varun’s senior, remembers how one of 20 boys in the dormitory, Varun “was not into sports, would keep to himself mostly and felt homesick a lot. I remember seeing armed jawans on campus before he pulled out of the school.”
Varun’s classmate Vijay [name changed] remembers some other details. He says, “I always got the impression that he was a pretty spoilt child and was certainly aware that he was better off than most of his classmates.” Vijay also lets in that Varun did not have the regulation nickname unlike “most of us”.
As a day scholar at the British School, Delhi, no longer plagued by homesickness, Varun was more sociable. Some say that he even ran for a position in the student’s council. But that apart, old timers admit that the otherwise “bright boy” was known to be disrespectful. He was also known to be troubled by the soured relation between the two branches of his famous family.
Varun chose to study law at the London School of Economics (LSE). It was around this time that he started writing poetry, and the collection The Otherness of Self was published in 2000 while he was still at LSE. Varun writes, “I am an ocean/I am the man in the box.” In another poem he writes, “I will be a man any minute now.” And then again, “Were I young again I would send my boy/the son that was myself/ into the shining starburst…”
Apart from the man-boy dilemma, there are constant references to loneliness. He calls it “a shattering thing” and talks about the “effluvia of isolation”.
There is also a preoccupation with the self. (The pronoun ‘I’ appears 111 times in 96 pages, not counting the poems co-authored by Rohan Thomas.) Even if that can be explained as a poetic ‘trope’, anecdotes do point to his self-centredness.
A story goes that a senior Congress leader once arranged a meeting of another senior Congress leader with Varun after the latter had a fall-out with the Congress. Midway through the conversation, the teenager told the 50-plus politician, “Aapne humein ‘tum’ kar ke bola, humein achcha nahin laga.” (You called me ‘tum’ [as opposed to the more honorific ‘aap’], I didn’t like that.)
Journalist, filmmaker and long-time family friend Pritish Nandy says, “Feroze has always been interested in politics and writing, and has prepared himself to strengthen his skills before diving into it. As a young boy, he was clever and insightful, besides being very much aware of his legacy and deeply influenced by his mother.”
By 1999, he was campaigning for his mother. By 2004, he was raring to go it alone, a desire reined in by the small matter that he would not be able to contest until he was 25.
Today the buzz from Pilibhit is that Varun has sidelined many of his mother’s party old hands, pumped in young blood, studied his constituencies backwards. Others say that he has keeps in touch with party workers, strategises with many and confides in no one.
And then of course there is ‘the speech’. Was it a pose or his philosophy? Who is the real Varun? As Nandy put it, “Election rhetoric has nothing to do with convictions. You can’t be a politician if you are a wimp, unless you are privileged.”