Konark Publishers, New Delhi, RS. 595
Indira Gandhi was one of the most charismatic public figures. She was also probably the most enigmatic and intensely private in her personal life. Several books have been written on her, most of which deal with her as a politician and administrator and her politics and policies. But when a hard-bound book “The Unseen Indira Gandhi” (Konark Publishers, Price Rs 595) came my way, my curiosity was immediately aroused because it is written by Dr K P Mathur who was her physician for two decades till her assassination in October, 1984. Surely, Dr Mathur was one of the persons who saw Indira Gandhi from the closest quarters in India and abroad during some of the most tumultuous events including the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
In his just-released 151-page book based on twenty years he spent with Indira Gandhi, Dr Mathur, now 92, introduces the readers to her as a public figure, astute politician and as a doting mother, grandmother and mother-in-law. Dr Mathur's credentials to write a book on Indira Gandhi as a public figure and as a human being gets a ringing endorsement from none other than a key member of the Nehru-Gandhi family Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who says in her two-page Foreword to the book that “for all the years of my grandmother Indira Gandhi's Prime Ministership and the brief interlude from 1977 to 1980, Dr K P Mathur was a part of our household. His place in her household gives him the unique perspective of being an insider while also being able to see things from an objective distance.”
Since the independence of Bangladesh was the most glorious achievement of Indira Gandhi's political career, it was only natural that Dr Mathur provides a full chapter “Bangladesh Faceoff” (six pages) on the Liberation War, bringing out how she was moved into tears by the first-person narration of Pakistani troops' atrocities on Bangladeshi women at refugee camps in West Bengal, Assam and Tripura and how she evolved as a Prime Minister who maintained her composure in the face of one of the biggest crises India went through.
As refugees from Bangladesh poured into camps in India during the Liberation War, Indira Gandhi, the book tells us, “took the situation in hand and made a number of trips to Assam, Tripura and other places where the bulk of these refugees had crossed over for food and shelter.” Indira Gandhi, according to Dr Mathur, could understand Bengali language and “thus she could converse with the refugees and understand their problems. Finding a sympathetic ear, the hapless refugees narrated their tales of woe. With tears in their eyes, the women narrated in detail how they had been molested by the West Pakistani army personnel in 'mufti'(civilian clothes) , hiding their identity.
“After hearing them, at one stage, PM (Indira Gandhi) had tears in her eyes also…PM decided to go the whole hog to assist in their liberation movement by supporting the Mukti Bahini and in other ways,” recounts the book.
Dr Mathur's book reminisces in detail how Indira Gandhi faced the crisis triggered by Pakistan's declaration of the 1971 war on India leading to India's joining the Bangladesh Liberation War and her evolution as a mature leader and statesman just five years after becoming the Prime Minister. For instance, the book says, when West Pakistan attacked India on December 3, 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was informed about it when she was addressing a public meeting in Kolkata where “she started her speech with 'aami Bangla bujhte pari. Bolte pari na', immediately endearing herself to the crowd”. On her flight back to New Delhi on that day, Indira Gandhi “during the flight was cool and composed as ever, her mind was obviously occupied with strategy of the war , the future course of action and also the announcement she was due to make on radio that night,” says the book.
On landing in Delhi, she held a cabinet meeting to decide the future course of action, addressed a special broadcast to the nation. “Completely unruffled by the events, she sat in her office till well past midnight”, says Dr Mathur in the book. A day after the war broke out, Indira Gandhi remained cool and was changing the bedcovers on a 'diwan' when Dr Mathur walked into her house.“I had the occasion to see PM herself changing the bedcovers on the diwan,” Mathur says in his book. “It was the day after the Bangladesh war had started and she had worked late into the night,” says the book. “When I went to see her in the morning, I saw her engaged in the exercise of dusting. Perhaps, it helped her release the tension of the earlier night,” says the book.
The calm and composed Indira Gandhi during the Bangladesh Liberation War and the 1971 India-Pakistan war stood in sharp contrast to the nervous Indira Gandhi soon after she took charge as prime minister in 1966, the book says in the chapter titled “First Steps at the Helm” immediately preceding the chapter “Bangladesh Faceoff”.
“During the first year or two of her becoming PM, she used to be very tense — a bit confused and not sure of herself. She had no advisors and was almost friendless. ” She would also get stomach upsets in the early days of being PM, which I believe was the result of the same nervousness”, according to the book. The two above-mentioned chapters in the book are aptly placed one after the other highlighting how Indira Gandhi evolved as Prime Minister.
The book has a total of 21 chapters focussing on several facets of Indira Gandhi's personal life—her lifestyle, reading habit, food preferences, daily routine as PM, holiday schedules as also some of the most debatable issues like India's first nuclear test n May 1974 and imposition of Emergency when she was in the top post and her relations with foreign leaders including British Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher.
Dr Mathur takes readers on a journey during which Indira Gandhi comes out as “a pleasant, caring and helpful person” who shunned aristocratic lifestyle and was simple in living and eating food, who treated servants in her household well, addressing each one by his or her name. “Nobody was shouted for,” that after Rajiv-Sonia marriage, Indira Gandhi “was very keen that Sonia should get into the social and cultural life of the country” and that she described Sonia as “bahurani” while speaking to others in the house.
Describing Indira Gandhi as an understanding and non-interfering mother-in-law”, Mathur says Indira Gandhi took an immediate liking for Sonia. “PM and Sonia took to each other in no time… Sonia very soon took over the responsibility of running the (Gandhi) household.” One of the most engrossing chapters in Dr Mathur's book is the one that discusses Indira Gandhi's “strained” relations with her Parsi husband Feroze Gandhi. “Feroze Sa'ab was rumoured to have a glad eye and this was always a matter of strain in their relationship,” says the book.
According to the book, Indira Gandhi at times recalled her happy days with Feroze Gandhi, especially her holidays with him in Pahalgam, a picturesque tourist resort in Kashmir, and how once her husband fell off a horse while dismounting. Whenever she narrated such incidents, she would break out laughing… It appeared as if she was talking of an estranged friend in whose company she had enjoyed many moments of genuine happiness,” says the book.
Overall, “The Unseen Indira Gandhi” will be of immense interest to readers who want to know more about her up close and personal through the eyes of her physician.
The reviewer is an occasional contributor to this page.