Why would you write a biography about one of the world’s most famous women unless you had something new to say about her? When the historian Stacy Schiff created her bestselling book about the life of Cleopatra out of slivers of historical evidence and conjecture, she claimed it was to “restore context” to a near-myth. Journalist Sagarika Ghose, who says her new book is a “journalistic interrogation” of her subject, also claims she’s attempting to “locate Indira Gandhi in today’s context.”
But Cleopatra lived 2,000 years ago in a city that barely exists anymore. In contrast, Indians talk so incessantly about Mrs G that an outsider might be forgiven for thinking that we are all like the proverbial desert-dwelling voter who still goes the polls to cast his ballot for “Indira Amma.”
There is already a library’s worth of literature about Indira Gandhi’s life. Almost all those books are judgements of one sort or another: on her person, her politics, her history and her legacy. Almost all reveal as much about their writers and the times in which they were written, as they do about the woman Ghose calls “India’s most powerful prime minister.”
Much the same is true for this book. In the absence of new material (most of Gandhi’s papers remain sealed) or fresh perspectives, Indira is chiefly about its author. Ghose’s style will raise many eyebrows: each chapter begins with letters addressed to Mrs Gandhi, full of questions about the topic at hand. It’s hard to say what this is meant to achieve. To a reader unfamiliar with the material, these letters offer no serious explanations, no real interpretations for the history that follows. As for the reader who may know their subject - well, perhaps Ghose is braced for the giggles that will follow lines such as: “Dear Mrs Gandhi, was the Bangladesh war for you a settling of scores with history?” and “Dear Mrs Gandhi, was there no alternative to declaring the Emergency?”
It’s easy to draw a connection from these epistles to the Gandhi papers most famously available to the public - the fascinating corpus of letters between Indira and her father Jawaharlal Nehru. Big chunks of the historical record on Gandhi are preserved in the works of people who knew her intimately. These range from friends who cherished her, such as Pupul Jayakar, to associates whose true connection with her no serious historian is willing to sign off on (such as MO Mathai, the bureaucrat to whom a notorious piece of writing about Mrs G’s sex life is widely attributed).
To tidy up the life of Gandhi into strings of high-low anecdotes and expect your readers to ponder their implications with a series of big rhetorical questions isn’t even editorial analysis. It’s a last-minute idea for a Sunday magazine column.
It’s understandable that Ghose takes the familiar tone herself. She is, she tells us, a child of the seventies, and therefore of Indira’s India. Perhaps this is even meant to imply a sort of mother-daughter relationship between subject and biographer. More than once, Ghose breezily requires us to accept that Gandhi believed herself a mother to all of India, trying to “gather an entire country under the pallu of her khadi sari in an act of confident matriarchy.”
Dear Ms Ghose, that isn’t just cringe-inducing because of the purple-ness of the prose. It’s also because a dead woman cannot answer any of your questions. That is what biographers are for. To tidy up the life of Gandhi into strings of high-low anecdotes (you give us the gloss on Keshavananda Bharati one minute, uncritically quote an estranged daughter-in-law the next) and expect your readers to ponder their implications with a series of big rhetorical questions isn’t even editorial analysis. It’s a last-minute idea for a Sunday magazine column.
Indira is, apart from the letters, an easy book to read about material that still bewilders many. Ghose may be at her best when summarising the extraordinary crises to befall Indian politics in the 1970s. Readers encountering this history for the first time will find a breezy, readable explanation of many events leading up to and following the Emergency. A chapter on “The Woman” at the end also produces a handy bouquet of all the things that made Mrs G a girl - the hairstyle, the hand creams, her love of Doctor Zhivago and her (frankly terrific) taste in clothes and furniture. Another writer might perhaps have delivered the essay we long to read about the Indira aesthetic and its indelible influence on Indian private life, but let us refrain from criticising Ghose’s book for all the things it isn’t.
Indeed, we did not depart from Indira wishing it had interpreted Gandhi’s career as a referendum on the capacities of the Indian state or the fragilities of Indian democracy - much serious scholarship on these abstract if very important ideas is already under way. Old-fashioned personal histories are valuable too, especially in what they can do to broaden the public conversation. It’s just too bad that Ghose’s curiosity about the real Indira often seems like it would barely stand scrutiny in a 9 pm talk show. “Dear Mrs Gandhi,” she asks, “the one question which every Indian citizen would like to ask you is, why did you impose the Emergency?” She must be betting that in a country that seems to love its authoritarian prime ministers, few of her readers will really want to know.
Getting there: Buy Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister here.
Image credit: Juggernaut.in
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