Indira’s family did not in any way shield her from their political activities. She was initiated early into rebellion, her grandfather giving her a charkha when she was five years old. She was grabbed by their tiny hands and, rather like a family of expert swimmers might do with their youngest member, thrown into the deep end and expected to master the family vocation.

Another important factor shaped the personality of a strong-willed and rebellious Indira. She bore the Nehru name, but she would stand up to those Nehrus who humiliated her beloved mother, Kamala Nehru, née Kaul. She was ferociously protective of the delicate Kamala, and whenever she saw her mother insulted or neglected by her in-laws, she would take up the cudgels on her behalf and stand guard against her father’s family. The Indian prime minister who stood for national self-reliance in the face of powerful warring blocs later in life learnt early the virtues and power of defiance.

Kamala came into a smart, English-speaking, westernized household, herself raised in a traditional Kashmiri family from Old Delhi, not fluent in English, speaking only Hindi, unfamiliar with English-style fine dining or the use of cutlery. She was often insulted and ignored for not being sophisticated, or witty and socially adept. Vijayalakshmi and Swarup Rani, both possessively adoring of Jawaharlal, were not kind to Kamala; instead they were openly condescending and rude. Once when plans were being made to watch an English movie, the family did not invite Kamala, commenting loudly that she would not be able to understand English. A frail, young, introverted yet proud and obstinate Kamala was pushed into bewildered misery, left alone to face the insults as her husband remained preoccupied in the Gandhian movement, and her sister-in-law and mother-in-law competed with her for his limited time and attention.

Vijayalakshmi had always shared a special bond with her brother. They went riding together, read poetry to each other, and for Vijayalakshmi, Kamala was an interloper, an unwanted, unsophisticated outsider who had taken her place at her brother’s side. Pupal Jayakar, who had been Indira’s friend since they were both girls in Allahabad, writes,’Both Kamala and Indira felt cruelly excluded by the brilliance and good looks that set her father and Vijayalakshmi apart in the admiring glances of people… she [Indira] had been driven into herself by feelings of inferiority, feelings which remained with her all her life.’

‘It seems fantastically wrong now that just eight months after his wedding Bhai should insist that [he and I ride in the same car],’ Vijayalakshmi would write later, ‘Perhaps Bhabi had a valid point disliking me – not for anything I had done but for the obvious oneness that existed between Bhai and me.’

‘Puphi,’ Vijayalakshmi, was thus a source of early heartache. Not only did she make her possessive love for her brother and scorn for her brother’s wife plain but her destructive and hurtful words changed Indira forever. When Indira was fourteen she overheard her aunt calling her ‘ugly and stupid’, a cruel assessment which changed a boisterous and naughty child into an introverted and wary adolescent and tormented her youth. ‘The remark shattered something within me,’ Indira was to later say, and even a fortnight before her death the remark remained fresh in her memory. She never forgot those words, never forgave her aunt and bided her time for revenge. Indira and Vijayalakshmi continued to ‘rub each other the wrong way’, Nehru noted later. After Indira’s assassination Vijayalakshmi rather disingenuously told Stanley Wolpert: ‘I don’t understand why she hated me so. I always loved her and treated her as my own daughter.’

Indira’s hatred never did abate. In 1970 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to give Anand Bhawan to the Jawaharlal Nehru Trust (a trust formed after Nehru’s death), Indira denied her aunt permission to stay at the ancestral home one last time. She also did not invite her aunt to her younger son Sanjay Gandhi’s wedding in 1974. Take that, Puphi!

Vindictiveness and ruthlessness were traits Indira Gandhi often displayed, born in many ways from a constant sense of victimhood and persecution. Rather than rise to a higher level of empathy or generosity as her father did, she often responded out of vengeance. Her fierce temper simmered underneath, she bore grudges and never really forgot or forgave.

In the female universe at Anand Bhawan rife with hostility and resentment, while Kamala grieved and fell ill, Indira learned to survive and fight. While Kamala’s emotional anguish began to take a toll on her health, Indira learned how to score over intimate enemies at home, taking the blows of family jealousies on the chin. She was often angry at her father for neglecting her mother. ‘Do you know what happens at home when you are absent?’ she would write angrily to Jawaharlal. ‘Do you know that when Mummie was in a very bad condition the house was full of people, but not even one of the went to see her or sit a while with her and when she was in agony there was no one to help her… there is some danger in Mummie being left to herself.’ She never quite forgave Jawaharlal for his treatment of Kamala; the grudge she bore would surface as rebellion against her father when it came to her own decision to marry.

She became determined to avoid the same fate as her mother. ‘I saw her being hurt, and I was determined not to be hurt,’ she said later. ‘I loved her deeply and when I thought she was being wronged, I fought for her and quarrelled with people.’ My mother had a special role in my life,’ she said, ‘she had a very strong character and made a very deep impression.’

In her later years it was Kamala Nehru’s portrait that hung next to Indira Gandhi’s bed, not Jawaharlal’s. On one side was her mother, perpetually frail and ill, and on her father’s side, the family radiated energy and purpose. The difference between the ‘two sides’ became etched in her mind. In fact, while a great deal has been written about Indira’s relationship with her father, her relationship with her mother is a trifle less explored. Yet at several points in her life, particularly in moments of weakness, Indira invoked the frailty and vulnerability she saw in her mother, the constantly pure but obstinate victim of evil opponents. In times of strength she was a commanding Nehru, but in times of crisis she was Kamala, relying on spiritual guides, reverting to her mother’s model of the solitary, suffering, defenceless woman (who was to later become a staunch feminist and freedom fighter), trying to survive against a range of enemies.

The words used to describe Indira when she was growing up were ‘docile’ and ‘good’ but few noticed her fiery spirit. Her aunt Krishna Hutheesing claimed Indira once told her, clutching a pillar with one hand, raising the other, with ‘her dark eyes burning’, ‘I’m practicing being Joan of Arc, some day I’m going to lead my people to freedom.’ She would tell Dom Moraes, ‘I have always been quiet and when I was younger people thought there was no fire in me. But this fire has always been there, only nobody saw it except when it flared.’

She may have appeared ‘pale, thin and listless’ but she was determined to be a Nehru in all her glory one day. ‘My favourite game was to collect as many servants as I could, stand on a table and deliver a speech, repeating disjointed phrases I heard from grown up talk.’ Dressed in the boys’ Congress uniform of khadi kurta-pyjama and Gandhi cap, she was an androgynous young fighter for the cause. ‘My shorts have been made… for running and gymnastics. From your loving Indu-boy,’ she would write to her father at the age of thirteen, the ‘boy’ was no less than a girl, who sprinted, climbed trees and did gymnastics to reassure her father of her fitness for the role he wanted her to play.

Her early identity was more boy than girl, she was Jawaharlal’s first child, whose sex was irrelevant, a subtle overture that the exceptionality of her birth and family made her more male than female, a beyond-gender exceptionality that would stay with her all her life. She was not the girl Indira, she was the girl-boy, Indu-boy. She often said she had never thought of herself as a girl or a woman and her identity remained by lineage, parentage and later by power rather than by gender.

This is an excerpt from Sagarika Ghose‘s book Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister. Read the full book here.



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