November 19, 2021.
As I sit down to write this column, my mind keeps circling back to the date, Indira Gandhi’s birthday.
It was sometime in early 2016 that my long-time publisher and friend Karthika asked me if I would be interested in writing a graphic biography of Indira Gandhi, along with the artist Priya Kuriyan. Her birth centenary was coming up; and with Hilary Clinton entering the race for presidency in the US, there were renewed conversations around women in power.
I knew little of worth about Indira Gandhi at that point—only the headline-events of her life—and even less about graphic novels. But something stirred within. I began to read the 2007-biography written by Katherine Frank, and one-quarter into the voluminous book, I knew I was going to do this.
I spent the next few years obsessed with my quarry.
This piece however is NOT about that obsession, or about the biographical or political details of Mrs Gandhi’s life—although I spent a great deal of time researching those. Neither is this piece about her mistakes or her accomplishments (or about Kangana Ranaut bringing her up in an unimaginably vile fashion). It is not about political history or current affairs. Instead, it is about a few little things—marginalia—that I’d gathered in my meanderings around her life.
It seems apposite, since our subject favoured marginalia herself: she would often doodle while taking notes—international leaders were told of this advance—and the results remain on record. Sometimes it was a swaddled baby, sometimes a girl’s profile, on occasion, elaborate patterns. Once or twice, a bird.Her funny comments around the rough draft of a comic on her life —where the artist had not quite captured her likeness—gave Kuriyan sleepless nights.
When Mrs Gandhi became Prime Minister in 1966, the world was in the throes of what later came to be called the second wave of feminism. Betty Friedan, acclaimed feminist and author of The Feminine Mystique, flew down to India to see for herself how the very first woman to have any real political power in the world would wield it. For several months, Friedan lived in India, interviewing various people—who had very different views on the new Prime Minister—and travelling with her across the country. She wrote about this in a wonderful essay ‘Madam Prime Minister’ published in the popular American magazine Ladies Home Journal. (It has subsequently been included in It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women’s Movement.)
One of the most charming anecdotes recounted in it is how, after all the geopolitics and world affairs and revolutions had been discussed, the two women became friends, sort of, and Mrs Gandhi confessed that she quite admired Friedan’s fashionable reversible cape, black on one side and camel on the other. Before Freidan left, Mrs G’s personal secretary borrowed the cape for a day, to see if the darzee might be able to come up with something similar.
Quite charmed by this episode, back in NYC Friedan shared the anecdote with the avant-garde designer Rudi Gernreich, and it turned out he had one last piece left in the right size. Unable to resist the thought of a world leader wearing his cape, Gernreich sent it for Mrs Gandhi via Freidan. The fitting end to this story came a few months later, when Mrs Gandhi went to Washington to meet President Lyndon B Johnson. “She got off the helicopter wearing our cape,” Friedan writes, “and as she… saw me wearing mine, she gave me a big, broad wink.”
Sometime before the pandemic, I was at a literary festival, on an all-women panel, ostensibly to talk about my new novel. But somehow, I ended up talking about Mrs G. More of my notes gathered in marginalia, little stories that I couldn’t include in our book, but that beaded and bubbled in me more than all the important political stuff. After the session, a gentleman introduced himself to me, and then—rather generously—shared yet another story that has since remained in my head.
This was Mr Amit Dahiyabadshah, a poet, and he told me he had once been married to a distant relative of Mrs Gandhi. She had not been able to attend the wedding, but the newlyweds were invited to tea afterwards. The young bridegroom had been severely coached by his mother-in-law to keep his bohemian tendencies to himself. Do not dip the biscuit in the tea, was one instruction that had been drummed in. As it would happen, tea was served, polite conversation ensued, and, in the moment, somewhat nervous, the young man ended up dipping his biscuit in the tea as was his wont. Mid-dunk he remembered the instruction and froze, and his mother-in-law glared at what she imagined was a major faux pas.
Without missing a beat, Mrs Gandhi picked up a biscuit and dipped it in her cup of tea. Afterwards, they’d discussed the finer points of effective dunking: how long do you hold it in without the biscuit disintegrating. So on and so forth. The grace of that moment travelled in reverse through several decades to reach me that evening at the India Habitat Centre, under a tree, where the poet and I shared a cup of tea.
Belated happy birthday, Mrs G.
Author and teacher; her latest book is Friends from College