The 'real' Sonia Gandhi, a young mother of two children, that veteran journalist and columnist Tavleen Singh knew from mingling in Delhi's influential social circles in the mid-70s was a woman partial to expensive shahtoosh shawls and fur coats and one who fervently stated that she would rather see her daughter and son beg on the streets than allow them to join politics.
Singh, who started working for the newspaper 'The Statesman' in the summer of 1975 and was a regular in the city's social circles that remained largely unaffected by the Emergency, offers a unique glimpse of the Gandhi family and especially into the married life of Rajiv and Sonia in her latest book 'Durbar' which she said she began to write soon after Rajiv's death.
"I knew him well from the days when he was not a politician and found myself in a unique position to tell the story of how a prime minister with the largest mandate in Indian history ended up as such a disappointment," Singh writes.
But interestingly, the powerful and controlled image that Sonia has cultivated over years of shouldering the responsibility of the Congress Party, clashes with her impression as a petulant 30-something wife of the young pilot son of one of the nation's most influential prime ministers.
It was a hot evening in June a few days after the Emergency was declared when Singh recalls having first met Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi at a dinner party given by her friend Mapu or Martand Singh, a prince from the state of Kapurthala.
"It must have been a few minutes after Navin (Patnaik) and I had repaired anti-socially to our distant corner that I saw Rajiv and Sonia walk in through the open French windows," Singh recalls.
Rajiv wore a kurta-pyjama and Sonia a lacy white dress that just reached her ankles. Back then she preferred wearing Western outfits - long skirts and dresses. Singh describes Sonia as "small and slim, with a prominent, sulky mouth and thick brown hair that hung loose down to her waist."
Her initial impression of Sonia was not pleasant, though Singh concedes later on in the book that Sonia could go out of her way to help the people she was close to. In Singh's case it was arranging for an interview with Amitabh Bachchan, then a close friend of the Gandhis.
Even then, Sonia guarded her privacy fiercely. Singh says this gave her a "reserve that was forbidding". "I remember just one instance of trying to engage her in conversation at this time at one of Vicky's dinner parties. I asked her if she had ever missed Italy after coming to live in India and her answer was, 'No. Not at all. Sometimes maybe some food... some kinds of bread.' She made it so clear that she was not interested in the conversation going any further that I scuttled off and found someone easier to talk to."
Of her handful of foreign friends, (Indira Gandhi was not very encouraging about her daughter-in-law socialising with foreigners) Sonia seemed most comfortable and relaxed with Ottavio and Maria Quattrocchi who were nearly always invited where Rajiv and she went.
Sonia's parents stayed with them when they came to Delhi, Singh writes.
The complete Indianisation of Sonia Gandhi may have happened over several tragedies that hit her family and her entry into the politics she tried to stay away from for most of her life with Rajiv, but back then in the turbulent 70s and 80s, "she seemed terrified of India in a deep, deep way," said Singh.
"It was summer and there must have been a new outbreak of malaria that the ladies were talking about. I heard Sonia say that when her children were babies she was so worried about them being bitten by mosquitoes that she would put anti-mosquito coils under their cradles. She only stopped when the family doctor told her that they were more in danger from the smoke of the repellent than from mosquitoes," she said.
It seemed that Sonia played no political role after Rajiv's election as prime minister. But she began a process of "weeding out from Rajiv's inner circle people whom she considered unsuitable or those she took a sudden dislike to."
By his second year in power, there were mostly unconfirmed stories about Sonia's shopping sprees. A Kashmiri shawl-seller gossiped that she was buying shahtoosh shawls in large quantities. A diplomatic source in Moscow said Sonia bought an expensive sable coat.
"Sonia's taste in fur coats was so refined that she was not satisfied with Soviet tailoring and had the coat sent to Rome to be redesigned by Italian fashion house Fendi. These were the stories that are never possible to confirm, but gossip rarely needs confirmation to be believed," Singh said.
Singh explains the fascination of her small social set with the Italian wife of Rajiv Gandhi. "We were deeply impressed by all things foreign not just because we had been ruled by White men for so long but because secretly we believed that Western culture and civilization was superior to ours. It may sound like a funny thing to say, but Sonia's foreignness made it easier for her to be accepted in Rajiv's circle of friends."
Singh argues that had Rajiv married an Indian woman of her background, she would have been "permanently held in contempt by the broken-down aristocrats and aspiring grandees who were Rajiv's closest friends."
Soon after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress party's working committee had met and a decision had been taken to make Sonia the party president.
"But she is a foreigner! She doesn't even speak Hindi. Shje never reads the newspapers. It's a crazy idea," Singh is said to have told a colleague.
When Singh asked her if she would like her children to be in politics some day, Sonia had apparently responded "I would rather my children begged in the streets than went into politics."
Book: Durbar; Author: Tavleen Singh; Published by: Hachette Book Publishing Pvt Ltd; Non-Fiction, Binding: Hardback; Language: English; Price: Rs 599
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