It's a brave biographer who will take on the subject of Indira Gandhi's sex life. The world, though, could have had a glimpse of it had M.O. Mathai, Jawaharlal Nehru's special assistant, not withdrawn the chapter titled 'She' from his autobiography My Days With Nehru. In it Mathai apparently claimed he had had an affair with Indira Gandhi for 12 long years.
Indira Gandhi's new biographer Katherine Frank (Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi; HarperCollins is to be released in India next month and has already received rave reviews in Britain) believes she and Mathai were probably lovers. Frank, who seems to have read 'She', says it would have been unprintable anyway.
The new biography is indeed a remarkable story of the woman in Indira, controversially focusing on her intimate side—from her first love, a German teacher at Shantiniketan, to her long pre-marital relationship with Feroze Gandhi and then Mathai, Dinesh Singh and Dhirendra Brahmachari.
Frank dwells at some length on the rumours of Indira Gandhi's affairs with "none other than her father's squat and moon-faced secretary, M.O. Mathai." She writes: "Admittedly it was Mathai himself who was the primary source of these rumours. He boasted openly of his liaison with Nehru's daughter, both at the time and for many years after."
Frank, however, says there was "definitely a certain attraction" between them, quoting Nehru's biographer Sarvepalli Gopal to say that "Indira Gandhi encouraged him beyond normal limits." She also says that 'She', which Mathai withdrew, surfaced in the Eighties, five years after Mathai's death, "when Indira's estranged daughter-in-law Maneka Gandhi circulated it among a small group of Indira's enemies".
Frank writes: "The 'She' chapter contains such explicit material that even if Mathai had not suppressed it, it is doubtful whether his publishers would have taken the risk and proceeded to publish it. Mathai describes Indira as 'highly sexed' and includes among other salacious details the claim that she became pregnant by him and had an abortion." A disillusioned Mathai had a strong motive to lie but Frank says that people who knew them well, "including B.K. Nehru, who is a reliable source and no enemy of his cousin (Indira), feel that the 'She' chapter contains more fact than fiction".
So open was their relationship that in 'She' Mathai claims to have been afraid that Indira's careless behaviour would alert her father. But "Delhi buzzed with rumours" about their relationship. In Parliament, Feroze Gandhi was teased that Mathai was Nehru's real son-in-law. "Indira, significantly, did nothing to quell the rumours of the alleged liaison," writes Frank.
Subsequently, Indira Gandhi wrote to Dorothy Norman, her lifelong confidante, that she had taken to yoga taught "by an exceedingly good-looking yogi"—Dhirendra Brahmachari. She wrote that "it was his looks, especially his magnificent body, which attracted everyone to his system." Dhirendra was probably no brahmachari: a raid on his ashram in Kashmir after the Emergency yielded, among other things, a vibrator! If she had a lover as prime minister it would have to be him. "Brahmachari was the only man to see Indira alone in her room while giving her yoga instruction, and he was the only male with whom she could have had a relationship during this period."
To her men Indira was quite a catch—and perhaps that's why they encouraged rumours about their relationships with her.Congressman Dinesh Singh had this tendency as much as Mathai. "Indira relied on Singh and conferred with him at all hours. Inevitably, there were rumours that he was her lover, rumours which Singh himself encouraged."
Frank suggests that Indira was provoked into extra-marital relationships due to the constant infidelity of Feroze Gandhi. Well into the marriage, Feroze "openly flaunted his affairs with other women, including the MPs Tarakeshwari Sinha known as 'the glamour girl of Indian Parliament', Mahmuna Sultana and Subhadra Joshi". His other girlfriends included "a beautiful Nepalese woman who worked for All India Radio and a divorcee from a high-caste Kerala family".
FRANK details the troubled relationship between Feroze and Indira. He proposed to her a month before her 16th birthday and was rebuffed because both Indira and mother Kamala said she was too young. Feroze seemed an unlikely match for Indira and an even more unlikely son-in-law to Nehru. He was "loud and passionate with a great appetite for life, including food, drink and sex".
Frank says rumours of an affair between Kamala and Feroze were also then the talk of the town. "Posters in fact had been put up in Allahabad proclaiming an improper relationship and the instigators of this smear campaign, which enraged Nehru who was in jail at the time, were not British sympathisers but members of the Congress party," Frank notes in her book.
And Frank doesn't put these rumours to rest either. Kamala strongly opposed a marriage between Indira and Feroze saying Indira would be making "the mistake of her life". So did Nehru. The biographer asks why and then offers an answer: "...Even if he (Nehru) had dismissed the idea that Kamala and Feroze had had an affair, it may have occurred to him that Feroze had behaved inappropriately towards Kamala."
But marry they did and through the troubled years found happiness often. But never more than before the marriage. The two were secretly engaged for four years and lived as man and wife long before they married. Living through the German bombing of London brought them closer.
But Feroze wasn't the first man Indira fell in love with. She was attracted to Frank Oberdof, a German who taught her French at Shantiniketan. "Oberdof declared his love for Indira and he probably loved her for herself, not for her family," Frank writes. Soon she was asked by her family to leave Shantiniketan, but "she did not want to leave the Abode of Peace, or possibly Frank Oberdof, or both," observes Frank. Then Tagore spoke to her and sent her off to Europe. Indira left reluctantly. Oberdof still "hovered in the wings" and later caught up with her in London, but Indira declined his invitation to join him in Germany for Christmas.
The biography is, however, more than the sexual diary of the Indira family. It portrays Indira as a far more sympathetic figure than the dictatorial leader she is often held out to be. Frank makes Sanjay, not Indira, the villain of the Emergency.
For Sanjay the emergency was "Open Sesame to power and money". Frank says he arranged for an underworld man, Sunderlal, to be murdered. Sanjay and Maneka then asked a Delhi official, Navin Chawla, to take anticipatory bail for his own arrest in that case—in short, to take the rap. "Understandably, Chawla refused," Frank writes. Sanjay also had another man murdered with whose girlfriend he had an affair. He did as he liked; it was the "emotional grip on his mother that was the source of his power".This makes the biography both poignant and controversial.