February 14, 2020
Home  »  Magazine  »  Books  » Cover Stories  » Extracts  » Cover Story »  Icon Curry

Icon Curry

After six years of legal wrangling with Maneka Gandhi over his infringement of her right to privacy (the case has now moved from the Delhi high court to the Supreme Court), Singh's Truth, Love & A Little Malice finally triumphs: an exclusive

Icon Curry
Khuswant Singh : candid memoirist
Icon Curry
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
Truth, Love & A Little Malice
By Khushwant Singh
Viking Penguin And Ravi Dayal

Jawaharlal Nehru
"Lady Mountbatten was his favourite hobby"
Then there was Pandit Nehru's first visit to England as Prime Minister to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference. We had decided to bring out a weekly tabloid, India News, to mark the occasion. Jamal Kidwai and I had been to the press many times to finalise the layout, select typefaces and provide the news we were to carry in our first issue. The front page was to be devoted entirely to Panditji's visit and the importance of the Commonwealth Conference. We sent material for the first page a couple of days ahead of his arrival to the printers. The banner headline read 'Pandit Nehru in London'. When the proofs came for correction, the letter 'P' had been substituted by 'B'—'Bandit Nehru in London'. Was this some kind of joke? I rang up the manager of the press and ticked him off roundly. He was profuse in his apologies. His typesetter had never heard of the word Pandit and thought we meant Bandit. The second set of proofs had the word right. The evening before the great man's arrival, another setter was on the job and likewise ignorant of the existence of the word 'pandit'. Once again 'pandit' was changed to 'bandit'. We had to scrap the whole issue and sent a member of the staff to see that the word was printed right. 

Members of the staff were ordered to be present at Heathrow airport to receive the Prime Minister. It was a cold winter night when the plane touched down. "What are all of you doing here at this unearthly hour?" he demanded, obviously expecting us to be present and pleased to note that we were discharging our duties. Menon asked me to introduce myself to the PM and ask him if he desired me to do anything. I did so only to be snubbed. "What would I want of you at this hour? Go home and get some sleep."

The next morning when I reached the office I saw a note from Menon lying on my table asking me to see him immediately. I took a quick glance at the headlines of the papers to see if anything had gone wrong. The Daily Herald carried a large photograph of Nehru with Lady Mountbatten in her negligee opening the door for him. The caption read 'Lady Mountbatten's Midnight Visitor'. It also informed its readers that Lord Mountbatten was not in London. Our PM's liaison with Lady Edwina had assumed scandalous proportions. The Herald's photographer had taken the chance of catching them, if not in flagrante delicto, at least in preparation for it. He had got his scoop. When I went up to see Menon he barked at me, "Have you seen The Herald? The Prime Minister is furious with you."

"I had nothing to do with it," I pleaded. "How was I to know that instead of going to his hotel Panditji would go to the Mountbattens' home?"

"Anyway, he is very angry. You better keep out of his way for a day or two."

I did not have to do much dodging as Nehru got involved in the conference. The only function we had organised for him was a meeting with the international press and a luncheon with editors of the top English papers in his hotel suite. Details of both were given to his secretary, M.O. Matthai. The press conference drew a large crowd, including Pakistani journalists. Their main interest was Kashmir: the Western press was generally inclined towards the Pakistani point of view. People were eager to hear what the Prime Minister of India had to say in his defence.

The conference was scheduled for 10.30 am. Till 10.45 there was no sign of Panditji. I rang up Matthai to tell him that the press people were getting restive. Fifteen minutes later the Prime Minister arrived looking very agitated. Menon and I escorted him to the dais. "What's all this? Why didn't anyone tell me I had to meet the press?" he hissed loudly enough for the microphones to carry his voice to every corner of the room. Then he switched on his beaming smile for cameramen and asked, "Yes, gentlemen, what can I do for you?"

The Pakistani pressmen sprang to their feet and asked him to explain India's position on Kashmir. He did so very lucidly. It was evident that he had prepared himself but wanted to create the impression that he was speaking extempore. The conference was a great success. Afterwards, when I tried to show him his printed programme mentioning the conference, he brushed me aside. He had made his point at my expense....

Matthai also warned me that no photographs of the Prime Minister were to be issued to the press without first being cleared by the Prime Minister. He was a vain man who did not want to be caught picking his nose or yawning.

The luncheon for the editors was an unmitigated disaster. The menu had been prepared by Kamla Jaspal and provided for clear vegetable soup for Menon, followed by relays of cups of tea. The editors of  The Times, Telegraph, Manchester Guardian, Observer and New Statesman and Nation were present. We started with sherry before we sat down at the table. Soup and the first course with chilled white wine were then served; Panditji had no food or drink fads and quite enjoyed dry sherry and wine. He lit his cigarette to indicate that informal dialogue could begin. He asked why the conservative press was generally hostile to India. The editors answered in turns protesting that it was not so, but that they were constrained to carry dispatches sent to them by their correspondents in India whom they trusted to be impartial. If there were any factual errors they would be willing to carry any corrections sent by India House. Everyone turned to Menon. His head was sunk low over his chest and he was nodding sleepily. Panditji whispered angrily to me, "Can't you see your High Commissioner is unwell? You must not expose him to outsiders like this." Then Panditji himself lost interest. When an editor asked him a question, he stared vacantly into space. The question hung in the air without getting an answer. I tried my best to fill in the gaps of silence. Before the dessert was served, Panditji was also nodding with his head sunk on his chest. The editors left without waiting for coffee to be served.

There was more in store for me. After the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference was over, Panditji had a couple of days free to indulge in his favourite hobbies, buying books and seeing Lady Mountbatten. An afternoon was reserved for book buying. Menon deputed me to escort the Prime Minister and sign for any books he got. He also instructed me to tell the PM what a good job he was doing as High Commissioner and that there was no truth in adverse reports Indian journalists had been sending to their papers.I picked Nehru up from his hotel and asked: "Sir, what sort of books would you like to see?" He snapped back, "Books to read, what else!" I tried to explain that several bookstores specialised on different topics—rare books, the Orient, religion, philosophy, travel, etc. He brushed aside my queries and ordered the chauffeur to drive to a well-known bookstore on Oxford Street. We arrived at our destination. He was recognised and the sales assistants fawned on him. He browsed over a few titles. When one of the assistants asked him if there was anything special he was looking for, he replied, "Bernard Shaw." Shaw had died a few weeks earlier and there was a revival of interest in his books. The works of Shaw were put together and I signed for them. Some people came to ask Nehru for his autograph and he happily signed for them. I bought a book of poems and had him inscribe it for me. The shopping expedition was over. On the way back to the hotel I asked if he got much time to read books. "Of course not," he snapped.

Two evenings before Nehru was due to leave he invited Lady Mountbatten to a quiet dinner for two at a Greek restaurant in Soho. The restaurant owner recognised them and rang up the press to get publicity for his joint. The next morning's papers carried photographs of the two sitting close to each other. I knew I was in trouble again. I arrived at the office to find a note from Menon on my table saying that the Prime Minister wished to see me immediately. I rushed to Claridges Hotel and reported myself to Matthai. "Go in," he said mechanically. "Have you any idea what he wants to see me about?" I asked nervously. "None! He'll tell you."

I gently knocked on the Prime Minister's door and went in. He was busy going through some files. "Yes?" he asked raising his head.

"Sir, you sent for me."

"I sent for you? Who are you?"

"Sir, I am your PRO in London."

He looked me up and down and said, "You have strange notions of publicity!"

Maulana Azad
"He enjoyed his scotch by himself"
Kirpal [Prem] again managed to have my name included in the Indian delegation led by Maulana Azad for a conference in Paris. The Maulana assumed that I had come to Paris to have a good time and did not assign any work to me. Every time I asked him if there was anything I could do, he would answer "Sardar Sahib, maza kariye"—enjoy yourself. The one time I was asked by a senior delegate to get his approval of a particular proposal, I had to disturb him at his hotel in the evening. He was very curt. His evenings were sacred as he enjoyed his Scotch by himself. He wanted his drinking habits to remain unknown in order to preserve his image of the Imam-ul-Hind—the think-tank of Muslim India.

Krishna Menon
"Menon was a bachelor, the same as his father"
Why Menon got where he did under the patronage of Pandit Nehru remains, and probably will remain, unexplained. Panditji had him elected to Parliament and sent to the United Nations to lead the Indian delegation. His marathon 13-hour speech on Kashmir won India a unanimous vote against it. He was then made Defence Minister against the wishes of almost all the members of the Cabinet. He wrecked army discipline by promoting favourites over the heads of senior officers. He was vindictive against those who stood up to him. More than anyone else he was responsible for the humiliating defeat of our army at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. Pandit Nehru stuck by him to the last....

Menon is the subject of a couple of biographies and a road is named after him. I think in my long years I got to know him better than his biographers or any of the Leftists who acclaim him as a great son of India. General Shiv Varma summed him up aptly when he said, "Menon was a bachelor, the same as his father."

Sardar Patel
"You are a dammed liar!"
My briefing was quite an event. I was asked to present myself at Sardar Patel's house (later the residence of the Italian Ambassador on Motilal Nehru Marg). When I got there I was shown into the private secretary's room beside the entrance and told that I would have to wait some time as the minister was expecting an important visitor.

A few minutes later an enormous Rolls Royce flying the flag of the Maharaja of Indore pulled up. An officer clad in a naval white uniform opened the door of the car to let out His Highness. They were received by the minister's secretary and escorted to the drawing room. From where I sat, I could see what was going on. Sardar Patel walked in with the usual scowl on his face and gestured to the maharaja who had stood up to sit down. He did not shake hands with his visitor. The maharaja began to talk rapidly in his Oxbridge English. Sardar Patel kept his gaze fixed on his own chappals. It had been rumoured that the maharaja had been persuading other princes to join the Nawab of Bhopal and resist the Indian government's plan to take over their states and pension them off with privy purses. As Minister of Home Affairs, Sardar Patel was entrusted with the task of getting them to sign Instruments of Accession. I could not hear what the Maharaja of Indore was saying, but it was evident that he was denying everything he had been accused of doing surreptitiously. Sardar Patel let him run out of breath without once looking up or interrupting him. When the maharaja finished, Patel simply stood up and said in a voice loud and clear enough to reach my ears, "You are a damned liar!" And walked away. A very crestfallen maharaja, followed by his handsome ADC, hurriedly made it to the Rolls Royce. Sardar Patel's secretary came to tell me that the minister was too upset to see me.

Morarji Desai
"The man, despite his fads, was honest"
When I had run out of my questions he [then Prime Minister Morarji Desai] asked me to switch off the tape-recorder: he wanted to talk to me man to man, or as friends. "You make fun of my insistence on prohibition and advocating urine therapy. If I persuade you that drinking is bad for you, will you give it up?"

"Morarjibhai, I have been drinking for 50 years and have never been drunk even once in my life. If I persuade you that drinking is not bad for you, will you have a drink?" I asked in reply.

He thought over my suggestion for a while and replied, "That is a fair offer; if you persuade me that drinking alcohol is not bad for the health, I promise to try it."

He went on to extol the benefits of urine therapy. He told me innumerable cases of sickness, which had been declared incurable by doctors, responding to fresh urine. "I have a prescription for curing cancer as well. Give up every kind of food. Just live on fresh grapes and warm water and it will get cancer out of your system."

He was friendly enough for me to question him on another of his fads. "Morarjibhai, I have also written about your vow of abstinence from sex." Before I could proceed further, he cut me short, "I do not wish to discuss the subject with you." The interview which had lasted well over an hour was over.

Morarji Desai, despite his fads, was a straight and honest man who rarely told a lie. That did not go for his son, Kanti, on whom he doted. As far as he was concerned, Kanti could do no wrong. A few days later, when Ashok Jain [owner of The Times of India] invited me for breakfast at his house in Delhi, I broached the subject of my contract. Quite gently but firmly, he told me that Kanti Desai had strong reservations about my continuing as editor and that my contract would not be renewed.

Indira Gandhi
"She was pretty and vindictive"
Indira Gandhi was at the time in her mid-60s. She was as well-preserved and handsome a woman for her age as any that I have known.... Long years at the helm of affairs of the nation had lent her a certain imperious arrogance and intolerance of criticism. It should be borne in mind that Indira Gandhi had made no great success of her own marriage. Her husband, Feroze Gandhi, was the son of a Parsi liquor vendor of Allahabad. After bearing him two sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, she deserted him to live with her father to act as his housekeeper and hostess. According to M.O. Matthai, Pandit Nehru's personal secretary for many years, neither father nor daughter was sexually inhibited....

I was still a Member of Parliament when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated on the morning of 31 October, 1984. Despite my differences with her I was deeply distressed to hear of her dastardly murder at the hands of her own security guards, both Sikhs. If circumstances had allowed, I would most certainly have gone to condole with the family and pay my last tribute to her when her body was cremated. I had no great admiration for her as Prime Minister and am convinced that all that has gone wrong with the country emanated from her. She could be petty and vindictive, as she showed herself to be in her dealings with her widowed daughter-in-law, Maneka. She could be very discourteous to senior officials.... She particularly enjoyed snubbing people who assumed she was their friend.

Rajiv Gandhi
"Mrs Gandhi had a poor opinion of Rajiv's intellect"
Rajiv and Sanjay never got on. When Sanjay made a mess of his Maruti car project and exposed his mother to charges of manoeuvring to get money for him, Rajiv held him responsible for giving the family a bad name. When Sanjay rose to power, Rajiv retired into a sulk and had as little to do with him as he could. They barely exchanged courtesies when they met for meals in the family dining room.... Splits in the Gandhi family widened. Rajiv's envy for the sudden eruption of his ne'er-do-well brother now turned into hate. He held Sanjay responsible, perhaps rightly, for the catastrophic fall in the status of the family, from being the most respected to social and political outcasts. Neither he nor his Italian wife Sonia did anything to prop up Mrs Gandhi's shattered morale, and withdrew into their one-family sub-shell.... Mrs Gandhi had a poor opinion of Rajiv's intellect. However, after Sanjay's death she successfully built him up as her successor. Rajiv proceeded to get rid of Sanjay's men and replace them with his own. His choice of many advisors included men who had been in the restricted atmosphere of an expensive school with him.

Sanjay Gandhi
"He is innocent"
What Sanjay did during the Emergency gave him the image of a monster. When he had slums cleared in Delhi it was bruited about that he had run bulldozers over the homes of innocent people; when he launched on the family planning programme, wild stories were circulated of people being pulled out of cinema houses and bus queues and being forcibly sterilised. The Emergency was soon broadcast as being a dark period in Indian history. It cannot be denied that thousands of innocent people suffered arbitrary arrest and imprisonment on orders issued by people who had been put in key positions. In many instances they acted on their own, without the knowledge of Mrs Gandhi or her son....

I was with Sanjay and Maneka when he had to face the Shah Commission. Sanjay was anticipating trouble and took his musclemen with him. The room was packed with anti-Sanjay hoodlums. As soon as he entered bedlam broke loose and it was a free-for-all with flailing arms and chairs flying around. Sanjay's shirt was torn. He fought back with his bare fists. He was a powerful man; I was impressed with the way he defended himself. Maneka had her share of being hustled around. I took shelter behind Kiran Bedi of the police and watched the scene. What little respect the two had for the commission was displayed by Maneka. She jumped over the railing, plucked Justice Shah's two pens out of the pen holders and gave them to me to keep as mementos....

Sanjay had no option but to fight back. In the hour of crisis it was Maneka who showed surprising reserves of strength and guts. Amteshwar [Maneka's mother] also realised that her only chance to ever win back the brief glory that had been hers was in the restoration of her son-in-law and his mother to power.

Maneka Gandhi
"She won the first round with Mrs G with a knockoutManeka Gandhi"
In the two-and-and-a-half years of the Janata regime, during which Mrs Gandhi was imprisoned twice (once for a night, another time for six days), her chief morale-boosters were Sanjay and Maneka (with Amteshwar close behind her). For Maneka it was a trying time: attending classes in college, running Surya, visiting her husband in jail or accompanying him to the Shah Commission, organising mass demonstrations and facing hostile crowds. The family had few friends left. I was amongst those few.... If Mrs Gandhi had harboured any resentment against Maneka she had not said or done anything about it as long as Sanjay was alive. There may be some truth in the belief that she both loved and feared her second son. Sanjay was more relaxed in the Anands' home than in his mother's. At the Anands' he was fussed over by everyone, including the servants of the household; in his mother's he had a rival in his elder brother. Mrs Gandhi disliked Sanjay's preference for the Anand home to hers. It did not take long after Sanjay's tragic death for the Gandhis to make it known to Maneka that she was a misfit in the Prime Minister's residence. A week after Sanjay's death, Mrs Gandhi suggested to Maneka on her own that she work as her secretary. A few days later, Dhirendra Brahmachari came to her room to inform her that Mrs Gandhi was too embarrassed to tell her so, but Sonia had put her foot down on the proposal, and had threatened to return to Italy with her family unless Mrs Gandhi withdrew the offer to Maneka. I have little doubt that Sonia was the more favoured daughter-in-law, just as Sanjay was the more favoured son. Now that Sanjay was gone Mrs Gandhi had no choice except to lean on Rajiv, her only remaining child. She had no great affection for Maneka and resented Amteshwar's bossiness. It did not take much for this feeling to turn into unconcealed hostility.

Mrs Gandhi became more and more irritated by Maneka's presence and found fault with everything she did. At a formal banquet given in honour of Mrs Margaret Thatcher, while Rajiv and Sonia were seated at the main table with the chief guest, Maneka was relegated to the table meant for the staff, with Dhawan and Usha Bhagat. Mrs Gandhi told me that Maneka was rude to people, and one day she sent for me and asked me to speak to Maneka to behave better.

I offered to take her on the staff of  The Hindustan Times and spoke to K.K. Birla about it. He agreed provided Mrs Gandhi sent him a note or spoke to him. She did neither. Maneka was ordered to sever connections with Surya because it was 'a rag' (which it had always been with Mrs Gandhi's approval). Maneka, who was passionately fond of animals and had been elected president of The Society for the Protection of Animals, was told to resign. She wrote a personal biography of her husband. After approving of it Mrs Gandhi found serious errors in it a day or so before she was to release it: all printed copies had to be withdrawn and a new version with no more than a couple of sentences altered was issued in its place. Mrs Gandhi made her aversion to Amteshwar known to Maneka: Amteshwar stopped going to No. 1, Safdarjung Road.

Both families were highly superstitious. A few days after Sanjay's death I happened to call on Amteshwar at her house in Jor Bagh. I saw stepping out of the house a priest in dhoti and wooden sandals murmuring Sanskrit shlokas. Following him was a man carrying an earthenware pitcher of water on his head. And following the man was Amteshwar Anand. "What's all this?" I asked her. She could not conceal a smile as she told me. "That Mrs Saxena, the widow of the co-pilot killed with Sanjay, rang me up and said that the two boys had come to her in a dream and were complaining that they were very thirsty as it was very hot where they were. I consulted this Panditji and he advised that we set up a piao (drinking-water booth) outside Mrs Gandhi's house. I am going to do that." A necklace with a half moon and star was gifted to Maneka. Vijay Raje Scindia told her that it was a tantric emblem to make people ill. Maneka, who had been keeping unwell, took if off and suddenly started feeling better....

It was clear to everyone that Maneka's days in No. 1, Safdarjung Road were numbered. The only speculation was how and when she would leave. Mrs Gandhi, who had never known matters to be decided by anyone except herself, was in for a nasty surprise. Once having decided to part company with her mother-in-law, Maneka decided that this time she would determine the terms and time of her departure. She told me several weeks ahead of the exact day on which she would be "thrown out".

Maneka chose the time very carefully. Mrs Gandhi was in London for the India Festival and had taken Sonia with her. Rajiv was too involved in building himself up and avoided being at home to spare himself meeting Maneka at meals.

Maneka and Akbar Ahmed decided to launch the Sanjay Vichar Manch. Mrs Gandhi did not know how to express her disapproval of an organisation professing to propagate her son's ideals. The text of Maneka's speech at the inaugural function (which Maneka claims had been approved by Mrs Gandhi) was telegraphed to London by Rajiv. Mrs Gandhi decided she had got the opportunity she had waited for all these months to get rid of her turbulent daughter-in-law.

Mrs Gandhi returned from London on the morning of 28 March, 1982—determined to call the shots. When Maneka came to greet her, she dismissed her curtly: "I will speak to you later." Word was sent to her that she was not expected to join the family for lunch and the food would be sent to her in her room.About 1 pm another message was sent to her that the Prime Minister would like to see her. Maneka was prepared for a dressing down. She was in the sitting room when Mrs Gandhi walked in barefoot. She ordered Dhawan and Dhirendra Brahmachari to come in as witnesses to what she had to say to Maneka. According to Maneka she was fuming with rage and was barely comprehensible as she screamed, wagging her finger at Maneka. "You will get out of this house immediately." Maneka assumed an air of innocence and asked, "Why, what have I done?" Mrs Gandhi screamed back, "I heard every word of the speech you made!" Maneka added, "It was cleared by you." This caused another outburst. Mrs Gandhi accused her of disobeying her wishes, and for good measure added, "There was venom in every word you spoke. Get out this minute. Get out!" she shrieked. "The car has been ordered to take you to your mother's house." Maneka stood her ground. She did not want to go to her mother's house and needed time to pack. "You will go where you are told. Your things will be sent to you later," said Mrs Gandhi and again used strong words for Amteshwar. Maneka started sobbing and left for her room shouting back that she would not allow her mother to be insulted. Mrs Gandhi followed her barefooted on the gravel road shouting within the hearing of the staff and sentries outside: "Get out! Get out!" Meanwhile, Feroze Varun had been taken to Mrs Gandhi's room....

They found Maneka in tears, trying to put whatever she could into her trunks. Mrs Gandhi suddenly walked in and ordered Maneka to leave without taking anything. Ambika spoke out, "She won't leave, it is her house." Mrs Gandhi's dislike of Ambika was tinged with fear of the girl's sharp tongue. "This is not her house," shouted Mrs Gandhi, "this is the house of the Prime Minister of India. She cannot bring people here without my permission. In any case, Ambika Anand, I don't want to speak to you." Ambika was not the one to be cowed down. "You have no right to speak to my sister like this. This is Sanjay's house and she is Sanjay's wife. So it is her house. No one can order her out of it." Mrs Gandhi began to fumble for words and to cry. "I did not tell her to get out; she is leaving on her own," she said at one stage. "I have never told a lie in my life," she protested. "You have never told the truth in your life," retaliated the two sisters now emboldened by each other's presence. The fight went out of Mrs Gandhi; she began to cry hysterically and had to be escorted out of the room by Dhirendra Brahmachari. Thereafter, messages had to be conveyed through the hapless Dhawan who received his share of tongue-lashing from the two girls—as well as being rewarded for his pains by being bitten by Maneka's Irish wolfhound Sheba, who had been upset by the excitement.

By now Mrs Gandhi was no longer mistress of the situation. Rajiv accompanied by Arun Nehru took over. They summoned the security officer, N.K. Singh, and ordered him to throw out the two sisters. Being a shrewd man, N.K. Singh asked for the order to be put in writing. Neither Rajiv nor Arun Nehru would commit themselves on paper. Verbal requests by N.K. Singh were turned down by the girls who wanted their luggage, dogs, and now also Feroze Varun who had a fever, to be sent ahead of them.Mrs Gandhi knew she had been beaten and gave in down the line.

The girls and their brother took their time eating a sumptuous lunch. The luggage and the dogs were sent ahead in a taxi. A very sleepy Feroze Varun was handed over to them at 11 pm. Instead of a taxi, the Prime Minister's car was ordered to take Maneka and her son wherever she wanted to go. The last thing Mrs Gandhi did, as was her habit, was to dictate a letter to Maneka spelling out her misdeeds which had made her expulsion necessary. Maneka sat down and wrote her reply which she released to the press. A few minutes after 11 pm, a very tearful Maneka, bearing a bleary-eyed and bewildered Feroze Varun, came out of the room to explosions of press-camera flashbulbs. Maneka had won this round against the Prime Minister of India with a knockout.

Next Story >>
Google + Linkedin Whatsapp

The Latest Issue

Outlook Videos