There has been an unofficial ban on the book for seven years. The Congress party saw to it that The Red Sari, A Dramatized Biography of Sonia Gandhi by Spanish writer Javier Moro was never available in India’s book stores. “I proudly show my friends the newspaper clipping of June 10, 2010, ‘Spanish author’s effigy burnt by Youth Congress’. Who am I, George Bush, a Spanish Salman Rushdie?,” asks Moro who happens to be author and Indologist Dominique Lapierre’s nephew. After it first came out in Spain in October 2008, and then in over a dozen languages except in English, the book finally comes to India this week published by Roli Books. Moro spoke to Satish Padmanabhan about Sonia Gandhi, book bans and writing biographies. Excerpts:
Why do you think the Congress party did not want your book to be published in India?
I think at that moment the book irritated Sonia and her family very much because the book revealed her origin in detail and they didn’t like that at all. The Congress hardliners at that time didn’t want the book to come out because they didn’t want Sonia to be perceived as a low class European girl because the party had made huge efforts of highlighting her in public imagination as someone from the royalty because whom she was married to, to the Gandhi family. Then suddenly a books comes out which tells about her father’s poor beginnings, her very normal background. They had always controlled her image with an iron glove. This was important because of the attack by the Opposition that she was a foreigner.
But her story is fabulous, whether they like it or not. If I had invented the whole story, nobody would have believed that this young Italian girl, who all she wanted was to become an air hostess would end up as the most powerful person in a faraway country that is not hers, which has one-fifth of the population of the world.
In fact, Sonia Gandhi comes across as a humane, sensitive, if somewhat vulnerable person in the book. Why would anyone find it objectionable?
I really can’t give you an answer. I could never talk to the family face to face, it was complete rejection from day one. Sonia had never wanted anybody to write about her. When I went to the Centenary Book Store in Rome, the largest in Italy, to ask for books on Sonia Gandhi, they told me none existed. She had always made an effort, helped of course by the Congress, not to let anyone write about her. And she tried the same thing with me. But I thought the story was dramatically appealing for a writer. I am not a historian, I am a novelist. I just couldn’t let it go. It was just too good to be true.
Did she even go through the book?
I don’t know. I met her when the book was about to be published and I asked her if I could send it to her and she replied, ‘Oh, we never read what’s written about us’. That was quite a pompous, and obviously false reply, but that was the only time I met her. In fact, that is the only line I ever got from her while working on the book.
Do you think it’s fair to write a biography of an important person without ever having met her, or just met her once when she actually said no?
I think it is better. At the beginning when they waged that kind of war, made my work impossible, when they denied me access to her close circle of friends or family, or herself, I almost gave up. At that point, every other Italian writer or journalist who had tried the same had given up. But as I told you I didn’t want to do a historical biography but a dramatized one, to give a sense of who she was and how her life had been. I am now glad that I didn’t give up and in the end I am happy not to have met her because I may have been strongly influenced. I may have been forced to ask her if I should include the story of Maneka, the story of Bofors scandal and so on. But being absolutely unsympathetic to me, even nasty, she gave me freedom.
I tried to meet her close friends but they were like an armour around her, they denied any kind of information or information. I didn’t want historical information but I wanted a tale, I wanted to know the smell of the house where they all lived, what flowers would they put in the house when some important guest was coming, how she got along with Maneka Gandhi when she had to live through hard times under the same roof. My interest was in the drama, in trying to recreate her life.
So, you are saying not meeting your subject helped?
Yes. I may not have had access to the first circle of friends and family but I had access to the second and the third. I could talk to the gardener who tended 10, Janpath, to Usha Bhagat, her secretary who worked with her for 16 years. I went to her childhood town Orbassano in Italy, settled there for three weeks in a hotel and met everyone who knew her as a child, for instance, the guy who used to sell her chocolate ice-cream after school. There is always chance in these things. There is a very well know journalist in Spain called Josto Maffeo, who is Italian, who was the son of the local police chief of Orbassano, and I discovered he had been the first boyfriend of Sonia when they were 15 years old, when they were in school. They would take a train to go into Turin every weekend. That was sheer luck and he told me a lot about her youth.
Did anybody else from the family meet you, Rahul Gandhi or Priyanka Gandhi?
I chanced upon Priyanka Gandhi in the Barista Coffee Shop in Khan Market in Delhi one day, I told her I was writing the book and would like to meet her mother, she was very polite and asked me to talk to their secretary.
How did you get interested in the Gandhi family?
How can you be not interested in their family, it is one of the most unique families in the world. Second, I had always heard from my uncle Dominque Lapierre stories about them. He was a good friend of Indira Gandhi and is a lover of India. I had always heard stories about them. My uncle had written Freedom at Midnight and even though I was only a small child then, I was simmering in stories of India.
And I was always intrigued by this woman whom nobody talked about, who had a low profile, but she was interesting because she was the Westner’s point of view in the middle of India’s premier family. What must go through the mind of this person? She is just, you know, somebody like us, she could have been my sister or my neighbour’s sister. But when she became the most powerful woman in India, I had an ending for my story.
You are calling the book a dramatised biography. So, how much can the reader take as fact?
The facts are all there, from archives, from news clippings, from other books. What is fiction are the dialogues, in the sense that I was not present there. They are my interpretation of the conflicts that took place. Most of them are imagined. Actually, I want to be careful with words. It is not imagined: it is fictionalized, it is dramatized. They are not invented out of the blue.
For instance, at one point you say that in 1975 Rajiv and Sonia wanted to go to Italy but Sanjay Gandhi insists that they stay in Delhi. The dialogue goes: I'd prefer if you didn't decide for us," Rajiv spat back at him. Now, how do you know Rajiv Gandhi said this?
I know this from Pupul Jayakar’s book on Indira Gandhi and Catherine Frank’s The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi.
Ok, but since these dialogues are attributed to real people, to historical figures, don’t you fear any libel suits?
No. I mean, why? There is absolutely no defamation. Had I invented a hot love scene between Sonia Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, then I could be sued for libel. But I have not invented a single thing.
Do you think the ‘ban’ on the book is lifted now because there is a BJP government.
Probably, but that you must ask the publisher.
Are you planning any other biography of a politician?
No. I have been cured, I am vaccinated against writing biographies.