Nixon wasn’t the only American who was nasty about Indira (he called her a bitch). Jacqueline Kennedy described her as a ‘real prune – bitter, kind of pushy horrible woman . . . it always looks like she’s been sucking a lemon’.
Indira allegedly had an affair with Nehru’s secretary, M.O. Mathai. He apparently wrote a chapter on her that was never published for his autobiography. According to an unverifiable version of the chapter, Mathai wrote: ‘in the sex act she had all the artfulness of French women and Kerala Nair women combined’.
After Sanjay died, relations between Maneka and Indira turned frosty. Maneka even wrote an open letter to Indira published in the Indian Express, saying ‘as soon as Sanjay died you started literally torturing me in every conceivable way . . . I fought so bitterly for you . . . when the rest of your family was packed and ready to go abroad.’
Before the Shimla peace talks with Pakistan, Indira personally re-decorated the room where Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was to stay. According to her social secretary Usha Bhagat, ‘We went to the chief minister’s house and got a few things from there including his bed. We went to Raj Bhavan and picked up a deep-red raw silk bedspread, we wrote to Rashtrapati Bhavan asking them to send silver writing sets and stationery . . . ‘
Indira planned official menus with great care, naming dishes according to the guest. When the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin came for tea, she produced a menu comprising Flying Saucer Samosas, Meteorite Sweets and Laddoo Lunar.
In March 1982 at the Festival of India in London, the London Philharmonic Orchestra struck up India’s national anthem. As the orchestra played ‘Jana Gana Mana’ while the Prince of Wales stood to attention, Pupul Jayakar glanced at Indira Gandhi to find her eyes shining with tears.
The morning Indira Gandhi was shot, the driver of the ambulance stationed at the prime minister’s house was away for his tea break. So she was bundled into a white Ambassador even as Sonia Gandhi came running down the path, shouting, ‘Mummy! Oh my God, Mummy!’
Indira was a doting grandmother: a few months after Operation Blue Star when fears for her life were very high, she and Priyanka Gandhi spent an evening together watching Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice on TV.
After Indira lost the post-Emergency general election she moved out of her official government house and into a friend’s bungalow, 12 Willingdon Crescent. There, in a much smaller, cramped house with files, books and trunks piled up on all sides, Indira took up residence with her family and five dogs. She was abandoned by most of her friends.
The night before Sanjay Gandhi died, Indira beseeched him not to fly the plane he would crash and die in the following morning.
Indira had a funny side to her: once when a band of monkeys entered Moni Malhoutra’s office room in South Block and broke a bottle of perfume he had got for his wife, Mrs Gandhi came up the steps yelling, ‘This place smells like a brothel!’
Doctor Zhivago and Black Beauty were Indira’s favourite films.
When asked about which books and authors had most affected her, she listed the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo, Tagore, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found Th ere and Fabre’s Book of Insects.
‘Once when President Zia of Pakistan complained to her about getting bad press, she advised, “Don’t worry about these pressmen, they know nothing; look, they call you a democrat and me a dictator!” The President was not amused.’