Understanding Indira Gandhi

Like so many of my generation, the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the violent aftermath were my baptism of fire into adulthood; and, like so many of my peers, trying to understand that moment is almost imperative to an understanding of the history and political landscape of the country we grew up in. There have been various biographies and other books on her, but Sagarika Ghose’s Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister is a tour de force.

Drawing on a vast resource of previous histories and biographies, personal research and interviews, Ghose manages to capture the holy grail – a new narrative. The remarkable thing about this narrative is how it treads the tightrope between the personal and the political, grappling together intensely researched data and individual insight. It is deeply personal at the same time as it is objective; far-reaching in its historical scope, yet minutely detailed; even-handed in its observations of laudatory and damning characteristics of the main dramatis personae. Evident throughout, is a compassion that is very much Ghose’s own, approaching each character and event with the effort to understand rather than judge – a rare thing. The passion she brings to her subject is also rare enough to be a noticeable pleasure for the reader.

It is fitting, perhaps, that the genre she chooses for this daunting project is also a clever amalgamation of the personal and the political: the letters to Mrs Gandhi which preface each chapter allow the reader to approach Mrs Gandhi’s bewildering and unique character with the questions that we are often left with after reading a particularly good history or biography; questions that tie the facts and data meticulously accumulated, to the issues and concerns that anchor and animate the collective consciousness of this nation, and questions that tie the fate of the country to the innermost workings of a single woman’s mind and heart.

And finally, Ghose’s writing is deceptively simple and self-effacing – so that its elegance and passion do not overshadow its subject. I read it, and felt again, almost palpably, the stomach-churning moment that 1984 was for us, and I am sure that, for those born more recently, this is the perfect place to begin to understand Mrs Gandhi the woman, and her impact on India and its politics.


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