Remarkable lives
Rumina Sethi

Freeing the Spirit: The Iconic Women of Modern India.
Ed. Malvika Singh. Penguin.
Pages 215. Rs 295.

Freeing the Spirit: The Iconic Women of Modern India.The end of the last century and the beginning of the present have produced voluminous literature about women, for women, written by women. The achievement of the last 20 years in terms of the sheer weight of this scholarship is incredible. There have been a number of books on the relevance of women to diverse disciplines and themes such as globalisation, diaspora, religion, nature, violence, partition, and so on. But outside the terrain of literature and the world of books, one still wonders if there exists a "freedom of spirit." Malvika Singh’s book on the iconic women of modern India is an attempt to trace the accomplishments of certain eminent personalities who had the passion to script their own lives. We have here the accounts of prominent women ranging from those who dedicated themselves to their art like Begum Akhtar or Lata Mangeshkar to those who played out the politics of the century like the two Mrs Gandhis.

Quite naturally, I gravitated to the last essay of the book by Sunil Khilnani on Indira Gandhi regarded by many as India’s pre-eminent Prime Minister even 20 years after her assassination. These two decades have imparted both time and perspective to oneviews about her. Khilnani paints Indira Gandhi as an enigmatic, mysterious person: "It is difficult . . . to judge her own responsibility for the drift on Indian politics. Was she the instigator of a coarser, more clamorous, fragmented society, or was she simply a mirror, reflecting what was already underway." This vignette of Indira Gandhi, although brief, gives glimpses of the Nehruvian family in crisis: one in which Kamala was tortured by the stress of becoming a Nehru, tormented as she was by her two sisters-in-law and by a husband who seemed to regard illness as a "moral failing", or one where Indira found herself surrounded by relatives going in and out of jail and by a mother who was perpetually unwell. Soon Indira would develop feelings for Feroze Gandhy (later changed to Gandhi) in what can be called a "classic compensatory act" much to Nehru’s chagrin. Khilnani, who is currently engaged in writing Nehru’s historical biography, recounts interesting but well-trod details—Indira’s gradual induction into the Congress, her appointment as Prime Minister, her dreadful public speaking, her lack of political vision, all of which saw a miraculous sea-change once she acquired absolute power: "Once in office, power seemed to unleash a hormonal rush in her—aged almost 50, she was rejuvenated."

Khilnani’s essay is no sycophantic homily, however. It is forthright in criticising Gandhi on the issues of splitting the Congress Party and alienating old regional bosses, thus bypassing traditional seasoned leadership. Yet the general elections in 1971 won her a landslide victory despite the tantalising evasiveness of "Garibi Hatao". The "dumb doll" would go on from strength to strength by tackling the genocide in West Pakistan, later Bangla Desh, in pursuing the nuclear option and in institutionalising legislative and constitutional changes upon a whim. In short, Indira Gandhi’s rise and fall from power may be interpreted in terms of her treatment of democracy: she turned it from its everyday understanding of equality for all to simply power grabbing through elections.

The other essay that I must mention is Tarun Tejpal’s The Ascent of the Ordinary, which tries to capture the personality of Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law, Sonia. Sonia’s greatest achievement is that of building overwhelming acceptability in India in spite of being white. Despite the constant humiliations she has faced regarding her origins, language, naivet and political innocence, she has stood her ground. In this essay, Tejpal presents himself as Sonia’s champion with the use of fine phrases to describe her: she has "finely calibrated refinement" with "shrewd political instinct"; she has an "uncluttered mind" coupled with being "astute and visionary"; in short, she is a "karamayogi". He praises exaggeratedly and writes hyperbolically. Sonia Gandhi’s refusal to be Prime Minister after the 2004 general election is lauded as a masterly stroke. Indeed it was although Tejpal is reluctant to recognise the personal/political inadequacies of Sonia Gandhi which led to her "renunciation. Perhaps Tehelka’s antagonism with the BJP is at work here.

There are other inspiring essays, especially those on Mother Teresa, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Mahasweta Devi. The book contains profiles of Jayalalithaa and Mayawati also, both of whom I would hesitate to call "iconic". The book thus covers a vast canvas with a multiple perspective offering a three-dimensional picture of remarkable Indian women who have had a profound influence on contemporary politics and culture through the competing, and sometimes conflicting, traditions and values of their country.