How do you get an utterly pedestrian book to shout “reprint”? Congress managers have made such a din about Javier Moro’s The Red Sari that the book has the imprint of best-seller stamped all over it.
What a shame. Forget for a minute the hundreds of mistakes—the sparse, angular Congress leader Bansi Lal consistently described as “chubby”; the idiotic translation of Kissa Kursi Ka as The Tale of Two Armchairs; the Festival of India turned into the Year of India; marigolds, the ubiquitous flower of political campaigns, becoming carnations; and, most glaring of all, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale referred to throughout the manuscript as Brindanwale (no first name). How much genius does it take to get the little things right? And if the details are wrong then how can this book, or any book, have credibility? We read the manuscript so, hopefully, editors at Roli, Moro’s Indian publisher, will clean up after him.
But perhaps Moro simply didn’t care enough to get his book right, right on facts or right on nuances, consumed instead by turning the head of the world’s largest political party into a Mills and Boon heroine. His first line sets the tone, and the colour, “Sonia Gandhi simply cannot believe that the man she loves is dead, and she will no longer feel his caresses or the warmth of his kisses.” More purple prose follows: “Since the moment she had clung to Rajiv’s hand in response to his shy advances, back there in the gardens of the cathedral at Ely, she was consistent with herself.” Yes, yes, now give us the insight.
Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi at a sports event in Delhi (Hindustan Times); Moro gets the wedding sari detail wrong (Dinodia)
Hilariously, Moro describes his book as a “lengthy investigation”. But his disclaimer seems at odds with facts, “This is a novel based on the story of Sonia Gandhi and the Nehru family. Neither Sonia Gandhi nor any member of her family has provided information or has collaborated in this book. Dialogues, conversations and situations found therein are the product of the author’s own interpretation and do not necessarily reflect authenticity.”
What does a biographer whose subject refuses to speak with him do? He could tiptoe around and speak to people who will. But if Moro does that, then his information is sketchy. He is parsimonious with names. The two Aruns, Nehru and Singh, so much a part of Rajiv’s inner circle in the early days, find no mention by name. Satish Sharma, Rajiv’s Indian Airlines colleague who continues to be close to the family, gets barely a passing mention. Vincent George, loyal Gandhi secretary, features prominently but is never named. A “highly valued” Congress leader whose opinion carries weight in Rajiv’s time is simply D.S. Who is this person? Your guess is as good as mine. Did Moro speak to the other side then, the estranged Gandhis, Maneka and her son Vitriolic Varun?
Clearly there is a problem. Those close to the Gandhis will not speak to him, or if they do then it’s on conditions of anonymity to reveal nothing that is not already known and published. Those ranged against the Gandhis, and that number is not inconsiderable, are of no use to Moro because in the end The Red Sari is more hagiography than biography, a sanitized telling of the life of India’s first political family. Warts are glossed over, wrinkles botoxed, leaving only a shiny patina. There is mention, for instance, of the Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, but no mention of a quote famously attributed to Rajiv, and for which he received a roasting at home: “When a big tree falls, the earth will shake.” There is mention too of the battle for secular India, but no analysis of the overturning of the Shah Bano verdict and its impact, no understanding of what opening the locks at Ayodhya by Rajiv’s government meant.
In grief: (left) Rajiv Gandhi at his mother Indira Gandhi’s funeral, with children Rahul and Priyanka, and nephew Varun. Javier Moro ignores the dark spots in the Gandhis’ history such as the anti-Sikh riots. Hindustan Times
Moro falls back on a vast library of books on the Gandhi/Nehrus. If you’ve read Katherine Frank’s Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi or Pupul Jayakar’s Indira Gandhi: An Intimate Biography and Sonia Gandhi’s own Rajiv, then you pretty much know where the rehashing is coming from.
Much of The Red Sari has already been documented: Sonia weeping at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences while Rajiv Gandhi holds her hands, telling her he must take over as prime minister from his assassinated mother, is straight out of P.C. Alexander’s My Years with Indira Gandhi. Indira Gandhi’s clear distaste for her younger daughter-in-law Maneka finds mention in Frank’s book: The issue is not an inevitable conflict with a mother-in-law so much as a clash of opposing personalities. The senior Mrs Gandhi finds “Maneka’s behaviour inappropriate and grating”, writes Frank, a conclusion echoed by Moro.
The central question about Moro’s book is not its authenticity but its ethics: Should you write a book about a living public figure even as you admit that it does not “necessarily reflect authenticity”? The liberal view, one taken by the First Amendment, America’s standard of free speech, is that when you are a public figure you become fair game. It doesn’t matter if Sonia Gandhi did not speak to Moro; he was at liberty to conduct his own investigations. But to do so and then concede that you do not “necessarily reflect authenticity” is to admit that this is a “biography” in the loosest sense of the word. So if it is not biography what is it? This is the dilemma of the book.
Just one last word. The Red Sari, both the title as well as the sari worn by Indira Gandhi on her wedding day, presents itself through the book. We are told Rajiv showed it first to Sonia in England during an exhibition on Jawaharlal Nehru. He tells Sonia: “That is the sari my grandfather wove in prison for my mother’s wedding...I hope you will wear it one day...”
Sonia does indeed. Only thing, as anyone who has ever seen those documented wedding photographs knows, the sari was not red. It was pink.
Moro’s website says The Red Sari is in its 10th printing and has sold 230,000 copies in Spain and Latin America. Roli Books will release it in India.
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