Indira Gandhi

Indiraji: an enigmatic and complex personality

Mrs. Gandhi was a multi-faceted person, who could at the same time be complex and simple, familiar and aloof, haughty and humble, sociable and lonely, tough and vulnerable, gentle and harsh, and many other things.

In a letter to Dorothy Norman dated 20 September 1959, Mrs. Gandhi wrote:

Are most people not just a split personality but several personalities? I feel I am and I have learnt to make all the separate personalities quite friendly with each other. But I still don’t know how to present them to the world. Different people see different me-s! — Indira Gandhi by Dorothy Norman

I am not sure if these traits were as friendly to each other as Mrs. Gandhi claims. However, interaction with different people brought out different aspects of her personality, and they assessed her accordingly.  She had an inner quality which remained untouched by the outer turmoil she faced, and there was a tremendous amount of turmoil in her life. Armed with this inner strength, she withstood many storms, both political and personal. At the same time, she could be vulnerable too. These were the many paradoxes in her life and personality. She was a loner; she shut herself in but didn’t shut others out. Actually, she had a wide circle of contacts and maintained relationships even with distant relatives and friends from her school days, and she participated in their joys and sorrows.

Benazir Bhutto with Shri Y.S. Parmar, chief minister of Himachal Pradesh, and the author in Shimla, 1972

Mrs Gandhi and the author at the Parthenon in Athens, Greece 1983

Mrs Gandhi with Melina Mercouri, Greek minister of culture and film actress, at the amphitheatre in Epidaurus, Greece, 1983

While Mrs. Gandhi could talk quite intimately with people, and this led some to form an impression that she was close to them, this was not necessarily so; an inner distance was always maintained. Another of her traits was that sometimes, when meeting a person with whom she was diffident about interacting, she would keep quiet and make notes or doodles. She generally kept her views close to her chest.

She was not a feminist, but proved the point through actions rather than words. Any reference to her as a woman prime minister used to irritate her. Mary Carras offers an interesting insight:

In her political demeanour [Mrs.] Gandhi rarely revealed any of the ‘feminine’ traits ascribed to women . . . In her public persona, she did not fit the female model as ‘nurturer’ or peacemaker. But in her dress and . . . bearing, she was very feminine . . . In the privacy of her home, with her children and especially grandchildren, she was decidedly a ‘nurturer’.

An important aspect of her personality, and so naturally of her work, was her quiet, subtle and unostentatious way of working. This was also reflected in the simple, natural, and yet aesthetic environment of her surroundings. Simplicity and economy were the keys to her personality. Her capacity for economy was visible in all aspects of her character and personality, even in her body movements and the way she packed for travel. She was often dissatisfied and irritated with the packing done by others and felt they wasted space. She often took out everything and repacked the bag herself in such a way that many more things could be accommodated.

The quality of economy was especially evident in her writing. She had the ability to grasp the essence and weed out the superfluous. She would have made a good editor. I noticed this right away when I started to work for her and was a one-person secretariat! A draft put up to her would come back chiselled, sharper in focus, with all verbosity slashed away. She was quite allergic to pompous, verbose and flowery language, which she felt generally diffused the meaning and power of the language. She liked to be provided the basic material, the inputs and the draft, but she then used them as raw material, as the craftsperson does to mould and shape the text to her own liking. She often rejected suggestions but negating them would often ignite her own creativity and expression. She worked on revising her special speeches and letters, even to children, until she was fully satisfied. In some cases, this would take hours and sometimes even days.

She was a quick reader and went through papers and books at quite a speed. At the same time, one felt that her reading was not superficial and that she had comprehended the essential points. Intrigued, I once asked her how she managed to do this. She said that first she skimmed over the words to get the sense. If the idea or language interested her, she then went over the text more slowly. Although the scope and amount of her work changed over the years, her style of work more or less remained the same. Work, leisure and family duties were never compartmentalized, but they flowed into each other. She worked best when many streams of activity interacted with each other, and while working with one task she could attend to numerous other activities as well.  For her, work and relaxation were intertwined, and she did not need separate periods to rest and relax. However, relaxation did not mean long periods of doing nothing. It was really doing something different, even if this was for a short time, such as reading, arranging flowers, sorting books or clothes or even watching television. While having lunch she often did crossword puzzles, which also perhaps helped her to defuse the tension, to relax, and to sort out her ideas.

Her day and her work did not have strict divisions. How much she could do in a day was amazing. With her organized and disciplined mind and her ability to grasp the essential without wasting time or energy, she could do much more in twenty-four hours than most people generally manage to do. She also followed an exercise regimen. If she could not get the time in the morning, she would do it on her return from the office in the evening.

Mrs. Gandhi was a very frugal eater. She used to have coffee, toast with honey, and fruit for breakfast while working in her room. Lunch consisted of simple Indian food in a ‘thali‘, eaten with the family in the dining room. Dinner was again light-fish or egg, steamed or baked vegetables–often in her room unless the whole family was eating together. She was not keen on desserts and watched her weight.

As Mrs. Gandhi’s mind worked all the time and since it was sometimes not
possible for her to convey her instructions and comments personally to the person concerned, she would often leave slips of paper for them.  Her interest in books stayed with her from her childhood till the end. She was happy in their company and liked to be in touch with the latest thoughts and writings. Even if she travelled out of Delhi for a day, books would accompany her. Books and journals would collect in her room over a period of time. Mrs. Gandhi’s powers of observation were quite extraordinary. Even when her mind was involved in serious business, she never failed to observe minute details of the people and the environment around her. Sometimes we would be together at a place and on our return, she would refer to many points of interest which, to my embarrassment, I had not noticed. Her sense of humour was subtle, often going above the heads of others.

However, to say that Mrs. Gandhi was always pleasant and good-humoured would not be true. There were many rough edges to her personality. The pressures she faced often produced irritation and eruptions of temper. While Panditji also used to lose his temper, with him it was like a cloudburst which subsided immediately and there was a blue sky thereafter. It was not always so with Mrs. Gandhi. She could nurse grudges for quite a long time and some lasted all her life. Sometimes she would become cool towards a person who would often be unaware of having given cause for offense, thus leading to an uncomfortable atmosphere. One learnt to give her time and space.

After she became the prime minister, however, such moods decreased because she became completely involved in many activities in her own right. This gave her not only a sense of fulfilment but also left her with less time to brood over hurts and grievances. Still, the tendency did not disappear, and though it was not always visible, it was sometimes, reflected in her behaviour in the political field as well.

Mrs. Gandhi was humane, compassionate, and sensitive, but she did not find it easy to be large-hearted and generous. Possibly that is why she especially admired her grandfather, Motilal Nehru, who had these qualities in abundance.

She took her work–political and official–in her stride and it did not submerge the feminine side of her personality, which extended to different areas, ranging from her interests in hospitality and interior decoration to personal grooming.

In spite of her tremendous work schedule, Mrs. Gandhi managed to retain her grace and elegance, which had both external and internal aspects. There was nothing sloppy about her. No doubt she had an eye for beautiful saris but she also possessed the ability to carry them off with élan, which many women do not have. During her visits abroad, Mrs. Gandhi’s dress sense and her well-turned-out appearance were admired. She, of course, had a natural elegance, but for the trips abroad much planning was involved behind the scene. A chart was prepared indicating the different occasions she would be attending. Mrs. Gandhi’s saris and accessories were decided upon with great care with her concurrence, and these were then entered into the chart in different columns. This resulted in no wastage of time, as everything was planned and her clothes and accessories were kept ready for her rushed schedule.

How does one sum up Mrs. Gandhi’s personality?

According to Mary Carras she mirrored India in many ways: in the contradictions within her personality, her penchant for synthesis, and her singular ability to evoke both hate and love — to alienate and to charm, to frustrate and simultaneously to delight. Carras adds that the motivation of her personality blended in unique ways with opportunities offered, by her culture and that only in the interaction between her environment and her personality can her political behaviour and outlook be understood.

Of course, this is only one interpretation. Mrs. Gandhi was an enigmatic and complex person, and there are bound to be many different interpretations concerning her.

Very early on, I realized that to preserve a relationship with our friend [Mrs. Gandhi] it was essential to preserve, or build up a certain detachment, otherwise one would inevitably become vulnerable to being hurt, not intentionally, but because friend is moody (letter dated 28 August 1983)Marie Seton

Complex facets of her personality emerged: one intimate, leisurely and provocatively intelligent with the strongest inclination for the company of creative people, the other side, businesslike cool in appearance and with a swift withdrawal to irritability . . . Panditji by Marie Seton

It was hard to decide if he was a very handsome man in a hacked out sculptural manner, or if he was distinctly devilish to look at. As a personality, he might have walked out of a primeval forest, . . . But in contradiction to this primal quality . . . his intellect was tempered to the most scintillating impersonal steel . . . It crossed my mind that this man might be possessed of a streak of what is called genius. –Marie Seton on V.K. Krishna Menon

Although he genuinely admired his father-in-law, he thought there was something counterfeit in the cult developing around Nehru. He intensely disliked being introduced as ‘the Prime Minister’s son-in-law,’ . . . This only encouraged him all the more to establish his own identity. As Indira found a substitute satisfaction in attending to her father’s needs, Feroze sublimated his energies in attending to the needs of his constituents and to parliamentary affairsIndira Gandhi: A Personal and Political Biography by Anand Mohan

He hated protocol, state banquets, formality in any shape or form . . . The children, under his care, would not have been so bedazzled by their proximity to power . . . Indira had grown up at a time when India was engaged in [the freedom] struggle . . . Rajiv and Sanjay by contrast were brought up in the shadow of power politics
The Nehrus and the Gandhis: An Indian Dynasty by Tariq Ali

She was charged with a fierce sense of responsibility. Mrs. Gandhi said, “I was looking after myself from the time I was three or four, and whether I was or not, I thought I was looking after my parents.” It was this feeling that made her fiercely protective when she saw her mother slighted or neglected or pushed into the background–Indira by Katherine Frank

When I went to live with my father at Teen Murti House, the residence of the Prime Minister, it wasn’t really a choice. My father asked me to come and to set up the house for him. There was nobody else to do it. So I set up the house, bit I resisted every inch of the way about becoming a hostess. I was simply terrified of the so-called social duties . . . I used to stay for a period of time and then go . . . It was a real problem because, naturally Feroze didn’t always appreciate my going away. I was living about half the month in Lucknow and half in Delhi, until Feroze became a member of the Parliament.Indira Gandhi, My Truth. 

For many months following Feroze’s death, Indira retreated into herself. When Indira was at last able to speak about his death, she said to me that it would have been a far greater tragedy for her had she and Feroze not discovered a revived understanding of each other during their month alone in Kashmir. This was her salvation. She confessed that on the day he died and people crowded about her, their sympathy only made her feel more alone in her stunned condition. Panditji by Marie Seton

I am sorry to have missed the most wonderful thing in life, having a complete and perfect relationship with another human being . . . for only thus, I feel, can one’s personality fully develop and blossomIndira Gandhi by  Dorothy Norman,

In February 1967 Mrs. Gandhi was on a tour of Orissa, and while she was giving a speech in Bhubaneshwar, some rowdy young people threw stones to disturb the meeting. A stone hit Mrs. Gandhi on the face and a nasal bone was cracked. When she returned to Delhi, she looked quite a sight and had to be in the hospital for a couple of days. Her vanity had been hurt by the injury, and being always conscious of her long nose, she wrote Dorothy Norman half in jest:

“Ever since plastic surgery was heard of, I have been wanting to get something done to my nose . . . I thought the only way it could be done without the usual hoo-ha was first to have some slight accident which would enable me to have it put right. But as you know, things never happen the way one wants them to.”

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Mrs Gandhi in the Lidder river in Pahalgam, Jammu & Kashmir, 1956


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By courtesy: Indiraji by Usha Bhagat, Published by the Penguin Group, Toronto Ontario 2005

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