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Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi Hardcover – January 7, 2002
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The veteran author of critically praised books about Emily Brontë and Lucie Duff Gordon has written an exemplary popular biography of the powerful, controversial prime minister who indelibly shaped the world's largest democracy. Katherine Frank's solidly researched narrative is particularly good on the early years of Indira Gandhi (1917-84), cogently delineating her complex relationship with her father, nationalist hero Jawaharlal Nehru, which was intimate when they were pouring out their feelings in letters, but strained when they were actually together. We see an intelligent, strong-minded woman coming of age in a turbulent time marked by her relatives' frequent stays in prison as India struggled for freedom from Great Britain. After independence, when Nehru became prime minister, Gandhi was politically active but for many years resisted seeking power in her own right. Following the deaths of her husband (Feroze Gandhi, no relation to the Mahatma) in 1960 and Nehru in 1964, she moved into the top spot, aided by the Congress Party bosses' mistaken impression that she would be a figurehead they could manipulate. On the contrary, Frank shows Prime Minister Gandhi prompted by her deep fear of disorder toward increasingly authoritarian acts, most notoriously the state of emergency declared in 1975, when she authorized the arrest of many opposition leaders. Frank depicts Gandhi as having more faith in her personal bond with the Indian people than in the messy workings of democracy. But the religious and political divisions inflamed by her policies came home to roost in 1984, when she was assassinated by her own bodyguard, a Sikh enraged by the massacre of militant Sikhs in the Golden Temple. This sympathetic but unsparing portrait makes it clear that Gandhi was a flawed leader but evinces compassion for a woman striving with a difficult personal and political legacy. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
The most striking aspects of Frank's readable, well-wrought biography are Gandhi's sad childhood and her reluctance to enter politics. She attended upwards of seven schools in Switzerland, England and India and was often separated from her family her tubercular mother died when Indira was 19; her father and many family members were in and out of jail during the Independence Movement. Indira herself was sickly (she spent 10 months in a sanatorium in Switzerland during WWII), and, at 37, she wrote to a friend, "I am doing a tremendous amount of work these days but I have not discovered my mtier yet." Schoolmate Iris Murdoch remembered Gandhi as "very unhappy, very lonely, intensely worried about her father and her country and thoroughly uncertain about the future." Only after the deaths of her husband, Feroze Gandhi; her father; Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first leader; and Lal Bahadur Shastri, his successor, did she come into her own politically. Not a political biography, Frank's book (via letters and conversations with close confidants) comes closest to showing the human Indira who joined politics because she felt duty-bound to uphold her father's secular, inclusive vision of her homeland. Frank (A Passage to Egypt: The Life of Lucie Duff Gordon; etc.) shows that Gandhi's increasing isolation, loss of confidence and closeness to her son, Sanjay, caused her later to impose the Emergency (suspending civil liberties and jailing opponents) and play castes, religions and political groups against one another contrary to her father's ideals. But she is far less knowable in the book's second and third sections, when she becomes the paranoid, ruthless leader remembered for her despotism. 12 pages b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Virginia Barber. (Aug. 14)Forecast: As the first biography of the late Indian leader, this will surely receive review attention and should sell well among those interested in India and in the life of an extraordinary woman.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
Gandhi’s story is a tragedy – perhaps a tragedy for India, but that conclusion would be too political for Frank’s purposes. It is a tragic love story: her sincere attraction to husband Feroze -- interrupted by his philandering, her commitment to her father’s work, and their incompatible politics and ambition -- and which is ultimately restored upon his deathbed. Frank’s telling of Gandhi’s life is also a Greek tragedy in form and a Shakespearean tragedy in substance. A prologue (of three chapters) describes her Kashmiri, brahmin, patriarchal family history. The following eight book chapters covers the next three phases of her life: her youth in Anand Bhavan and in Europe, during which she challenged her father’s expectations, worried after her mother’s illnesses, and suffered her aunt’s indignities; her early adult years, seemingly fearing a life of politics while also being drawn to it; and her mature years as a subject of admiration throughout the world and also as a leftist, populist, strongman. Finally, of course, the remaining few chapters provide a bloody conclusion that starts with the Golden Temple and ends in her bodyguard’s betrayal. The true tragedy, though, is not her death -- or anyone’s death for that matter -- but her abandonment of all of her father’s and grandfather’s political and moral values in the (some would say vain) attempt to preserve their political and moral triumphs.
The chapters covering her youth appeared to me at first to go into too much detail into Gandhi’s daily life – at school, with friends touring Europe, and in various sanitoria and hospitals. However, that level of detail ultimately proved useful in two ways. First, it provided a sturdy factual foundation to support Frank's uncanny ability to get into Gandhi’s head and speculate persuasively about her motivations as a daughter, wife, mother, and politician. Second, it served to humanize a figure that could very easily be demonized by the end of the book. If a person who once cried over her mother’s health, schemed to find time to share with the man she loved, cuddled and doted after her grandchildren, and weighed multiple times into filthy crowds of sick refugees in order to help feed and clothe them, but later in life turns a blind eye to corruption, lays waste to a house of worship, and imprisons political prisoners and journalists, it could be for reasons other than being merely a villainous, corrupt politician. Frank forces us to reconcile the reality of corruption – that it is rooted in the faults of people just like us, not just in the malevolence of greedy elite oligarchs.
That Frank’s book shows sympathy for Gandhi as a person does not make it a hagiography. Her assessment of Gandhi as a leader and as an individual is balanced. Frank honestly confronts Gandhi’s authoritarian instincts, noting that, “On the surface many people felt better off and their lives seemed to run more smoothly under the Emergency. But they had lost significant constitutional freedoms, including freedom of speech and assembly and the right to habeas corpus,” while also stating that Gandhi “was guilty of hubris but not megalomania.” Acquitting Gandhi of megalomania is perhaps arguable – and I’m sure many Indians who lived under Emergency would dispute that conclusion – but, again, Frank’s attention to Gandhi’s personal motivations makes her assessment credible.
Whether Katherine Frank has done Gandhi’s historical reputation a favor can be debated, but the book is definitely a contribution to understanding Indian history. But, even if you aren’t interested in the history of India, it’s also just a darn-good story.
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