| Fond memories
Indiraji Through my Eyes By Usha Bhagat,
Penguin, Rs 595
Call it the black man's burden if you will. But butlers, nursemaids, chaperones and all the red-blooded corps who serve royalty slightly west of this land bear memories of their dead masters and mistresses more lightly than do their kind here. Little wonder the print industry is booming with their sudden recollections every day while publishers (and worse, readers) here have to make do with humourless, gratuitous accounts from former secretaries of long dead autocrats.
This one is from Usha Bhagat, former kindergarten teacher who considers it her 'destiny' to have been a victim of Partition, to have resettled in Delhi, to have found employment in Aunty Gauba's school where the two children of her mistress-to-be studied, and to have been employed by Indira Gandhi, whose household and office she served (although intermittently) for 31 years.
Bhagat, thankfully, does not attempt a biography of Mrs G, but tries to present only her 'perceptions'. And since the statement 'Not being a clever person, I am putting down my feelings in a straightforward manner' (as she wrote in 1964 to Indira G in one of her many letters of resignation left on the table for her employer) is her hallmark, one would be unwise to try and see too much through her eyes.
Bhagat, undoubtedly, 'sees' a lot of things in the three decades she is associated with the Nehru-Gandhis ' Indira's angst as she tries to balance her marriage with her duties towards a successful but terribly lonely father, a young and busy mother's worries about her growing children, her sorrow at the death of her husband, father and then son, her meticulousness as a hostess and a career politician, her arduous climb to the top, slide back and return, the marriage of her children, the manipulations of her PAs, bureaucrats and then her younger son. And during all this, the momentous events of history during Indira Gandhi's own era ' the Bangladesh war, the Emergency, Operation Blue Star.
And yet the recollections of birthday surprises, flower arrangements, planning of cultural events, Bhagat's foreign itineraries with Indira and some (definitely not all) inconsequential missives from her employer take up so much of her time and space, that none of the aspects mentioned above can be saved from superfluity. As a completely docile, eminently snubbable, undemanding employee and friend (on and off, for Bhagat never ceases to complain how cold, formidable and incomprehensible Indira G would become at times), whom Indira seems to have intrinsically trusted, Usha Bhagat had access to the Nehru-Gandhi household for several decades. But so besotted she is with the image she creates for herself of her employer ('kind and humorous' with the entirely forgivable moodiness, which Bhagat attributes to her sorry childhood) that not one family secret is given out, not one event recollected in which Indira Gandhi would seem unjust. Indira G is, at the most, injudicious. 'Perhaps in the two most tragic decisions of her political career,' says Bhagat, 'the Emergency and Operation Blue Star ' either Mrs Gandhi was not allowed to take the decisions in her own style or perhaps things moved too fast and left her no alternative.'
Did things move too fast for Bhagat as well' It obviously did. She seems to have been childishly happy and satisfied with her life and responsibilities prior to Indira's entering of the political arena. She took care of the children, their play, their studies in their mother's absence, supervised the running of the household, ran errands for Indira Gandhi, selected gifts and planned cultural programmes for foreign dignitaries, went on occasional foreign junkets and enjoyed the closeness to the mistress (she is thrilled to bits by the fact that she had to once share the room and at another time the bathroom with Indira) and her foreigner friends like Marie Seton.
Indira Gandhi's political ascendancy changed all that. Unable to withstand the cunning and competition of powerful personal assistants and bureaucrats, Bhagat sought solace in music and cultural activities elsewhere. As for her official work, she managed the more mundane matters for Indira G ' first when she became the information and broadcasting minister under a cloud of controversy, and ultimately, the prime minister: the planning of her ensemble (Bhagat gives away Mrs G's vital statistics), the rearrangement of paintings, attending to small needs. But she was there always. And Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought her out, for companionship, for support. By the Eighties, however, with sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren, and too-big-for-their boots PAs like R.K. Dhawan, even this companionship had become redundant. Is that why Bhagat seems so distanced when Mrs G dies, when she talks of the arrangements made for her dead body as mechanically as she recalls those made for her father'
But if Usha Bhagat did manage to grow out of the shadow of her mistress, why do her recollections of Mrs G not reflect that' Why does she have to quote others each time she has something to say about anything significant, be it on the political events or on personal relationships within the family' Bhagat always thought of herself as a square peg in a round hole during her working years with the Nehru-Gandhis. Is she still trying to fit in'