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CIMA Gallary

Sonia and stardust

While Sanjay and his friends were working on their comeback strategy Rajiv and Sonia continued to live in apolitical obscurity. I saw them regularly at those same dinner parties and came to know them quite well. I discovered that Rajiv had enormous charm and now that we had broken the barrier on political discussions, he was happy to talk about anything with quite remarkable frankness. He never commented on his brother’s politics and it was clear that although they got on reasonably well their paths were quite different as were their friends. Sonia was more difficult to get to know because of her reserve but I discovered, quite by accident, that she would go out of her way to help people whom she considered her friends.

She had absolutely no interest in politics. The only comment on politics I remember her making was on a night when Rajiv and she were dropping me home after a dinner party. I asked her if she would like her children to be in politics some day, and she said, ‘I would rather my children begged in the streets than went into politics.’

This conversation remains vivid in my mind not just because of how much changed afterwards but also because the words she used to describe her disdain for politics were so fervent when she spoke them. We were driving past Race Course Road, where she moved when Rajiv became prime minister and where the prime minister of India continues to live, when she made the remark. She was sitting beside Rajiv who was driving, and I was in the back seat, and she turned around to look at me when she said she would rather her children begged in the streets than enter politics. There was something about the look on her face that made me wonder for the first time if she was not a stronger person than she gave the impression of being.

But, to come back to how I discovered that she could be a good friend. Madhu Jain, a colleague who had asked me to collaborate with her to write a book on the growing influence of Hindi cinema, called me one day to say that Khushwant Singh had become editor of a new magazine called New Delhi and wanted us to do a story on Bollywood. The only problem was that he wanted an important section of the story to be on a day in the life of Amitabh Bachchan. This was when Bachchan was at the height of his stardom and so much in demand that he was being described as a one-man film industry. Madhu said it would be impossible to get to spend a whole day with him unless we had the right introduction.

I told her that I knew nobody who knew him and she pointed out that I did. Sonia Gandhi. Amitabh Bachchan’s family was from Allahabad, like the Nehrus, and he and his brother had grown up with Rajiv and Sanjay. In 1968, when Rajiv and Sonia were married, Mrs Gandhi was prime minister and since it would have been inappropriate for her son to get married to a foreigner in Italy the wedding had to be held in Delhi. In searching for a bridal home for Sonia, the automatic choice seems to have been the Bachchan home and the Bachchans became Sonia’s Indian family. I knew that she treated Amitabh and his brother Ajitabh as her brothers.

Durbar
Author: Tavleen Singh
Price: Rs 599
Publisher: Hachette India

When Madhu suggested I ask Sonia to introduce us to Amitabh Bachchan, I hesitated because I had never asked her for a favour. But since it was our only hope of getting an interview with him I called Sonia. When I asked if she could introduce Madhu and me to Amitabh Bachchan she was more than ready to help. She said that ‘Amit’ was going to be in town soon and she would take us to meet him. One morning soon after, she rang to say that we should come to Amitabh’s parents’ house, next door to the Gandhis’, in 13 Willingdon Crescent. Madhu and I reached the Bachchan home, more than a little overwhelmed to be meeting the biggest star in Bollywood. I think we may have stared speechlessly like villagers when we went into the drawing room and saw him sitting there with Sonia. We were so starstruck, at least I was, that it took us a few moments before we explained that we needed to spend a whole day with him for an article on the film industry. Amitabh was charm itself. He said there would be no problem at all. All we would need to do when we got to Bombay was call his secretary, Rosy, and she would set it up.

After I had wiped the stardust out of my eyes, I remember thinking how odd it was that the Bachchan family should remain so close to Indira Gandhi and her family even after he became Bollywood’s ‘angry young man’. India’s symbol of rage against the government, the political system and the injustice of the established order of things. Because if there was injustice in the established order it was entirely due to the Nehru–Gandhi family.

But I remember this meeting in the Bachchan drawing room mostly because it was the first time I saw Sonia’s ability to go out of her way to help a friend. I was to see it again, many times, and must record that this was her finest quality.