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Catfight on birthday
- Ladies clash over George

New Delhi, June 3: A doughty fighter and a fiery speaker during his prime, George Fernandes today sat nonplussed as the two women closest to him indulged in a catfight in public.

The occasion was the 80th birthday of Fernandes, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and was not aware of the fuss unfolding around him, although flashes of lucidity threw up some poignant moments later.

The squabble had followed a rare sight: Fernandes, flanked on his left by his estranged wife Leila Kabir, who after having separated from him over 25 years ago has lately taken control of his life, and on his right by Jaya Jaitly, his companion since 1984.

The happy picture was not a mark of reconciliation but a start to another round of open hostilities that had begun this January between Leila, the daughter of former Union minister Humayun Kabir, and her son Sean on one side and Jaya and Fernandes’s four brothers on the other.

In January, Leila and the 35-year-old Sean, an investment banker in New York, had requested police security as they apprehended “foul play/physical harm from some people” who they believed “have been looting whatever is left of (my) father’s assets and taking advantage of his poor health”.

With Fernandes in the deep recesses of Alzheimer’s, security personnel did not allow in anybody without clearance from Leila and Sean. This meant that many of Fernandes’s old associates, including his brothers and Jaya, were barred access to him.

But Jaya was not willing to take no for an answer from Leila, at least not today. After being made to wait for nearly half an hour, Jaya gatecrashed the party venue at Leila’s south Delhi house. Fernandes’s brothers had yesterday moved court to secure an order that extended their meeting time with him beyond the usual one hour the law had earlier granted.

Jaya and some associates waited outside the house for around 30 minutes and then entered. When she got close to Fernandes, the fight erupted.

Leila and Jaya called each other names and asserted their right on Fernandes’s life till associates reminded them to behave themselves.

But by then, both had let it be known to the world how the other had little idea of Fernandes’s needs, while his brothers assured him that they were working hard to get him back his “freedom”. Jaya kissed Fernandes and gave him a never-ending hug — her first meeting with him in six months — while Leila pottered about looking distraught. His brothers later claimed that Fernandes told them in Konkani he wanted to go “home”.

His brothers and Jaya have been alleging that Fernandes, now a Rajya Sabha MP, is nearly a prisoner. Leila claims that Fernandes’s fragile health does not permit public interaction.

Money — around Rs 16 crore — from the sale of a coconut grove in Mangalore is also involved in the dispute. Fernandes’s brothers claim that the money should go to NGOs as agreed between them and their brother last year while Leila wants it to be kept for her husband’s medical expenditure.

Fernandes, suffering from Alzheimer’s for the past few years, could not recognise most people at the gathering that apart from his closest relatives included several Tibetan and Burmese exiles, people and causes that Fernandes has supported in his long political career.

But he appeared to enjoy the music played by Burmese youngsters who wished their “Uncle George” speedy recovery. He even seemed to hum along as his friends tried to feed him Mysore pak, his favourite sweet, and coconut water.

Fernandes broke into a naughty grin when Jaya asked him to pose for photographers, nodded his head and said “yes” when she said he was looking handsome. He even seemed to remember an old joke between the two when Jaya asked whether he has found his Anamika.

“I had once dreamt that I was arranging his marriage with a woman called Anamika. I would always tease him whether he has found his Anamika (the unnamed). He seemed to remember the joke,” Jaya said.

Leila denied all allegations levelled by Jaya and said everyone was welcome to meet him as long as they phoned beforehand.

Leila had walked out of Fernandes’s house with the baby Sean in 1984 but the two never formally divorced. For several years now, at least till last January, Jaya had been Fernandes’s constant companion and political associate.

It was a little ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections that Leila resurfaced in Fernandes’s life, pleading that he be protected from the “coterie” that was pushing him into contesting as an Independent from Muzaffarpur in Bihar. Fernandes’s health and state of mind, Leila had said, did not permit active politics any more.

Fernandes, however, contested the polls despite being denied a ticket by his party on health grounds, and got drubbed.

Taking into account Fernandes’s age and his political contributions, the Janata Dal (United) offered him a Rajya Sabha berth. The term expires in the next couple of months.

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