'I came back to give my son a father but the father never showed up'
The pungent smell of herbal medicines hangs heavily in the air. Packets of adult diapers lie on the floor. A tall frail man sits on a bed, holding a book in his hands. He smiles with evident pleasure at the cover and fumbles with his glasses. An aide comes forward and places his spectacles firmly on his nose. Now he can see better — and his smile broadens as he looks at his photograph on the cover of the book.
It’s his own biography — written by Kannada writer J.B. Moras — that brings a smile to George Fernandes’s face. The politician, suffering from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, has lost most of his memory. But he knows who he is.
“He is absolutely child-like now — but it seems that he still remembers himself as George Fernandes,” says Jayati Leila Kabir, the former defence minister’s separated wife who is now back in his life after 25 years.
It’s a reunion that has kicked up a furore. Fernandes’s brothers have accused Kabir of not allowing him to meet them. The 79-year-old MP’s long-time companion, politician Jaya Jaitley, too has been barred from interacting with him. But that doesn’t bother Kabir, who has taken her husband to healer Ramdev’s ashram near Hardwar for treatment. “I don’t care if someone dislikes the idea of my being with him. At this juncture, my only concern is his health,” says Leila Kabir, 73.
Some believe that at the crux of the feud over Fernandes is his property worth over Rs 26 crore. Jaitley’s camp says that his thumb impressions were forcibly affixed to documents by Leila and George’s son, Sushanto Kabir Fernandes, or Sean, as he is known. “We took the thumb impression because we want his money to be spent on his treatment,” Kabir retorts. And she, in turn, is scathing about the Fernandes brothers’ attempts to turn his property into a memorial trust. “It’s as if they are talking of him posthumously,” she says.
“For the past 25 years, I never interfered in his life, nor did I ever have any complaint against him. But now, when I know that he is suffering and there is no one to take care of him, I am here to be with him,” she says.
Kabir learnt about George’s illness in 2007 from Sean who’d just met his father in Canada. She called on him after that, and they met on a few occasions. “Despite his bad health, he came to my house in Panchsheel Park to wish me on my birthday in 2008,” says Kabir, who runs a school for underprivileged children in Delhi.
The estranged wife — out of the news for long years — made her presence felt in the run-up to the 2009 election when she made a public statement, urging that Fernandes be “protected” from the “coterie” that was pushing him to stand for elections. He had been persuaded to fight as an independent candidate from his old Muzaffarpur constituency in Bihar after he was denied a ticket by the party that he helped found, the Janata Dal (United), on health grounds. Not surprisingly, he lost the seat.
“It was a sin to push him to elections,” says Kabir, who was once awed by the charisma of “giant killer” George — an appellate that he earned when he defeated Congress heavyweight S.K. Patil to make his parliamentary debut from Mumbai in 1967.
When the once firebrand socialist — one of the mainstays of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance — was given a Rajya Sabha seat last year by his party, he was already too ill to function as a parliamentarian. Kabir went with him to the oath-taking ceremony. “I had never attended any of these ceremonies earlier, but this time I wanted to be by his side,” says Kabir, who has spent only 13 years of her married life with her husband.
The two got married on July 22, 1971, barely three months after their first conversation on a flight back to Delhi from Calcutta. George, then the general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party, was returning from what would be Bangladesh while Bengali Leila was on her way back home from the battlefront where she’d gone as an assistant director of the Red Cross. “He recognised me from our earlier meetings at (socialist) Ram Manohar Lohia’s house, and sat next to me. From literature to politics to music — we discussed everything. Before disembarking, he asked me if he could drop me home. A proposal which I politely refused,” says Kabir.
But she couldn’t refuse him for long. “We met frequently. A month later, he proposed marriage. I said: ‘I am a difficult person. Are you sure you want to marry me?’ He promptly replied: ‘Yes’. It was like a whirlwind,” she smiles.
Marrying a politician was not difficult for the daughter of Humayun Kabir who was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet. Her educationist father, she says, greatly influenced her life. “He taught me not to compromise ever.”
It was this that prompted her to walk out of Fernandes’s life in 1984 with Sean, then just one-and-a-half years old. The cracks in the relationship had started showing up much earlier. “We were holidaying in Gopalpur in Orissa when the Emergency was imposed. George immediately left saying he had to fight for democracy. I didn’t hear from him for the next 22 months,” Kabir recalls.
She went away to the United States with her son to stay with her brother. Later, when the Emergency was lifted, Fernandes called them back. But things had already changed by then, she says. “George was a completely different person. He was on the dizzy heights of power and position. I came back to give my son a father but the father never showed up. A lot of things had happened by then.”
Among them, she says, was the growing closeness between Fernandes and Jaitley. But despite the relationship that carried on for 25 years and more, he never divorced Leila. “When I sent the divorce papers to him, he sent me two gold bangles saying that they were his mother’s. I got the message that he wanted to convey,” Kabir says.
Her son, she adds, was “insecure” and “disturbed” about his parents’ break up. “When he saw his father engaged in another relationship, he would ask me if I planned to do the same. When I said no, he felt reassured.”
But it was their son who asked her to take care of his father at the fag end of his life. “My son realised that George had been deprived of good care. So he wanted me to be with him,” she says.
Sean, an investment banker, lives in the US with his Japanese wife and 10-month old son. During his visit to India in December last year, he stayed with his father at the latter’s official residence at Krishna Menon Marg in central Delhi. In January this year, he filed a complaint, asking the police to provide security to his immediate family and instructing the guards not to let anyone enter the house without the immediate family’s authorisation. “My son did what he thought is right,” says the mother.
Kabir stresses that all that she is doing is for the sake of Fernandes too. Now, some 200 kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Delhi, she spends her days with him — the way she did when they got married. “He enjoyed visiting the Har ki Pauri ghat in Hardwar on Basant Panchami,” says Kabir. “In the evenings, we listen to western classical music.”
But even in these moments of togetherness, the thought of Jaya Jaitley is never too far away. “Knowing well that he must be thinking of her, I told him that Jayaji was in Chennai, which was why she couldn’t come and see him. He nodded and smiled.”
It’s time for Fernandes to go for an evening walk — a part of the treatment prescribed by Ramdev. As Kabir prepares to leave with him, I ask her — “What if he doesn’t remember you one day?”
“I know this is going to happen but I don’t fear that day. All I am happy about is that he gives me a benign smile when he sees me,” she says. And then she walks down the corridor, making a conscious effort to match her steps with those of her ailing husband.