Book Review: Indira, The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi – Katherine Frank

Biography of Indira Nehru Gandhi, India's first female prime minister, is nothing short of a thriller novel. One of the best reads of my life.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

When it comes to politics, I admit I have a funneled approach to the whole thing. My view of the behind-the-scene theatrics is limited and I form my opinions on the watered down information I receive. Growing up over the years, in school and in conversations with family and friends, I had read and heard references of times of political unrest in India. But like many self-centered teens, I had no interest in the issues crippling my country. In fact, it was only in the lockdown that I discovered a new interest to read about India’s political history. It was finally time to delve deeper, connect the dots and fill out the missing blanks.

On 18th November 2020, I placed an order for Indira, The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi by Katherine Frank and within 24 hours I had the paperback in my hand. Brilliant timing I say, because roughly a century ago, on 19th November 1917, Indira was born to Jawaharlal and Kamla Nehru. Little did the proud parents know that their demure and timid daughter would go on to make history in an independent India. In the early 1900s the Quit India Movement was gaining momentum. The Indian National Congress, spearheaded by the suave and Oxford educated, Motilal Nehru (Indira’s paternal grandfather) was switching ideologies to adopt the more austere and Khadi-led approach of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

I’ll be honest, when I first started the book, I wasn’t sure i’ll be able to read the entire biography with the same gusto. Biographies, I have found, tend to be at times dry and slow. However, to my surprise, I was hooked on to the book right from the beginning. I never skipped a line, let alone a paragraph. And now, even after devouring the book for over two months, I wish it kept going.

Indira Gandhi Nehru led a life right out of a thriller novel, add to this already intriguing personality Frank’s eloquent and well-researched writing and you have yourself a masterpiece. There is no better book that encompasses Indira’s life and gives a detailed account of her actions and thoughts. From early on, Frank set’s the foundation for certain characters who make a recurring appearance in Indira’s life and help shape her personality. Perhaps one of the more popular incident of Indira’s life is the collection of letters Jawaharlal wrote to her from his time in the prison. Contrary to my earlier held belief, Letters from a Father to his Daughter, is hardly an emotional saga of a distraught father missing his child, instead it is a practical account of advice, suggestions and at times admonishments. Yet, it is a reflection of a bond, and above all a strong sense of responsibility. No excuse, not even the fact that he was in jail could dissuade Nehru from communicating with his daughter.

Frank takes this, and other significant periods in Indira’s life to help the reader take a peak inside the mind of a young Indira who is on the precipice of forming opinions and charting her own path. Indira’s wedding and the subsequent divorce from Feroze Gandhi, the loss of her parents, her battle with Tuberculosis and the birth of her children, each one of these milestones is beautifully portrayed along with some lesser known anecdotes which were equally important in Indira’s life. These subtle yet defining moments stand out in the book. What she lacked in bookish knowledge, she made up for it in how she handled herself around an audience – whether it was her presence in a cotton-clad sari in the midst of a war zone comforting women and children or impressing foreign dignitaries through her wit and charm, Indira knew how to work the crowd

As a biographer, Katherine Frank is honest and to the point. She is blunt in presenting both sides of Indira – her ascension to the ‘mother of the nation’ and a disappointing end to a legacy. Frank writes unreservedly about Indira’s passion and fervour for India and its rural population. With the same unforgiving style, she brings Indira down from her pedestal and shows her paranoid and controlling side which eventually led to the downfall of the ‘iron lady of India’. There was never a moment in the book when Frank wasn’t neutral. She puts forward facts and lets the reader decide what to make of it.

As for me? While reading the book, I loved and hated Indira Gandhi in equal measures. It’s hard not to when you read a 500+ page account of someone’s life. In her lifetime, Indira Nehru Gandhi was given many names – woman of the millennium, mother India, Goddess Kali to name a few. But at the end of the day, she was just a person. A person capable of making mistakes and taking drastic decisions, which ended up costing her life. 

As one of Indira Gandhi’s close advisor stated back in her day “India is Indira. Indira is India.”

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