cover image INDIRA: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi

INDIRA: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi

Katherine Frank, . . Houghton Mifflin, $35 (592pp) ISBN 978-0-395-73097-3

The most striking aspects of Frank's readable, well-wrought biography are Gandhi's sad childhood and her reluctance to enter politics. She attended upwards of seven schools in Switzerland, England and India and was often separated from her family—her tubercular mother died when Indira was 19; her father and many family members were in and out of jail during the Independence Movement. Indira herself was sickly (she spent 10 months in a sanatorium in Switzerland during WWII), and, at 37, she wrote to a friend, "I am doing a tremendous amount of work these days but I have not discovered my métier yet." Schoolmate Iris Murdoch remembered Gandhi as "very unhappy, very lonely, intensely worried about her father and her country and thoroughly uncertain about the future." Only after the deaths of her husband, Feroze Gandhi; her father; Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first leader; and Lal Bahadur Shastri, his successor, did she come into her own politically. Not a political biography, Frank's book (via letters and conversations with close confidants) comes closest to showing the human Indira who joined politics because she felt duty-bound to uphold her father's secular, inclusive vision of her homeland. Frank (A Passage to Egypt: The Life of Lucie Duff Gordon; etc.) shows that Gandhi's increasing isolation, loss of confidence and closeness to her son, Sanjay, caused her later to impose the Emergency (suspending civil liberties and jailing opponents) and play castes, religions and political groups against one another—contrary to her father's ideals. But she is far less knowable in the book's second and third sections, when she becomes the paranoid, ruthless leader remembered for her despotism. 12 pages b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Virginia Barber. (Aug. 14)

Forecast:As the first biography of the late Indian leader, this will surely receive review attention and should sell well among those interested in India and in the life of an extraordinary woman.