During the height of the 1975 Emergency in India, Don Moraes found himself sitting opposite Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, then the effective dictator of her country, and staring into her "totally uninterested" eyes. Moraes had gone to Gandhi's office to ask her for funds so that he could produce some educational films. She arranged it. Then she asked him, across her massive desk, if he wanted to stay in India.
As though a light had been switched on in his head, Moraes tells us, he suddenly "realised that she had given me something back which I had completely lost: she had given me roots."
An Indian by birth who had been educated in Britain, spend most of his life there and now held a British passport, Moraes was not sure just how Gandhi imparted the gift to him. "She may not have intended to do so," he notes, "but to me quietness is more important than words."
This frequently pretentious biography, which begins with Gandhi's ancestors in the Vale of Kashmir in 1716 and traces her life up to her latest inauguration in 1980, is full of such deductive conclusions based on words unspoken, gestures, sniffles and the fluttering of a single eyelid. Perhaps this is not surprising, since Gandhi, as Moraes and most writers who have tried to interview her have learned, says little of consequence and rarely offers any insights into herself.
Possibly because of what he perceived as her gift of roots to him, Moraes has written a paean, a book that Gandhi could hardly fail to find pleasing. It is almost a song of love, unrequited in the main, which Moraes delivers with candor. It requires considerably less interpretation from the reader than Gandhi's cryptic interviews required of the author:
"I found myself liking her," he writes of their first formal meeting. "It is very difficult to say why one starts to like anybody. The sexual relationship between casual lovers, or husband and wife, seems to me unusually to be a fusion, magnetic almost of opposite poles . . . but the actual liking of a person with whom you are not physically involved is different. . . . I had liked her and she had not liked me. . . . I had liked her and had been of no interest to her."
Besides repeatedly describing her infrequent and fleeting smiles as "dazzling" and "captivating," Moraes makes frequent references to the appearance of Gandhi's head, sprinkling throughout his description the adjectives "neat," "patrician," "pretty," "noble," "dapper" and "handsome."
In the end, all this adoration was for naught. Shortly before she was re-elected to Parliament in 1979, Gandhi apparently picked up some rumor of uncomplimentary articles Moraes had supposedly written about her. Her reaction was to send him a letter severing their relationship and giving him no opportunity to respond.
The story Moraes unfolds between his initial discovery that he liked "the lady" and her letter of dismissal tells us little not already included in other biographies. There is Indira's grandfather, Motilal Nehru, an incorrigible Anglophile until his fateful meeting with the saintly Mahatma Gandhi; Indira's fastidious father, Jawaharlal Nehru, destined to become India's first prime minister; Indira's long-suffering husband, Feroze Gandhi; her sons, Sanjay and Rajiv.
Above all there is Indira, who in childhood dreamed of herself as Joan of Arc and who, as an adult, Moraes writes, dreams of martyrdom, but somehow always manages to survive.
Moraes, whose literary reputation is based mainly on his poetry, provides a journalistic synopsis of Gandhi's rise to power, first in her father's shadow and eventually on her own; her arrival at the zenith by military victory over Pakistan; her rather precipitous decline and, once again, her return to the office she now occupies.
But unlike his father, the late Frank Moraes, without doubt the finest Indian newspaper editor of his era, the author makes only fleeting and few efforts at objectivity.
Gandhi's imposition of the Emergency in 1975, which was to deprive the people of India of their fundamental liberties for nearly two years, he terms essential -- not for her own political survival, but to keep India from crashing into chaos and aparchy.
This was exactly the claim Gandhi made in rationalizing her unilateral suspension of democracy. It runs counter to firsthand reporting by a large number of diplomatic and journalistic observers in India at the time, myself among them.
Moraes offers no explanation for the traditional lack of a viable opposition to the Congress Party, which resulted in the ineffectual Desai regime. Rather, he seems to delight in describing the bumbling, fumbling efforts of that government as the schemes of evil men and fools.
In place of a balanced view, Moraes simply points out, without comment, a few warts on his subject.He notes, for example, that he once observed Gandhi as she "stook in silence, and very faintly smiled" while Congress Party toughs attacked a woman author who had written an uncomplimentary account of the then-unseated premier. He also reports Gandhi's reaction when he asked her why she had ignored repeated appeals to help a distinguished Indian actress imprisoned during the Emergency.
This woman, who was in frail health to begin with, was treated as a common criminal and became so ill that she died a week after her release. Gandhi claimed that the actress had been a communist terrorist. When Moraes noted that he knew the woman and her husband, an outstanding film producer, and was certain that neither was a Communist, Gandhi's only reply was "humph."
After knowing Gandhi for more than a decade, Moraes tells us, he has concluded that, "to me, she is a good and gentle woman who lost part of her heart on the way to wherever she now is."
This is, I think, as good and honest a statement as Moraes makes anywhere in his book.