By Vikas Datta
(Title: Feroze Gandhi - the Forgotten Gandhi; Author: Bertil Falk; Publisher: Roli Books; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 695)
He was a "VIP" in independent India, not because he was son-in-law of the Prime Minister (while his wife and son would go on to hold the post and a daughter-in-law be offered it), but because he was a lawmaker always ready to pin down his own party's government for any wrong-doing. But Feroze Gandhi's story is virtually forgotten or unknown, attracting scandals and conspiracy theories instead of serving as an example for democracy.
"He was a unique, real VIP, which stands here for a Very Investigating Parliamentarian," says veteran Swedish journalist and author Bertil Falk, who set out to remedy this deficiency in the narrative of 20th century Indian history, covering both its freedom struggle as well as the opportunities and challenges in the first decade and more.
At most, Feroze Gandhi has two biographies, and while he is referenced in many more dealing with the period, much of this is not very complimentary and a bit too much from rumours/hearsay or personal attacks, especially those by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru's ex-aide M.O. Mathai.
But this work presents him in a more balanced light.
In these pages, he comes across as a man of many parts -- a prankster, an indomitable freedom fighter, blessed with a fine hand at mechanical matters as well as a green thumb, having a thorough knowledge of the Bhagavad Gita, egalitarian, democrat and crusader for press freedom, but as much as a founding father of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as Motilal and Jawaharlal, though Falk says it is doubtful whether he would have liked this distinction.
On the other hand, he did not "always show the world's best judgement", displayed bitterness, an inferiority complex and "an inability to take care of his health", and was certainly a womaniser -- though how much this had to do with his wife staying away is debatable.
Beginning from Feroze Gandhi's parents and his birth (the first controversy), the account spans his early years in Allahabad, his baptism into the freedom struggle, his growing closeness to the Nehru family, his desire to marry Indira, the period in Europe, his exploits during Quit India, his stint in journalism, his stellar role in parliament, the growing estrangement from his wife, his death and his legacy.
Alongside there are insights into figures, known and less-known -- vivid examples of how Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, despite their preoccupations, always had time and inclination to look into problems and issues of individuals and how the latter never tried to misuse his power even against those who were slandering him. Then there is a celebrated Hindu scholar who sought to refashion Hindu wedding rites.
On the flip side, the views of Indira Gandhi and her short-lived successor Morarji Desai on education for the common people are scarcely believable.
Falk, who says the book marks the completion of his almost four decade-long "quest for Feroze bhai", notes his fascination with India began as a nine-year-old in 1942, but it was only in 1977 that he first visited the country and managed to interview an out of power Indira Gandhi. Asked by his editors for a photo as proof, he came back next year to meet her again. Seeing her family, he wondered where her husband was.
"I asked people and was told that his name was Feroze and he was no one significant," he says, adding his research however led him to believe otherwise. His initial thought was of an article in Swedish "but the more I learned about him, I decided on a biography".
This quest led the author to make multiple visits to India, search through published material and question those who knew him or had worked alongside. This spans his family, close associates, residents of villages where he had agitated, as well as politicians including Tarkeshwari Sinha and Subhadra Joshi, with both of whom he allegedly had affairs.
But why we need to know about him, says Falk, is due to his main legacy -- his performance in the Lok Sabha during his life's last five years, "which unfortunately did not set a trend, at least not on his own party" but can still serve as a ideal to emulate for "young people, not only in India, but all over the world".
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)