When Sunanda Mehta first met her namesake, Sunanda Pushkar, at Convent of Jesus & Mary (CJM) — Ambala, the latter was a “shy, reserved, unassuming 15-year-old”, nothing like the woman she’d become in later years, one “whose presence you couldn’t ignore”.
Just a few years after that, when Mehta met Pushkar once again (in Jhansi this time), she found her friend had transformed into “a confident, attractive 19-year-old who made heads turn”. Mehta recalls that all the young girls in Jhansi wished they could be like Sunanda Pushkar: tall, beautiful, magnetic.
Pushkar already seemed destined at the time for celebrity; it might explain how, on hearing the name “Sunanda” in connection with Shashi Tharoor and the IPL sweat equity row in 2010, a friend instinctively wondered if it was the same girl from Jhansi from all those years ago.
In identity and certain aspects of her personality, she may have indeed been the same, but Sunanda Pushkar had also had an extremely eventful life in the interim. And a mere four years after the IPL controversy that propelled her into the media glare, followed by her high-profile marriage to Tharoor (and its subsequent breakdown), she was dead. The circumstances leading up to her end and the manner of her passing were undoubtedly shocking, but there had been more to her life than her death; Sunanda Pushkar’s entire narrative was in danger of being overshadowed by the nature of her demise.
Veteran journalist Sunanda Mehta painstakingly pieced together this narrative for a biography of her long-ago friend. The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar (Pan Macmillan) features in-depth research by Mehta that shines a light on the various aspects of Pushkar’s life: from her childhood and youth to her earlier marriages (with Sanjay Raina and Sujith Menon), her stints in Dubai and Canada, her involvement with the IPL and of course Tharoor, her days in Delhi, all the way up to her death and the investigations that followed. Research was just one part of the book; Mehta had to ensure that she double and triple-checked every piece of information about Pushkar’s story (since there were conflicting reports/opinions), conduct extensive interviews with people from her circle, while also determining what material had the necessary veracity to be included in the biography.
There were challenges aplenty in putting together the book: Mehta was turned down by nearly half the interviewees she approached; she travelled to the US, Canada, Dubai, Chandigarh and Thiruvananthapuram among other places, to collect information first-hand, and knew she had to avoid any sensationalism seeping into the book. But of one thing she never entertained any doubt: Sunanda Pushkar’s story deserved to be told.
Mehta deftly etches a nuanced portrait of Pushkar’s persona, and a picture emerges of a restless, intelligent woman, looking to attain the best in everything, moody and temperamental on occasion, yet also drawn to simple pleasures; a loving mother and generous friend. Inescapable in this account, is a sense of Pushkar’s vitality.
From Pushkar’s close friends and a former partner Mehta learnt that when by herself, Sunanda was simple and straightforward, content with small pleasures like listening to ghazals and old Hindi (film) songs, the warmth of a cosy corner in her home.
Pushkar’s happiest moments “were spent cooking, especially for people she cared about”. “She was an amazing cook who could churn out an elaborate and delicious meal for 30 people all by herself. She was not an extravagant spender nor was she overtly conscious or narcissistic about her good looks. She loved life, she derived a lot of her energy from people, would happily go out of her way for (helping) others, was eager to please and was a true friend,” Mehta enumerates.
But Pushkar was also “insecure,” Mehta adds, “given to serious bouts of temper which might include flinging things around the house and at the subject of her displeasure. Many who knew her said Sunanda’s moods swung from one extreme to the other”.
As a mother, Pushkar was deeply caring, generous and spontaneous. A challenge she must have had to navigate would have been in balancing her roles as a single mother and the breadwinner, Mehta speculates.
“A lot of (Sunanda’s son) Shiv’s childhood was spent in the homes of relatives or close friends while Sunanda busied herself in earning a living, and this did impact his emotional wellbeing… (When) she left Dubai to come to Delhi as Mrs Tharoor, her thoughts were constantly with the son she had left behind and whom she could not persuade to shift with her. Till her last day she agonised over his wellbeing, about making a will to ensure his financial security. Till the end, his was the only voice that had the ability to calm her down and make her see,” Mehta says.
Between the Sunanda Pushkar Mehta had known growing up in Ambala and Jhansi, and the Sunanda Pushkar in the national spotlight, there was a vast chasm of many years. But some things Mehta could trace back to an early time. Pushkar’s boldness, for instance, which back in the ‘80s had been in direct contrast to their peers also from Army families.
“Her sheer pluck and confidence amazed me,” Mehta says, recounting how Pushkar chose to study in Srinagar, living in a hostel instead of with extended family, worked in a hotel, moved from Dubai to Canada and then back again.
As she delved into Pushkar’s later life, Mehta was surprised by how Pushkar — who, as a child, had harboured a complex that her brothers were the favoured ones in the family — was able to deal calmly with a Delhi society that sniggered at the new Mrs Tharoor’s antecedents and Dubai days while making nasty insinuations about her past.
“She simply strode into that social circle with her head held high, and charmed even her worst detractors. While Sunanda did say that she felt like a misfit in Delhi and its web of politics, she never said that she felt less than equal to anyone there. I think that was fabulous,” says Mehta.
Also surprising to Mehta? Pushkar’s “uncharacteristic carelessness with her finances”; Mehta says Sunanda “seemingly left them in a mess”: “She owed Tharoor about $2 million that she had borrowed to pay off some mortgages; the paper work for many of her properties is incomplete; and she never got down to making that will she talked about. For a supposedly sharp and astute businesswoman, this lapse is inexplicable.”
Among the insights included in Mehta’s book is this: “She (Pushkar) always seemed to be looking to better her lot — when it came to men, (her) stature or the quality of life. At no point did she appear content”. It’s a succinct observation, but a highly illuminating one.
“This restlessness, this feeling that she deserved better — which by no means is a negative feeling — propelled her through the different phases of her life even as she encountered so many challenges, both financial and emotional… But I feel she was able to take these head-on, knowing they were the result of her own decisions,” Mehta says.
Ultimately, it was the challenges that Pushkar was unprepared for, things she couldn’t control, that threw her off balance.
“The most important amongst them was when, in the last year of her life, she felt her marriage coming apart,” says Mehta. “I personally feel that after marrying Tharoor, she felt settled, she felt she had got what she she’d been looking for her whole life — love, respectability, stability, fame... When this started to slip away from her — for whatever reasons, real or imagined — she just went to pieces. It resulted in her public outbursts and tantrums, frequent displays of temper, reckless statements in the media, Twitter wars etc — all of which ended in a way it should never have.”
The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar (Pan Macmillan) by Sunanda Mehta is now available in bookstores
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Updated Date: Aug 07, 2019 09:41:48 IST