From a convent in Ambala to the high-profile corridors of power in Delhi, from an event manager in Dubai to a “serendipitous” meeting with Shashi Tharoor, from polarising the media to a fairy tale gone wrong, Sunanda Pushkar “died just as she had lived – dramatically”, says the definitive biography of a woman whose spirit was one that couldn’t be contained.
“Her life bewitched, her death baffled. Just like there are no clear answers to her death, there is no easy way to define the Sunanda that lived, other than to say she was uncontainable,” veteran journalist Sunanda Mehta writes in The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar.
“Was she an over-ambitious woman driven by her desire for power and money, not averse to using her ample charm and charisma to get what she wanted in life? Or, was she a bold, outspoken woman who had tasted success by her own merit, but who was, in the last days of her life, reduced to desperation as cracks emerged in her marriage? Was she a villian or a victim? Or a bit of both,” asks the author, Sunanda’s former schoolmate.
“Did she go in peace or pain? No one will ever know. And maybe few even want to now.”
Five years on, “we must wait for the verdict and for justice to be done to the memory of an extraordinary woman who could not be contained,” Mehta writes.
Beginning sedately in the Army cantonments where Sunanda and her two siblings grew up with her parents, the book explodes in the middle pages, with five crucial chapters – Power Couple,
The Sunanda Camps, Simply Outlandish, Fairy Tale Gone Wrong and The Beginning of the End – holding the key.
“In the final analysis, perhaps the fame and notoriety of Sunanda Pushkar were as much about our prejudice as her persona, as much about our attitudes as her ambition, about our need to fit people into a box as opposed to her determination to stay out of it. She was in so many ways a creation of the very media that loved to loathe her, that mocked her as much as it fed off her effervescence,” Mehta writes.
Thus, as Sunanda “stepped out of her comfort zone in Dubai and into the high-profile corridors of power in Delhi, she seemed perfectly poised for her new role as wife of a very important politician. But, was New Delhi prepared for her? Not in the least”, the book says.
“The conservative, contrived and complicated world of Indian politics in general and Delhi in particular had an axiomatic slot for politicians’ wives. There was a set mould such women were expected to squeeze into. They were rarely seen, almost never heard.”
“Sunanda broke both these rules. Unapologetically. She was seen everywhere; she spoke more loudly than Tharoor and commanded absolute attention at every soiree, from exclusive dinners in Lutyens’ Delhi to book launches, movie premieres and fashion shows, where Tharoor and Sunanda became absolute regulars,” the book says.
The upshot? “In 2011, Delhi saw itself divided into two Sunanda camps: there were those who loved her and those who loved to hate her. There was a third camp too, which gushed to her face and sniggered about her behind her back,” Mehta writes.
And, as Sunanda “stilettoed her way through Delhi’s high society, she did what few Delhi socialites had managed to achieve for themselves – polarise the press”.
Then, somewhere around 2013 “the fairy tale started going wrong. The chemistry altered. As did the PDA (Public Display of Affection)”.
“The couple’s public appearances were less frequent, and single attendances were glaringly on the increase. Tense tweets edged out mushy ones.”
Two main currents “tended to create frequent storms in the Tharoor-Pushkar conjugal household. The first was Sunanda’s fractious relations with Tharoor’s mother and sisters”.
Abhinav Kumar, Tharoor’s personal secretary and privy to much of the goings-on in the household, “also perceived a distinct cultural clash. Tharoor’s side was very cerebral, cultured, and dinner conversations would revolve around books, politics and the arts. Sunanda was more into glamour and partying”, the book says.
Adding to this, Sunanda “wanted complete control over Tharoor’s official engagements”.
“The personal secretary asked Tharoor if it was alright to do so, to which Tharoor resignedly agreed”, the book says.
In the end, Mehr Tarar, the Lahore-based Pakistani journalist, “was the real trouble. Everything else that was exploding around them was a mere spin-off from the core issue that had turned Sunanda from a feisty, vivacious and confident woman into a suspicious, cantankerous, antagonistic wife scrambling for proof of her husband’s infidelity”, the book says.
One last word is required. “There are undoubtedly many who will still remember and sorely miss her, but with time, the memories have been packed and stored away in the deep recesses of their minds. Except for one, who still lives and relives them every day. One soul that still yearns to recollect with her every single moment. One body that craves for her reassuring touch. One pair of eyes that searches for her incessantly. And then stares emptily at the emptiness,” Mehta concludes.
Title: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar
Author: Sunanda Mehta
Price: Rs 599