Sunanda Pushkar Book: ‘I’d Be A Better Politician than Tharoor’

‘Had she lived and not made the mistakes she made, she would have definitely gone places.’

Updated02 Aug 2019, 06:14 AM IST
5 min read

Popular writer Shobhaa Dé summarized the situation in a single line: ‘Some women marry the wrong man. This one married the wrong city.’ To her, Sunanda seemed a misfit in Delhi. ‘She was a bit too out there, too outspoken, too much of a non-conformist.’ Dé remembers Sunanda dancing at a private party held on the terrace of a restaurant at Jaipur’s famed Amer Fort. Shashi Tharoor was a minister at the time. While he wasn’t present, many of his friends and associates were in attendance. An ambassador who noticed Sunanda swaying sensuously, said to Dé, ‘I cannot imagine a minister’s wife in my country dancing in public like this. It would not be accepted!’ Sunanda had looked smashing and seductive that day, recalls Dé. She really didn’t care what people thought of her.

A Fifty-Plus Couple Carrying on Like Teenagers in Love

One of the most-awaited soirees in Delhi during the winter was the Christmas lunch hosted by Union Minister Salman Khurshid and his wife Louise at their house every December. It was an occasion to be seen at, to network and to exchange gossip more spicy and succulent than the luscious kebabs served at the party. Needless to say, Tharoor and Sunanda were at the top of the guest list.

The 2010 lunch was particularly high on the glamour and curiosity quotient as the couple about town walked in hand-inhand, about four months after their fairy-tale wedding. There were many noteworthy personalities present that day on the lawns of the Khurshids’ Lutyens’ bungalow. ‘But all eyes were on the lady sporting a cow girl look complete with knee-high boots and a checked shirt. She was charming, warm, gushing, pulling her husband’s arm, jaan come here, jaan let’s go there,’ wrote journalist Saba Naqvi, who was at the party. She commented that the couple made for great recall, constantly searching out one another amidst the crowd.

Reshmi Ray Dasgupta too was there, and not a bit mystified b y the couple’s actions and words. ‘They had brought in some wonderful fresh peaches for the guests, and Shashi got some in his hands and came over to Sunanda and said: “Darling, I have got you these peaches.” Sunanda replied: “No, I want my own,” and he went on in this baby voice: “You mean I will have to eat all of these by myself?” It was surreal … you don’t talk like that at fifty-five – though some would strongly aver – no, if you can do that at fifty-five, you’re an inspiration,’ says Dasgupta with a smile.

But how much of this was for real? To those who couldn’t wrap their heads around a fifty-plus couple carrying on like teenagers in love, much of their behaviour seemed put on or fake. But the Tharoors gave scant attention to such party poopers. In 2012, during a discussion on Tharoor’s newest book at the time, Pax Indica, at the residence of the French ambassador in Delhi, Tharoor was eloquent as usual, and Sunanda sat in the front row, furiously tweeting her husband’s words, minute for minute, ignoring all the glances coming her way.

Not Just Empty Talk

Tharoor would begin his talks at events to which he came alone by saying he was missing his wife, eliciting appreciative ‘awws’ from the audience. When Sunanda would come along, she would give him coquettish looks, popping everything from prasad to pappadams in his mouth. She even posed for photographs under a ‘Pushkar’ signpost in the vicinity of the pilgrimage city arm-in-arm with her doting husband, who had clearly made the trip there to indulge her.

But it was all not air-kissing and empty talk on her part. Through all the party-hopping and champagne-popping, Sunanda was discreetly doing what she did best: aggressive and focused networking. At many a cocktail party, while she appeared effusive and garrulous, she would be systematically networking with people who mattered and exchanging numbers with those who even had the potential to matter at some later date.

Sunanda’s Infallible Ability To Go Straight for the Kill

‘My first impression of Sunanda was that she was a very talented woman when it came to being able to mould the socio-economic ambience to her advantage. She had the ability to almost always land on her feet and gain rapid ground. She knew just how to manoeuvre the coordinates. And this was not a skill that she learnt from proximity to Tharoor – she always had it,’ says well-known journalist Nalini Singh, commenting on Sunanda’s infallible ability ‘to go straight for the kill’.

Nalini was with Sunanda at a Ritu Beri fashion show at the Hyatt in mid-2013 where the likes of Abhishek Bachchan and Farooq Abdullah were also present. Nalini had moved away from the group and happened to be standing near a glass door, when she sighted Congress leader Sonia Gandhi walking in with an elderly lady – her mother – and family friends Suman and Manju Dubey. They were clearly there for a private dinner.

Nalini waited, out of curiosity, to see where they would go and sit, and then told Sunanda, ‘Your boss is here.’ Immediately Sunanda asked Nalini to come along with her to say hello, to which the journalist said a firm no. So Sunanda convinced Congress politician Saleem Sherwani, who was also around at the time. She just walked up to Sonia Gandhi and her associates and made small talk with all four people in the group.

Party Seniors Responded More Quickly to Her Emails than to Shashi’s

Sunanda seemed to Nalini bold, brash, and never one to let a good opportunity pass. ‘She returned and told me that she would make a better politician than Shashi, to which I replied: “I can see that!” She retorted by saying that anyway the higher-ups in the party responded more quickly to her emails than to Shashi’s!’

Nalini always felt that Sunanda’s outreach was amazing, ‘like a honeycomb’s’. She could also see that Sunanda was extraordinarily glamorous. Wherever she went camera fl ashes would go off. One could hear her walking in, her stilettos clicking and clacking; she would revel in being the centre of attention. Nalini conceded that Sunanda had not got all her calling cards for nothing; she had worked assiduously for them. She would make contacts and work on them, knowing where they could lead her. And, of course, she was a wonderful hostess who conjured amazing Kashmiri dishes, though she hardly ate much herself.

Nalini remembers a marvellous dinner she hosted for the delegation of the visiting former Canadian prime minister. ‘Had she lived and not made the mistakes she made, she would have definitely gone places,’ says Nalini.

(This is an excerpt from the recently-released biography of Late Sunanda Pushkar. Titled The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar, the book is written by journalist Sunanda Mehta. Sub-headings have been added to the excerpt by The Quint.)

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Published: 01 Aug 2019, 02:31 PM IST
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