The Enigma Endures: Sunanda Pushkar and Her Complicated Story

The gripping biography of the ill-fated Sunanda Pushkar brings to life her eventful existence and remarkable journey.

It was a pleasant morning in November 2012 when I met Sunanda Tharoor. The winter chill had not yet set in, and my colleagues and I were at her sprawling Lutyen’s Delhi bungalow where she lived with her husband Shashi Tharoor, then Minister of State for Human Resource Development. We were there to interview her for our women’s magazine, and to do a shoot that involved three changes of clothes.

Her famous husband appeared both amazed and amused as he stood in the guest-room door, watching us flit about his wife: I was steering the interview while the makeup artist went about her assignment, and the fashion stylist fussed over her ensemble, holding up an alternative on a hanger. Shashi smiled with a bit of awe and wandered away.

It was an easy assignment for us all – Sunanda was gregarious, friendly and generous with details about herself (her favourite holiday destination was Italy, her most precious gift was a poem Shashi had written for her). She had smooth, glowing skin and a beautiful face, making the makeup artist’s job a breeze, and a figure that added glamour to any outfit she wore – a full bust, slender waist and sex appeal oozing from every pore.

“You’re damn right I’m a self-made woman,” she told me when I explained the ethos of our magazine and the kind of women we profiled. Later, she led me to the bedroom she shared with Shashi, strewn with books and photo frames, and opened up her wardrobe wide to allow me to choose a sari for one of the shoot looks. I remember feeling touched at her innocent trust in a complete stranger.

Sunanda and Shashi Tharoor.jpg
Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar

Much of these impressions came back as I read her biography, The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar, by her schoolmate Sunanda Mehta (Pan Macmillan India, Rs 599). The author took over two years to trace her namesake’s life, and etches a very compelling picture of her childhood in Jammu & Kashmir, her relationships and marriages, and her role as a single mother to a traumatised little boy.

It’s a riveting book not only because the protagonist’s life was so eventful but also because of the candour with which her story has been written. This is certainly no hagiography. The author – who is a seasoned journalist – deserves praise for portraying a realistic picture of the late Sunanda Puskhar, neither glorifying her nor serving up the complicated details of her life as salacious gossip.

Indeed, there are many complicated details, including those from Sunanda’s years in Dubai. It must have taken rigorous research to dig out details of how she met her second husband, and how she dealt with his death, including moving to Canada to start anew with her son.

Sunanda and Shashi Tharoor wedding
Sunanda and Shashi Tharoor at a Poor Home in Thiruvananthapuram after their wedding (2010)

The book also takes an objective look at Sunanda’s son Shiv’s life, his feelings, his frank disapproval of his mother’s marriage to Shashi and his sense of loss at her mysterious death. It does not sugar-coat Sunanda’s difficult relationship with Shashi’s intellectual family, nor her suspicious and somewhat crazed behaviour when she suspected him of having an affair with Lahore-based journalist Mehr Tarar.

It is at such moments in the book when Sunanda’s story really comes to life, and one can see her for all that she was – a mother doing the best she could for her son and herself, a woman who loved too easily, a wife who was feisty and outspoken yet vulnerable and insecure.

I’m reminded of her favourite quote she’d shared with me that day, 14 months before she died: “If your presence can’t add value to my life, your absence will make no difference.” No doubt, Sunanda’s presence and absence were both deeply felt.

First published in eShe’s September 2019 issue.

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