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The Rediff Special/Promila Kalhan

A Wedding in the Family

Priyanka and Robert On Tuesday, February 18, Jawaharlal Nehru's great grand-daughter will marry Robert Wadhera in a traditional Hindu ceremony. Promila Kalhan, the veteran journalist and Nehru watcher, was among the 50 guests who attended Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Maino's wedding in Delhi 29 years ago this month. In this feature, exclusive to Rediff On The NeT, she reflects on the good time and bad times for the nation's premier political dynasty.

Whenever the name Priyanka was mentioned, Rajiv Gandhi always said his daughter had taken after her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. Like her grandmother, Priyanka has been deeply interested in politics. It was presumed that she would, one day, make politics her career. But circumstances willed otherwise. Both her grandmother and father were assassinated and close friends of the Gandhi family were naturally concerned. They advised Sonia, Priyanka's mother, to ensure that her children kept away from politics. Among those friends is Amitabh Bachchan.

The friendship between the Gandhi and Bachchan families goes back many decades. Both the Nehrus and Bachchans belonged to Allahabad. Indira Gandhi often related how Jawaharlal Nehru would introduce his friend Harivanshrai Bachchan and his wife Teji to friends. He would say, pointing to Harivanshrai, 'this is a poet' and pointing to Teji he would add: 'and this is his poem!'

Teji, as a young wife and mother, was also interested in things literary. I remember watching her act in a Hindi version of Shakespeare's Othello. When the play was halfway through at a New Delhi theatre hall, Jawaharlal Nehru, accompanied by his secretary, walked into the hall and quietly took a back seat. But his entry did not go unnoticed. From the stage, Teji called out to the prime minister and requested him to take a front seat.

Those of us who attended the wedding of Nehru's grandson Rajiv some years later were aware of the fact that Teji Bachchan played the part of the bride's mother. Sonia arrived in Delhi a couple of weeks before the wedding which was fixed for February 25, 1968 and she stayed with the Bachchans.

Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Harivanshrai was then a member of Parliament and various pre-wedding ceremonies were held in the Bachchans's government bungalow, Amitabh livened them. A close friend of Rajiv he looked upon Sonia as his bhabhi. I remember him sitting on the floor of the verandah with a harmonium, singing humorous songs he had made up for the occasion. Amitabh had not yet joined the film world but was known to be paying visits to Bombay in search of film roles.

Today he is 'uncle' to Priyanka and her brother Rahul, two years younger to her. After Indira Gandhi's assassination and during Rajiv's prime ministership, his two children then still in school, led a difficult life. The country's first political family was among the most threatened. Priyanka and Rahul had to remain cooped up in the house and were forced to lead a confined existence. They were taught at home. Their friendships were restricted; only a few friends visited them at home.

To spend as much time with her husband as possible Sonia began accompanying him on his tours of different regions of the country. One saw the two often enough on television. If Sonia appeared grim, it was not surprising. The situation due to Indira Gandhi's assassination was the reason. She had never been keen on Rajiv entering politics. Rajiv, a pilot, was himself not keen on politics either unlike his younger brother Sanjay. But after Sanjay Gandhi's death on June 23, 1980 in an aircrash Indira Gandhi persuaded Rajiv to quit flying and enter politics. Rajiv fulfilled his mother's wishes and became an MP and later general secretary of the Congress party.

As a pilot, Rajiv and Sonia lived relaxed lives, holidaying, eating out in restaurants on weekends or attending parties with close friends. Rajiv kept a low profile. He was a gentle person, compared to his aggressive and extrovert younger brother, Sanjay. Sanjay's wife Maneka and Sonia did not get along too well due to their different temperaments. But both Sonia and Indira Gandhi were fond of Varun, Maneka and Sanjay's son.

After Sanjay's death, Maneka left Indira Gandhi's home after certain differences, never to return.

Sonia has seen many ups and downs and changes in lifestyle. Born on December 9, 1946 in Italy, she was one of four children. After schooling in a convent she was sent to Cambridge to study languages in order to became an interpreter. These she met Rajiv Gandhi who was doing a diploma course in engineering at Trinity college. Fate threw them together -- they shared the same landlady.

After a courtship in Cambridge, Rajiv and Sonia had a simple civil marriage in Delhi. A magistrate was invited to 1, Safdarjung Road. The couple signed a register and became man and wife. No more than fifty guests attended the wedding because that was the number the lawns at 1, Safdarjung Road could accommodate. However, a large number of guests were invited to tea by Indira Gandhi elsewhere the following day.

As an Indian bahu, Sonia had to learn Indian customs and adapt to the ways of her new family. She was quick to learn and was soon well adjusted in a family which also consisted of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi and brother-in-law Sanjay.

Rajiv, Sonia and Indira Gandhi She soon won their hearts. When Rajiv entered politics, Sonia's lifestyle underwent another change. She had already learnt Hindi. She now began to wear khadi saris, especially while visiting Rajiv's constituency, Amethi. Accompanied by Reena Singh, wife of Arun Singh, a Rajiv buddy who also joined politics, Sonia would go to Amethi's villages along with a doctor and a boxful of medicines for common ailments. She tried to care for the people of Amethi.

However, life became more formal once Rajiv became prime minister. However, she pursued her favourite hobby, restoration of old paintings. Her enthusiasm for art led her to take a course on the restoration of paintings at Delhi's National Gallery of Modern Art. That Sonia is a connoisseur of antiques and artefacts is revealed by the tasteful way in which she has decorated her home.

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