'In Dubai, she couldn't care less what others thought; in Delhi, she had to': Sunanda Mehta on Sunanda Pushkar

In Dubai, she couldnt care less what others thought; in Delhi, she had to: Sunanda Mehta on Sunanda Pushkar

The author of The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar (published by Pan Macmillan) talks about the process of writing the book


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Fri 9 Aug 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 16 Aug 2019, 10:48 AM

In January 2014, 49-year-old Sunanda Pushkar, wife of Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, was found dead under mysterious circumstances. A media trial followed soon after. For journalist and Pushkar's namesake Sunanda Mehta, the woman whose death was making headlines was something more than just Mrs Tharoor - she was the young and shy girl she'd met in their school in Ambala, who fought against all odds, climbed the social ladder in Dubai on her own terms and found her own feet. A reason why, Mehta feels, her life deserves as much spotlight as her death. Her new book, The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar, attempts to revisit her life, and death, through different vantage points. In a chat with WKND, Mehta talks about the putting together the many pieces of Pushkar's complex life.
Sunanda shot to public imagination when she married Shashi Tharoor. In your book, you have mapped her journey through life. Why was it important to you to tell that story?
I guess mainly because I knew the other Sunanda. When everyone else saw this glamorous and confident woman after she came to be known as Tharoor's companion and then wife, what I saw was that shy and unsure girl I had known in Ambala. The transformation was so stark that, in itself, it merited a story. What propelled me, though, to really do this seriously was her death and the mystery surrounding it. She was a woman whose death defined her life. Because in her death, she also became not merely a subject of controversy but also conjecture. The many stories about her Dubai background, so-called ambitions, fortunes and even temper and tantrums just before her death, painted a picture of a woman that I felt was not quite true or just. If nothing else, all of it needed to be understood in the right context. Hence, I set out to find that context, that life which was responsible for shaping her into a woman who became so uncontainable.

Author Sunanda Mehta
Her Dubai years played an integral role in her life. How did it shape the person she eventually became?
I think her second phase in Dubai set the foundation for the rest of her life. This was when she tasted success at work, made more money than she had ever imagined and swiftly climbed up the social ladder. It put her in a different league - one inhabited by people like Tharoor, which again probably made it much easier for her to meet him. I would say her Dubai years, second time round, gave her the confidence and the belief that she was meant for higher things in life.
Her controversial death has become the biggest talking point around the late Sunanda Pushkar with various theories being put forth. In that sense, any book on her is half-expected to address that incident more elaborately. Did that thought, at any point, overwhelm you as a writer?
Yes. I was aware that a book on Sunanda Pushkar cannot shy away from discussing the most crucial part of her life - her death. But at the same time, I told myself that I cannot harbour any delusions that I would succeed where the investigators had not. So, I freed myself from the expectation of this burden - that the book will unravel the mystery of her death and concentrated instead in putting together an honest account of a phenomenal, if complicated, life.
Based on your research, how would you describe the relationship between Sunanda Pushkar and Shashi Tharoor?
As the proverbial opposites who attracted each other initially, but then as the honeymoon period ebbed, found it difficult to ignore and adjust to the very obvious differences. This may be more true for Shashi, though. The chemistry they seemed to share initially was very real - I don't think anyone could fake that. But then so were the cracks that emerged far too soon. And because the relation had seemed so ideal, the disenchantment and distancing became even more difficult to take. It was certainly more true for Sunanda.
When did she begin to nurture political ambition?
I think she would say all this just for impact. There was no way she would have fitted into this country's political milieu. All her statements regarding politics, in my opinion, was just empty talk - maybe to put Shashi on the defensive, maybe to prove something to him or just command everyone's attention. I remember talking to one of Tharoor's OSDs at that time and he said she would tell him, "One day, Shashi will become the President and I will become the Prime Minister - you decide in whose office would you like to work then!" No one took these statements seriously and that is why I feel the relationship did not change because she seemed to harbour any political ambitions - there were too many other, and more significant, factors.
She made her way through the Dubai high society but felt as though she was the 'outsider' among Delhi's swish set. Can you draw parallels between the two?
Maybe because in Dubai society, status is primarily based on money, which Sunanda did manage to earn. The fact that she stood on her own feet and made it big on the dint of her own skills and hard work gave her the confidence to hobnob with the elite in Dubai, without harbouring a sense of inadequacy. Her astoundingly good looks and personality added to her popularity. In Delhi, the climate was different. People there were seldom what they appeared to be on the face, especially in the specious world of politics. They would be nice to her on her face but sniggered about her middle-class background, flashy dressing sense, loud and outspoken behaviour (which is surprising because Delhi is not exactly known for subtlety either).
Also, in Dubai, she could be herself and not care what people thought. In Delhi, she had to give others' opinions some credence, simply because she was now the wife of a very important politician and hence under constant scrutiny and sizing up. There was then also this perpetual comparison between her and Shashi - of his intellect and her socialite tag, of his genteel ways and her brash attitude. All of which, may not have given her a complex - she was far too confident of herself for that - but did make her feel uncomfortable. Maybe the crux was just this - in Dubai, she couldn't care less what others thought, in Delhi, she had to.

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