Although a silent backbencher at first, Feroze soon became a stellar parliamentarian. He remained a left-winger within the Congress, as Nehru had been in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1955 Feroze forced the nationalization of life insurance in India after his expose; of the illegal dealings of businesses and insurance companies. A vociferous defender of the freedom of the press, he also piloted a law allowing the Indian press to report on parliamentary proceedings, a law Indira Gandhi would repeal during the Emergency.
In spite of these successes or perhaps because of them, and Feroze’s arrival in Delhi, his relationship with Indira did not improve. He was suffocated by Nehru’s presence and found living in Teen Murti House intolerable. ‘Although he genuinely admired his father-in-law, he thought there was something counterfeit in the cult developing around Nehru . . . and intensely disliked being called “the Prime Minister’s son-in-law”.’ Rumours flew about Feroze’s peccadilloes and affairs. He would even publicly show off his friendships with the glamorous members of Parliament Tarakeshwari Sinha, Mahmuna Sultan and Subhadra Joshi as if to thumb his nose at his illustrious in-laws and delight in embarrassing them. Tarakeshwari Sinha, however, denied any such affair, saying, ‘If a man and woman have lunch together immediately there are rumours of an affair . . . I once asked Indira Gandhi if she believed all the rumours, that I was also a married woman and had a family and reputation to guard, she said she did not believe the rumours.’
Whether Feroze’s love affairs were just romantic enthusiasms or full-blown lusty liaisons, they were still talked about breathlessly, and most people were certain there would be a divorce because of Feroze’s affairs or because Indira wasn’t a devoted enough wife. There were also rumours of Indira’s own affair with M.O. Mathai, Nehru’s secretary, the aggressive, short-statured factotum, who was Nehru’s shadow for thirteen years from 1946 to 1959. Mathai, also called ‘Mac’, was a lively, interesting personality, with a gift for languages and the art of witty conversation. He was an energetic workaholic and an efficient, frank and fearless man who Nehru relied on completely and whose intimacy with Nehru Indira resented, just as she had been uncomfortable with Nehru’s closeness to Vijayalakshmi and even to Edwina Mountbatten. Yet, however much she may have been resentful of Mathai, she was also allegedly his lover.
In Mathai’s autobiography, Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, he allegedly wrote a chapter entitled ‘She’ which describes a ‘passionate’ Indira with whom he apparently had a twelve-year-long affair. The version of the alleged chapter widely available online on various right-wing websites has lines such as ‘she has Cleopatra’s nose, Pauline Bonaparte’s eyes and the breasts of Venus’. The chapter says her ‘cold and forbidding’ reputation was only a measure of ‘feminine self-protection’; she was ‘exceptionally good in bed’; ‘in the sex act she had all the artfulness of French women and Kerala Nair women combined’; she loved ‘prolonged kissing’; and she became pregnant by the author and had to have an abortion. The unverified online version quotes Indira as saying she could not bear to ever be married to a Hindu, and once said, ‘I like the Queen Bee. I would like to make love high up in the air.’ At the end of the chapter is the line ‘I had fallen deeply in love with her.’
‘She’, containing highly explicit details of an apparently intensely physical relationship, was never published. Frank, however, believes Mathai did write it and that Maneka Gandhi circulated this same chapter (which is now available online) after she fell out with her mother-in-law. The publisher of Mathai’s book, Narendra Kumar of Har-Anand Publishers, says that he cannot verify if Mathai wrote ‘She’ as the publishers did not receive the chapter with the original manuscript.
Indira’s relationship with Mathai has never been clarified. Nehru’s biographer Sarvepalli Gopal says Indira and Mathai ‘enjoyed baiting one another’ and describes the relationship as one where ‘Indira encouraged him [Mathai] beyond normal limits’. Frank writes that in her interview with B.K. Nehru, who had no reason to bad-mouth Indira, he suggested that there might have been some sort of affair between Indira and Mathai and that the ‘She’ chapter contains ‘more fact than fiction’.
‘Mathai did a lot of damage to Nehru,’ says Natwar Singh, close associate of the Nehru-Gandhis, former Congress politician and bureaucrat in Indira’s secretariat from 1966 to 1971.47 ‘He was close to the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency]. Between 1946 and 1959 every single paper that passed Nehru’s desk went to the CIA. As for the affair, he spread all these tales for his own reasons.’ Mathai would quit Nehru’s service in disgrace in 1959, after Feroze Gandhi’s friend Nikhil Chakravartty exposed his various shady dealings in property and cash stashed abroad. His writings on Indira thus could well have been the vengeful outpourings of an embittered individual.