A Hunter professor’s biography of a once famous but now overshadowed 20th century freedom fighter has rocketed to the top of a bestseller list in India.
History Professor Manu Bhagavan’s book on Madame Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, an Indian politician and diplomat who died in 1990, reached No. 3 on the prestigious Asian Age nonfiction bestseller list within two weeks of the book’s launch in India in December.
The book, published by Penguin/Allen Lane (India), is being hailed as the definitive biography of Madame Pandit, a daughter of the prominent Nehru-Gandhi family. A fierce anti-colonialist, she was jailed several times in the 1930s and ’40s during India’s struggle for freedom from Britain.
Even before independence in 1947, she served as the first woman cabinet minister in the British Empire with major portfolios. Later, she was a parliamentarian, ambassador to the United States and the USSR (among other nations), and (in 1953–54) the first female president of the United Nations General Assembly.
But after stepping in to defend democracy from an authoritarian takeover by her niece and India’s first female prime minister, Indira Gandhi, Madame Pandit was erased from history in retribution.
“She was one of the most important women of the 20th century, but now she is recalled as a footnote,” Bhagavan said. “The biography seeks to restore her legacy within the broad sweep of global and Indian history and the era’s anti-colonial struggles.”
Bhagavan recently returned from a packed, 10-day tour of India, visiting Bangalore, Dehradun, Mussoorie, and Delhi to promote the book. The events drew a galaxy of VIPs, including historian and public intellectual Romila Thapar, writer Alan Seeley, foreign-policy expert Raja Mohan, top economist Kaushik Basu, and film director Deepa Mehta.
A highlight: Nayantara Sahgal, Madame Pandit's 96-year-old daughter and a famed writer, spoke at the book’s launch in Dehradun.
“After making introductory remarks, she participated through the rest of the evening, which went on until the lights actually went out at the venue, the famed Doon Library. She even further celebrated over dinner and whiskey,” Bhagavan said.
The book is based on eight years of research, using material in five languages, from seven countries and more than 40 archives. Bhagavan is hoping to publish an edition in the West.
Watch a segment on the book by top Indian newscaster Barkha Dutt below: