Book Review: Sunanda Pushkar

The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar, Sunanda Mehta

Sometime in January 2014, the media was abuzz with stories about the heated exchange between Sunanda Pushkar and Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar. Then suddenly, news appeared that on January 17, 2014, Sunanda, businesswoman and wife of writer and politician Shashi Tharoor, had been found dead in her hotel suite in New Delhi.

The death came as a shock to everybody who had known Sunanda. Even before the news sank in, Sunanda Mehta, journalist and former classmate of Sunanda Pushkar, had got a request to write a 1,500-word article on the latter from a leading Indian newspaper.

The two Sunandas were in school together in Ambala. “There was no time to process anything — the shock, the grief, the regret from never reconnecting with her after she shot into fame as Mrs Tharoor. I had thought of doing so often, but always postponed it for another day. Now that day would never come,” writes Sunanda Mehta in her book, The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar.

After Sunanda Mehta signed a contract with Pan Macmillan India to write the aforesaid book, she realised that she had a huge task at hand. She drew up a list of people she had to speak to and was dismayed that the number was around 150.

The prologue of the 300-page book opens with the emotional state of Shiv Pushkar Menon, Sunanda Pushkar’s son, on the day of her death. The two had been having many arguments over the telephone; he was in Dubai, she in Delhi.

The book then traces Sunanda Pushkar’s life starting from her birth and through her school and college years, her relationships with her brothers, through her marriages, businesses, and her life across countries — India, UAE, Canada, and back again to UAE.

During her college years, Sunanda Pushkar came into her own, transforming from a gawky teenager to a young woman. She went through many turbulent relationships, some of them have a lasting effect on her life. Her relationship with her brothers were no less rocky. In 1986, she married a fellow Kashmiri, Sanjay Raina, but the relationship ended in divorce two years later. She later married Sujith Menon, whom she met when she moved to Dubai in 1989. They parted ways and the relationship ended with his death in March 1997. Sujith was found dead in a hotel room in Delhi, just as Sunanda was to be found dead in a hotel room in the same city, 17 years later. Sujith was the only man she had truly loved, Sunanda had confessed to a friend.

Sujith’s death left Sunanda not just emotionally shattered but also financially vulnerable, says the author. Her deceased husband’s debts had devolved on her.

As the author traces Sunanda’s life, the reader realises that she had been patiently rebuilding her life, both financially and emotionally, several times, even as she moved from country to country. She lost a lot of wealth due to wrong calls in business. But she was able to build it all back in a fairly quick time as her ambition and capability remained unmatched.

In 2010, Sunanda met Shashi Tharoor, politician and writer. In the chapter, A Serendipitous Meeting, the author outlines Sunanda’s wealth, sourced from Tharoor’s annual asset declaration statements filed in January 2013. Much of her wealth was in real estate assets, the rest being jewellery, watches and cars. Just as she was slowly getting embroiled in the IPL controversy came the news that Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda had got married. As the legally wedded wife of one of India’s most charismatic politicians, Sunanda had arrived, landing in India’s power capital with enviable aplomb, writes the author. The book makes for an interesting and engaging read, the credit for which should go to Sunanda Mehta’s research and writing skills.

“Clearly, I had underestimated the task at hand. Or overestimated my own capabilities. Perhaps both,” she notes in the acknowledgment.

Of the 300 in her list of people that Sunanda Mehta was to speak to, many declined. Shashi Tharoor was one of them. He refused to talk to her quoting his lawyer’s advice. But Sunanda Pushkar’s brothers and son agreed to speak to her. The author also travelled to many places — Dubai, Canada, Kerala, Delhi and Chandigarh — in search of material for the book.

According to the author, the book is an honest, unbiased and accurate story of a woman who was special. “A woman who, through her sheer dynamism, turned what could easily have been an ordinary life into one that was truly extraordinary,” she writes.

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