In Brahmanwada village, near the ancient town of Vadnagar in Mehsana district, Jassiben, as she is known locally, is the grandmother, who spends most of her time reading religious books and is popular among children for distributing prasad every day. At 62, she has no children or grandchildren of her own to keep her busy. Her husband, Narendra Modi, the 63-year-old PM candidate of Bharatiya Janata Party, hardly met her after their wedding in 1968, and after three years, never returned.
On April 9, more than four decades after their marriage, Modi finally acknowledged Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi as his wife,
as Jashodaben Narendra Modi, when filing his nomination for the Vadodara parliamentary constituency and recently, for the Varanasi constituency, prodded by a Supreme Court judgment that requires candidates to fill in all the columns in the nomination form. Since the marriage was never registered, all the official documents mention her maiden name.
The locals and family, of course, knew. “When I got married seven years ago, I knew I was going to the home of Narendra Modi’s wife,” says Daksha, the daughter-in-law of Jashodaben’s youngest brother Ashok alias Pravin Modi, in whose house she stays.
One of the two doors of the two-room house opens to a kirana shop, Modi General Stores. A worn-out wooden table inside lays out an assortment of wares — from flavoured candies to soaps — in the room, which also serves as the living room. The second room serves as a kitchen and sleeping area. A tin trunk here serves as a stand for a small TV in a corner.
“Since she is a member of the Swaminarayan sect, she does not eat onion and garlic, and eats only twice a week. Recently, she gave up rice, and is now on a barefoot pilgrimage, as part of her vow to see Narendrabhai as PM,” says her niece Sonal, showing photos of Jashodaben at her own wedding last year.
Though the family claims that she is on Char Dham yatra and will be back on May 17, a day after the elections results will be declared, her whereabouts have not been known ever since Modi filed his nomination papers. Recently, there were rumours that
she was spotted at Ramdev’s ashram in the Himalayas.
“She spends most of her time in bhakti,” says Ashok’s wife Jayaben, reluctant to give more details. A few more questions upsets her, “You will get your story, but we have to face the samaaj (society) after that,” she says, adding that we had been lucky to get an interview with Jashodaben once and should not expect more.
In January, when The Indian Express met Jashodaben, she spoke in detail about her marriage to Modi, going public for the first time, after he became the PM candidate. A bride of 17, she left her education mid-way for marriage. However, she spent just about three months with him across three years. “Initially, he took interest in talking to me and even in the affairs of the kitchen… Kabhi sansaar nahin baandha (we never shared a husband-wife relationship),” she had said, smiling even through the difficult parts of the conversation. Eventually, he became busy attending RSS shakhas and hardly came home. “The superiors had told him to lead a celibate life, and he promised them that he would not keep any contact with his wife…,” says a source close to Modi, on condition of anonymity.
“Whenever I would go to my in-laws’ house, he would not be there, and he stopped coming home (Vadnagar). So I also stopped going there after a point and went back to my father’s house,” she said, dressed in a pink saree, wearing a huge silver-lined bindi and a few bangles. But whenever they met, Modi encouraged her to pursue her education.
She appeared for her Secondary School Certificate (SSC) exam in 1974, six years after her marriage, and did her primary teachers’ course (PTC) from Dholka (Ahmedabad district) in 1976 and became a teacher in 1978. She retired in October 2009 from the Rajosana primary school in Banaskantha district. The eldest child of school teacher Chimanlal and Sakriben Modi, she earns a monthly pension of Rs 14,000.
The Modis are a small and close-knit community of oil-millers, locally known as ghanchis, and are part of the Other Backward Communities’ schedule. “The CM’s marriage took place under family pressure as his (Modi’s) father Damodardas was friends with Chimanlal Modi,” says the source close to Modi. In fact, a day after Modi filed his nomination, the BJP issued a letter signed by Modi’s eldest brother Somabhai. The letter termed Modi’s marriage with Jashodaben a “formality” and a “child marriage”, and appealed to “countrymen” not to judge Modi in the “context of what happened 45-50 years ago”. Somabhai described their family of five brothers and a sister as “poor and orthodox” that blindly followed “wrong social practices”.
“Back then, their father did not understand what he meant when Modi said he wanted to remain a brahmachari. Modi had requested his father to reconsider the decision even a day before the marriage, but his father said it was not possible to leave the girl’s family in distress as the invitations had been distributed,” says the source, adding that after the marriage, Modi asked his wife to marry someone else if she wanted to. “She said she could not even think of it. When she left, he asked her to take whatever she wanted from his house, and Jashoda asked him for books,” he says. Though Modi willingly gave his books, most of which were on spiritual or political matters, he expressed his doubt whether she would be able to understand politics. “She said she would, eventually,” says the source.
They never formally ended the relationship. Neither did Modi ever consider a legal separation nor did he wish to restore the relationship ever. “But he will never talk about it (his relationship) in public because he thinks it is a private, unspoken agreement between him and Jashodaben,” says the source.
With inputs from Aditi Raja