The woman whose presence you couldn’t ignore was a girl her classmates scarcely remember now. Sunanda Mehta pieces together the shy, introverted Sunanda Pushkar they knew from school and small cantonment towns who, once she came into her own, couldn’t be held back.
Simple. Quiet. Unassuming. Not quite the adjectives one would readily employ to describe Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor, the late wife of Union minister Shashi Tharoor, who was found dead on Friday evening in a Delhi hotel. Yet these were precisely the words making the rounds on at least two Whatsapp groups as the news of her death filtered in, along with shock and grief at the tragedy.
One message said, “She was in my school but don’t remember talking to her much at all.” Another said, “I just have a very vague recollection of her”, while one was a little more precise: “Wasn’t she that very quiet and studious Red House captain with long plaits?”
Sunanda Pushkar, of the wavy blond tresses, lilting loud laugh and a presence you certainly could not ignore, clearly travelled a long way from her growing-up years in small cantonment towns such as Ambala and Jhansi, given that most of her former schoolmates from the Convent of Jesus of Mary (CJM), Ambala, and Kendriya Vidyalaya, Jhansi, two of the many schools she studied in as children from the defence forces typically do, had a tough time Friday placing her from their school years. To the few who did seem to know her better, she was this thin, Kashmiri girl, with the traditional red threads dangling from her pierced ears, very polite, but one who kept mostly to herself.
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Michelle Pinto, a former British Airways air hostess and now a soft skills trainer in Pune, was a classmate of Sunanda at CJM, Ambala. “Our respective fathers, who were from the defence services, were posted there at the same time. Not only were we classmates, we were also on the student council together, she being captain of the Red House. Sunanda was a shy and unassuming girl at school and kept a low profile. As we were captains of different houses, we were in almost constant competition at inter-house events,” recalls Pinto.
Devinder Sharma, a senior marketing manager with a diagnostic firm in Chandigarh, was also a classmate at CJM, Ambala, and remembers Sunanda as an introvert. “She joined CJM in Std VII or VIII. She was in my section. I remember she was always neatly dressed, carried a smile on her face and was very disciplined. She didn’t mix much with boys in the class, so I had very limited interaction with her.”
Even Neelam Pratap Rudy, wife of MP and BJP general secretary Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who studied with Sunanda both in the Ambala and Jhansi schools, admits to having only a “vague” memory of hers from schooldays. “I got to know her well only later in Delhi, and no, we never talked of school because we met mainly at parties,” says Rudy, expressing shock and dismay over her sudden death.
Alpana Mittal, a Delhi-based jewellery designer and another classmate from CJM, remembers Sunanda as “quite reserved”. “We were friends but she never talked much.”
Former CJM principal Sister Francesca, who appointed Sunanda house captain in 1980, is surprised that she can’t remember much about her other than her name. “I remember most students who were part of the student council, but she just doesn’t come to my mind at all,” says the nun known for her razor-sharp memory.
So when did Sunanda, the stories of whose background in the media invariably begin from her avatar as an ambitious businesswoman in Dubai, transform from this simple and disciplined Army kid, educated in Kendriya Vidyalayas and convents, and prone to being more a part of the background than the limelight, to a woman eagerly climbing the social ladder and dabbling in both big money and power play? To this reporter who knew her both as a schoolmate who was a year senior at CJM, Ambala, and then later as a family friend in Jhansi, the move from the proverbial plain Jane to the glamorous woman who made heads turn probably came about during her years at the Government College for Women in Srinagar, around 1983-84.
Those were the days her father Colonel P N Dass (now retired) was posted in Jhansi, and Sunanda would regularly troop down from Srinagar for holidays. It wasn’t long before she started making her presence felt amongst the Army crowd there. “In fact, small-town Jhansi had never seen anyone quite like Sunanda,” says the wife of a former Army officer who was posted in the town at that time. Gone were the hair plaits, the awkward gait and also the shyness by then. Within weeks of her first arrival in Jhansi, she became quite the toast of the town as, all of 17-18, she attended parties, Army events and had the defence community enamoured of her vivaciousness and arresting looks.
That was also probably the time she realised her own attractiveness and her gift of impressing people. “There was this fashion show that we had put up in the Army club, and she was our star model. I remember she set the stage on fire. But for all the confidence she exuded, she was really very simple. We had to even explain what a blush-on was to her and she actually borrowed clothes and shoes from other people to put together her attire,” says another Army wife.
If in 1983 Sunanda was sashaying down an unsophisticated ramp in borrowed feathers, her personal assets, declared on the PMO website as part of minister Tharoor’s assets, amount to well over Rs 100 crore now. These include about 12 apartments in Dubai, valued at Rs 93 crore, cash and deposits and shares of approximately Rs 7 crore, a house in Markham, Ontario, Canada, valued at Rs 3.5 crore, jewellery mainly in lockers in Dubai, worth approximately Rs 2 crore, a collection of 25 foreign watches worth Rs 5 crore, antique shahtoosh shawls from her “grandmother and mother” worth about Rs 30 lakh, and a sword “from the era of Emperor Humavun (sic)”, “value unknown”.
The change in fortunes came over a 30-odd-year span, dotted with trials, tribulations and triumphs. It started with an early marriage to Sanjay Raina at the tender age of 19 following a whirlwind romance, while she was still studying. “She was 19 and I was 20,” says Raina, speaking to The Sunday Express from Dehradun, where he is attending his niece’s wedding.
It was while he was there that Raina learnt of Sunanda’s demise. “A journalist friend called up to tell me. It’s very, very sad,” says Raina, a Delhi-based hotelier turned pop singer, who is now remarried. “I cannot comment on what may have happened. Also, people have been asking me what kind of a person Sunanda was, but I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on that because from the time I knew her to now, too many years have gone by. I would rather just extend my condolences to the family — her son, husband, father, brothers,” says Raina, adding that he last met Sunanda in Delhi a few months back.
Raina’s Facebook account has been inundated with condolence messages for Sunanda, even as he himself has posted ‘Waqt key sitam kam haseen nahin… Aaj hai yaahan kal kahin nahin!!! (The cruelties of time are no less hurtful… One is here a moment, and then gone)’.
Sunanda had married Raina against the wishes of her family, who wanted her to finish her studies before taking the plunge, and things began to go wrong fairly early in the marriage, with the divorce coming through in a couple of years. Sunanda then went on to marry Sujith Menon, a friend of Raina’s from Kerala. The two moved to Dubai, where Sunanda worked with an ad agency and then started her own event management firm. The two had a son. In 1997, Menon died in a road accident in India. Sunanda stayed on in Dubai, bringing up her young son as a single parent and dabbling in small-time event management. She attempted a move to Canada, but soon returned to Dubai and began working with a real estate firm.
Over the years, Sunanda moved up the social ladder and became part of Dubai’s high-flying society, with her life in the small town of Sopore, her native place in Kashmir, sleepy Ambala, back-of-beyond Jhansi and various other cantonments, plus her stint as a receptionist at Centaur Hotel in Srinagar, left far, far behind. It was during this heady flight that she met Shashi Tharoor, then Union minister of state for external affairs.
Their first encounter was at a party in Dubai in 2009 and, after that, her life simply ascended another plane. It also became the grist of media stories and speculation, right from the controversy about the Rs 70 crore sweat equity she held in an IPL franchise, to her marriage to Tharoor after he gave up the minister’s post, to Modi calling her a Rs 50-crore girlfriend, to finally the messy Twitter war between her and Pakistani journalist Mehr Tarar, that ended with Sunanda’s life on January 17.
To those in the know, things had started to change between Sunanda and Shashi for a year now, with the couple’s earlier public displays of affection and joint appearances taking a backseat, and the two leading separate lives. She also came to be known for her outrageous one-liners that startled Delhi’s staid power circles and were seen as attempts by her to remain at the centre of attention. Yet the end was something that no one could have imagined for Sunanda.
“It’s very strange. The only vivid recollection I have of Sunanda as a classmate in Ambala is of the time I asked her about the red threads dangling from her ears. She smiled and told me shyly that when Kashmiris get married, they have to wear these, but that her mother decided to get them for her then itself. She must have been just 13-14 at the time, and in Std VII or VIII with me. Today, after all these years, when I thought of her again, it was because of a marriage gone sour and its horrible repercussions. She didn’t deserve this — she was such a sweet, normal girl,” says Ritu Sandhu, 49, a programme executive with AIR in Chandigarh.
But perhaps the crux of her life is best explained in the words of someone who saw her grow up in Army circles. “Her background and upbringing were at loggerheads with the fast-paced and high-flying life she opted for, and was then perhaps unable to get off the ride. Somewhere she knew that while her ambitions were taking her in one heady direction, her basic nature was making it difficult for her to keep her balance. Guess a crash was inevitable,” says the woman who did not wish to be named.
After Jhansi, I bumped into Sunanda about five years later, at Navy Nagar in Mumbai in the late ’80s. She had just been through her first divorce and seemed somewhat subdued. The last time we met was more than two decades ago. I was standing below The Indian Express office in Pune, waiting for the lift, when she walked up with a cheery ‘Hi’. This was once again the effervescent and vivacious young girl of the Jhansi days and we exchanged pleasantries for 10 minutes. When she saw me armed with a notepad and pen, she teased me about taking life too seriously.
Wish she had heeded her own advice.