The Extraordinary Life and Death of Sunanda Pushkar
Pan Macmillan India
Sunanda Pushkar’s eventful life imitated fiction. Her tragic end was a gripping crime thriller in which unresolved questions still remain. Veteran journalist Sunanda Mehta, who was her namesake’s contemporary in school but lost touch with her in later years, realised that it made for an engrossing story of love and death in the time of social media. The author traces Pushkar’s eventful journey from a shy, reserved Kashmiri schoolgirl from an army background to a vivacious, outspoken beauty who was a part of the flashy Dubai social scene. The twice-married Pushkar was well into her fifties when she captivated the urbane and suave Shashi Tharoor, labelled by some as a ladies’ man. Pushkar’s emotional outbursts and bindaas behavior would be her undoing. She sought the limelight, but did not comprehend that in the bargain, her personal life would unravel in full public view.
Mehta records the highs and lows of Pushkar’s journey from Kashmir to Ambala, Rishikesh, Dubai, Toronto and Delhi. She presents the facts and lets the readers judge for themselves. Pushkar first came into public notice when Lalit Modi put out a snide tweet in April 2010: “I was told by him not to get into who owns Rendezvous, especially Sunanda Pushkar. Why?” Modi was referring to Shashi Tharoor. Rendezvous was the Kerala consortium which beat two influential bidders in the IPL auction. Tharoor was quick to deny any monetary interest in mentoring a team from his home state. Pushkar explained her 4.9 per cent sweat equity in Rendezvous as earned because of her international experience as a marketing manager and entrepreneur. Others were not so convinced. Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, in an election speech, referred to her as a “Rs 50 crore girlfriend”.
Despite the hullabaloo, Tharoor proudly acknowledged Pushkar as his girlfriend and intended to tie the knot. It was a fairytale marriage with parties in Kerala, Delhi and Dubai. The couple were clearly love-struck. The vibes were in your face, which made conservative political Delhi a wee bit uncomfortable. But within three years, there was trouble in paradise, and since both were Twitter addicts, the world came to know pretty fast. Pushkar turned increasingly suspicious of her handsome, twice-married husband, who was known to have a roving eye.
Pushkar’s final days provide the riveting climax of the book. An insecure wife slowly fell apart, suspecting her husband of infidelity with a perky Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar. A betrayed Pushkar vowed revenge. On a flight, Pushkar discovered in Tharoor’s phones an exchange of messages with Tarar, which enraged her. A fight ensued and a livid Pushkar slapped Tharoor in full view of other passengers.
In Delhi, Pushkar refused to return to the couple’s official residence and moved into the plush Leela Palace hotel. She posted a series of damaging tweets on Tharoor’s timeline in a bid to “expose’’ his affair. A humiliated Tharoor tried frantically to contain the situation. He announced that his Twitter account had been hacked and that he was happily married, and also moved into the hotel with his staff. But the situation spiralled out of control, with Tarar claiming in a TV interview that Pushkar had gone crazy. Huddled in her hotel room, Pushkar phoned celebrity journalist friends, offering interviews which would expose Tharoor and lift the lid on the IPL. The situation turned bizarre beyond belief. Nobody, particularly Tharoor and his staff, has a rational explanation for their behaviour in the last 36 hours of Pushkar’s life. Tharoor was preoccupied with the AICC meet, and his staff were extraordinarily slow to react even when Pushkar failed to respond to urgent knocks at her door as late as 4:30 pm the next evening. Tharoor opened the hotel room at 8.15 pm, when Pushkar had been dead for several hours.
The postscript was equally unfathomable. The original post mortem report found accidental death due to poisoning, due to large quantities of the antidepressant Alprax, which she had swallowed. However, the head of the forensic department at AIIMS, professor Sudhir Gupta would later claim, on the basis of clinical tests, that though Pushkar was poisoned, the viscera did not show the presence of Alprax. He accused the AIIMS director of putting pressure on him to give a clean chit in the case. Much later, the FBI laboratories supported the conclusion of Alprax in the stomach, but could not identify the poison. The 15 injuries on her body, including bite marks and a needle mark, added to the unresolved mystery. A now, Tharoor is listed as an accused for abetting his wife’s suicide.