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Leila and George

Leila Kabir Fernandes almost didn’t make it in time to witness George Fernandes being sworn in as a member of the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday,August 4.

Written by Vandita Mishra |
August 9, 2009 12:04:39 am

Leila Kabir Fernandes almost didn’t make it in time to witness George Fernandes being sworn in as a member of the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday,August 4. When she had met him on the Friday before that—her “fifth meeting” this year with her estranged husband—she told him she wanted to be there for the swearing-in this time. “I wasn’t present on the three occasions he took oath in Parliament as a minister. I was away,fighting for India’s democracy abroad,when he was sworn into the Morarji Desai cabinet after Emergency was lifted. I deliberately stayed away when he entered the VP Singh government and then the Vajpayee cabinet after that.”

By the time she reached his home,3 Krishna Menon Marg,on Tuesday,George had already left for Parliament,but Leila caught up with the moment in the House. “Why did I go? Because this wasn’t his moment of glory. Because I see him fading away. It sounds trite,but George is a shadow of himself.”

She wanted to be there for her ailing husband,she says,on behalf of their only son,Sean,and the newest member of the Fernandes family,Ken,who will complete six months in a few days. Leila is flying down to her son’s home in the US for the ‘annapraashan’ ceremony on August 15.

While rummaging for little pieces of the past that she always carries with her for Sean,Leila has found a small card,yellowed with age,that she and George sent out to friends to announce the birth of Sushanto Kabir Fernandes—Sean was the name he would give himself later—on January 10,1974. It was the year George led what came to be known as the “world’s biggest railway strike”. The baby was due on January 14 but there was a strike and the doctor said the hospital would be shut down,so he had to be brought into the world four days early.

It was chaotic. “I don’t remember what the doctors’ strike was about. I was not into trade unionism,only impending motherhood,” she says. It was different for George,of course. “He went out,made a statement: ‘Even if we are in personal agony,we are with the strikers’. I said to him then,‘I wish you had borne the pain.’”

***

“It’s painful to be on the edge of history,” says Leila. It’s a feeling she knows well—as the daughter of Humayun Kabir,distinguished educationist,writer and minister in Nehru’s cabinet,part of the first generation of nationalist leadership that embodied the secular ideal and promise of India,and then as the wife of the firebrand leader who was to become the centre of several political storms.

So many of life’s big moments have unfolded in history’s shadow. Like her first long conversation with George,on the flight from Calcutta back to Delhi,in April 1971,in the backdrop of the turmoil in East Pakistan that culminated in the creation of Bangladesh by the year-end.

Leila was on her way back from the battlefront,where she had elected to go as Assistant Director of Disaster Relief in the Red Cross. “I said I had to go… I had uncles and first cousins on the other side of the border. It was a totally romantic chapter of my life.” She remembers a “midnight rendezvous” with Brigadier Khaled Musharraf even as the fighting was going on. “He asked me if I could give him milk powder. ‘My boys don’t have tea to drink,’ he said. He was later shot down by his own men,such was Bangladesh’s bloody history.”

George,general secretary of the Samyukta Socialist Party at the time,was also returning from East Pakistan. As he walked past Leila in the plane,he recognised her from their perfunctory meetings earlier in Delhi. They were both part of the circle around Ram Manohar Lohia and Leila remembers being sent to check on George once after he was beaten up at Patel Chowk to find him lying on the hospital bed “grinning away”. When he saw her now,George changed his seat to the one next to her and they chatted for the duration of the journey.

George had just been defeated in the Lok Sabha polls held in March by the proverbial lamp post. “I still don’t remember the name of the candidate who won,” says Leila. ‘Giant killer’ George,who defeated Congress heavyweight S.K. Patil to make his parliamentary debut from Mumbai in 1967,was swept aside by the Congress wave in the 1971 general election. At the end of that Calcutta-Delhi flight,came a dinner invitation and the marriage proposal followed three weeks later.

“I had sworn I would not get married just because I was of a certain age. It had to be to a man of my choice. Also,he had to be an Indian. But I had also resolved I would not marry a Muslim or a Hindu. The memories of Partition were still raw. My father was Muslim and my mother belonged to the Brahmo Samaj. I was neither this,nor that. While I was growing up,no festival was celebrated in our house. Neither of my parents wanted to offend the other. I swore I would celebrate everything.”

George had trained to be a priest,rebelled,and “jumped into socialism”. By the time he met Leila,he was a Christian who saw Jesus as a “radical socialist”. “It was the right time for him and me,” Leila sums up their marriage in the July of that politically momentous year.

When she made up her mind to walk out of her marriage 13 years later,the backdrop was again larger than life. She was to leave George’s home on October 31,1984. Indira Gandhi was assassinated on that day,Delhi had plunged into violence and turmoil,so Leila walked into her new home in the Capital’s leafy enclave of Panchsheel Park a few days later in November.

***

Politics has always been with her,but Leila was never tempted to take the plunge,join the fray. By the time her father died,exactly 40 years ago,he had left the Congress to become founder-president of the Bharatiya Kranti Dal,which later became the Lok Dal. But she remembers being sounded out by Congress emissaries after his death.

Would she fight an election,step into her father’s seat? “I said no,for two reasons,” she recalls. “I told them that I oppose dynastic politics. And then,suppose I say yes,I will have to submit to the party whip. Count me out!”

But it wasn’t as if Leila never made any political statements. She was pursuing history at Oxford when she decided to change her subject,mid-stream. “I told them I had no interest in studying the content of Anglo-Saxon graves.” Then,at the age of 20,she withstood opposition from family and teachers and returned to India to study nursing in Delhi University even though “nurses were looked down upon by those in the social echelons to which I belonged”. After some years of teaching,Leila joined the Red Cross in 1966.

Many years later,Leila led a women’s march against the Morarji Desai government in 1979. “I set up a concerned citizens’ committee,the Sachet Nagrik Samiti. The march began from Palika Bazaar at 11 a.m. on Monday,April 16,to protest against the highly iniquitous tax proposals in the Budget.” People were aghast. Her husband,George,was a minister in the government she was

marching against. “I said,yes,this is my government and I will oppose it.”

***

Over the years,as George’s politics shifted,from fiery trade union leader and socialist to troubleshooter-in-chief for the BJP-led government and then NDA patriarch,Leila has kept her distance from the political cut and thrust.

She singles out his “glorious stint” as defence minister in the Vajpayee government,though “going to Siachen was ok,where was the need to undertake the Sukhoi flight or get into the submarine? George has kept big photographs of those two feats. Somewhere,he’s still a baby…”

In the end,Leila “regrets” the way his career went. “Yes,George’s socialism took a back seat—I’m glad my father didn’t see this,he was a great secularist. Friends have felt disappointed when George shook hands with a party not known to be secular,it was a sad chapter…”

What saddens her the most,she says,is that he should be “shuffled around” in his twilight years. She is referring to his candidature in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls,in which George contested and lost his deposit as an Independent candidate after the JD(U) refused him a ticket. She had issued a public appeal earlier this year in March,in which she wrote: “We all love our children. If a child insists that he must put his hand into a flame,will we allow it,just because he wants it? Or will we,for his sake,not merely dissuade him but physically thwart that wish?”

“As a voter,I would not have voted for George,” she now says. “I will only vote for someone who can work for me. I didn’t want this to happen to him.”

Every time he has had a health crisis,George has called for her,says Leila. And he still climbs up the stairs to her first-floor home to wish her on her birthdays. Today,she feels “protective” about the man she heard someone describe long ago as ‘cosmic energy personified’.

Much has changed between then and now. Looking back,in an eventful life,nothing was constant even then. She recalls the last time she went to Parliament to hear him speak in the House before this Tuesday’s swearing-in.

George was defending the Morarji Desai government on a no-confidence motion in July 1979. “He took the House by storm. There was thunderous applause.” Then,in the space of a day,was a “volte face”,he had changed his political position,joined the topplers of the same government.

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