Cooped up in a tiny room of a nondescript hospital in downtown Pune is one of the oldest members of the Gandhi family. Clutching the walker that supports her frail frame, Shernaz Gandhi, sister-in-law of the late Indira Gandhi and aunt to Rajiv Gandhi, looks weighed down, but not defeated.
At 86 and recovering from a hip operation, she is neither looking for sympathy nor charity, not even a concession that the Gandhi surname could bring. But just her rightful claim—her husband’s pension that the government has forgotten to pay her. For 30 years.
The widow of Dorab Gandhi, elder brother of Feroze Gandhi, is today at the fag end of her finances. So she had to shift out of Jehangir Hospital where she had undergone her operation last month and opt for the much cheaper Satyanand Hospital in Kondhwa.
Shernaz has written to Sonia Gandhi and Maneka Gandhi asking them to help her get the pension due to her after her husband, an agricultural scientist with the UP government, passed away in 1976. Only, she is not too hopeful. ‘‘I have written to them twice in the past one and a half years. I also wrote to Sonia Gandhi after she won the elections but there was no acknowledgement. I do not like to ask anyone for money nor use the Gandhi name. In fact after my husband’s death, I did not even bother about the pension as I was working in a school and there was also sufficient interest coming to me from my money. But now my finances are low and I need that money,’’ says Shernaz, living in Pune for 15 years now as a paying guest.
After Dorab’s death in Allahabad, Shernaz, who has no children, shifted to Mumbai with her brother and then to Pune to her sister’s. Finally, she opted to stay as a paying guest with a neighbour, Dara Supariwalla and his family.
Though old, Shernaz’s memory of her association with the Gandhis is vivid. ‘‘Indira was always very nice to me,’’ she says. Maybe that’s why she changed her name from Sarah to Shernaz as Indira wanted her to.
‘‘But once I overheard some comment about her that was not so complimentary and wrote them all in a letter to my brother in Mumbai. I gave it to someone in her office to post it. The letter never reached him, but my relations with Indira soured after that. I feel bad,’’ she reminisces.
The last time Shernaz remembers meeting Rajiv Gandhi was a few years before his death when he had called on her. There’s been no contact with the Gandhi family since. Yet Shernaz makes it a point not to wallow in self pity. ‘‘I am not lonely. I don’t mind living alone. But this medical condition has cost me a lot. I used to have Mediclaim but they refused to renew it after I turned 75. I need to be able to look after myself financially.’’
She is even ready for the fate that awaits her after her discharge from hospital, which might be an old age home that her niece is searching for in Surat. ‘‘Here, her room does not have an attached bathroom. It’s a 100-year-old house with few facilities,’’ says Supariwalla, who drafted the letter to Sonia and Maneka Gandhi, on her behalf, last month.