For more than a decade now, millions of Indians have been waiting for the shrewd and ruthless (post)-Hindu-nationalist politician Narendra Modi to break his silence on a particularly mysterious episode in his past, and Modi has obstinately refused to do so.
But last week, Modi, who’s likely to become India's next prime minister in May, took everyone by surprise by breaking his silence -- or, in another reading, by choosing not to add perjury to the many sins of which he stands accused. Filling out the nomination form required of him by the Election Commission of India to contest the election for the parliamentary constituency of Vadodara, Modi did not leave the “Spouse” column blank, as he had done on four occasions in the past. Instead, he wrote the word "Jashodaben" there.
In doing so, Modi, now 63, for the first time acknowledged the reality of a woman whom, by all accounts, he last met 45 years ago. Narendra and Jashodaben were married (as was conventional then, and still is now, in large parts of India) when they were still teenagers. But Modi, very much his own man then, as now, broke with tradition in leaving -- though not formally separating from -- his wife soon after. In Jashodaben’s telling, "He came home on and off and one night just walked away calling off the marriage, saying he wanted to travel and do bigger things in life."
The organization to which Modi dedicated himself, the vast Hindu revivalist outfit the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, requires of its exclusively male cadre a vow of celibacy. There seems no reason to believe that Modi -- to this day a follower of the order and now the head of the Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which it birthed -- has ever deviated from this pledge.
If Modi were to become prime minister next month, he’d be the second remarkable bachelor from his party to hold the country’s most prestigious office, after the extremely popular and rhetorically gifted statesman Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who held office from 1998 to 2004.
But there would be a difference. Modi is a classic renunciate, while Vajpayee had an unusual relationship with a married woman, never formalized and therefore in its own way a kind of rebellion against convention, for most of his adult life, including his years as prime minister. It was never brought up in Indian news media because of the unwritten agreement in India that the personal lives of politicians, unlike those of film stars or athletes, are not open to scrutiny unless they themselves invite it. (This long piece on Vajpayee’s personal life in 1998, for instance, manages to name all his “children” and “grandchildren” without ever naming his partner.)
We could take this Vajpayee-Modi analysis further, noting that the difference between their respective bachelorhoods also explains the great contrast in the respective public personas of the two men. Vajpayee was a charming, playful, self-reflexive, new-generation patriarch of family, party and nation, carrying all along on gusts of wit, poetry and persuasion. It was as if his unorthodox personal life became the inspiration to challenge orthodoxies elsewhere.
Modi, on the other hand, has always come across as a loner: bellicose, detached and unsmiling (if not actively sinister), a classic authoritarian who will ask of Indian democracy that it exercise all its energies to rein in his worst instincts. (Although he, too, has written some undistinguished verse: “Like a chain made of water is my love/Try but it cannot be tied.”)
Vajpayee never married and could yet have a family; Modi did marry, but he forsook the idea of family for the more austere (but widely respected in India) idea of “service,” one that eventually led him into a place where he could tout his renunciation as evidence of his commitment to the country, and indeed his personal incorruptibility. At a recent rally, he asked the audience, “I am single. Who will I be corrupt for?”
This argument, as Bloomberg View's Nisid Hajari pointed out last week, is almost a non sequitur. But it works for Modi because almost everything he does is calculated to reinforce the idea of him as a permanent resident on the semantic continuum of single, single-minded and singular: a visionary nationalist workaholic who cares only about the progress of the country.
It was most uncharacteristic for Modi, then, to acknowledge being wedded to something other than his work. And while he was immediately attacked by his opponents for previously lying under oath in electoral depositions, the gesture seemed paradoxically to humanize him. For the first time, he seemed to acknowledge that he did not have the liberty to dictate the shape of the main narratives that have attached themselves to his life and work -- including his shadowy role in the terrible religious violence in the state of Gujarat in 2002, another theme on which he obstinately refuses to comment.
And by acknowledging a conjugal reality that he now shares with several hundred million Indians, Modi invited a new question: the question not of what he once thought about his marriage but what he thinks about it today. If it continues to exist as a reality, does this also mean it has a future?
It always will, at least on one side. We know that, regardless of her husband’s complete absence, the marriage has continued to be an ever-present reality for Jashodaben. She accepted her husband’s decision, made her peace with it, became a schoolteacher as he had once advised, and never remarried.
As the journalist Ojas Mehta revealed in a poignant profile, Jashodaben continues to keep a picture of her departed husband in her religious texts, prays for his success in politics, and keeps fasts in his name -- the very embodiment of the dutiful Hindu wife. One could almost call Jashodaben an ascetic of marriage, as her husband is an ascetic of renunciation, and consider hers the higher and more morally demanding of the two asceticisms.
And when Modi’s admission brought the Indian news media rushing to her door in the small village in Gujarat where she has always lived, this caused her to flee in a manner that echoed her own husband’s flight toward “bigger things” all those decades ago: She disappeared on a religious pilgrimage.
Perhaps it’s my overactive, or overliterary, mind, but the Modi-Jashodaben story reminds me of a great Indian legend of marriage, power, separation, renunciation, forgiveness and sacrifice: that of Shakuntala, most poignantly told in the ancient dramatist Kalidasa’s fifth-century Sanskrit play "The Recognition of Shakuntala." I’m going to retell the story here, with its contemporary echoes.
On a hunting expedition in the forest, the king Dushyanta -- Kalidasa’s heroes are always kings, their actions having ramifications not just for themselves, but also for the entire world, which corresponds neatly with Modi’s self-image -- meets the beautiful Shakuntala, the daughter of a nymph. They fall in love and marry secretly.
Dushyanta leaves behind his signet ring with Shakuntala as a sign of his commitment, leaving her -- presumably, like the young Narendra -- for “bigger things.” But because of a sage’s curse, Dushyanta is unable to recognize her when she later arrives at his court, pregnant, but having lost the ring.
Shamefully abandoned and alone, Shakuntala is lifted up into the heavens by the gods. (Abandoned and alone, Jashodaben becomes a schoolteacher.) When the ring is later found in a fish’s belly, the king’s memory returns. (When the Election Commission sends in a most important form, the politician’s memory is jogged.)
Many years later -- Kalidasa draws out the time scale of his plot to create an affecting emotional arc -- the still-grieving Dushyanta fights a war on behalf of the gods and is then reunited with Shakuntala.
Many years later, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi … well, the space in this story is still a blank. But, 1,500 years from now, might it be that one of my descendants is found hunched over a desk in New Delhi, rewriting a legendary story called “The Recognition of Jashodaben”?
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.)
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