It’s a complicated case that refuses to come to its conclusion. Dreadfully complex, filled with the most disturbing details, sometimes scandalous, at other times dismaying, the narrative contains nuances of a Bollywood plot replete with extramarital affairs, passionate romance, scandals, rivalries, and last but not the least, the sudden shocking death of Sunanda Pushkar on 17 January 2014 under mysterious circumstances at the Leela in New Delhi. Wife of Shashi Tharoor, eminent Indian politician, her sudden demise captured headlines across the country for many days. Since then, periodic spurts in investigative reports suddenly churn up the drama back into the news. Even today, this baffling case remains an unsolved “mystery”
The official post mortem report said that the death was “sudden and unnatural” caused by poisoning. It could not say whether it was accidental, suicidal or homicidal. Adding a twist to the case is that at the time of her death Sunanda’s body had a noticeable number of injuries or bruises (as many as 15!) that were “… caused by blunt force… Injury number 12 is a teeth bite mark”. Were they self-inflicted? Or was she subjected to torture? What had happened?
This biography of Pushkar’s life is written by her namesake, Sunanda Mehta, a journalist and aptly titled: ‘The extraordinary life and death of Sunanda Pushkar’, published by Macmillan. Pushkar was Mehta’s friend, (though a year senior in school to the writer) in Ambala, Haryana, where they both attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary. Mehta delves into nostalgic reminiscences about Sunanda’s “striking attributes” right since when she was a young school girl. Born on 27 June 1964 to Jaya and Pushkar Dass, second lieutenant in the armed forces, Pushkar’s life would be filled with twists and turns.
Relying on material from personal archives, letters, interviews, emails, documents, she traces out the hidden and lesser-known aspects about a glamourous socialite celebrated for her good looks, passionate nature, also a trite shorttempered who often threw tantrums at high profile parties, (Pushkar had reportedly flung her glass of wine into the face of a renowned television news anchor at a dinner bash), her three marriages, innumerable men friends, some of who became romantically involved; her “generous” nature, her mercurial relationship as mother to son Shiv (from her second marriage with Sujith Menon).
Indeed, this biography is much like a fairy tale gone complete awry. Mehta probes the bond Pushkar shared with Shiv and writes she “would often impart to Shiv ‘life lessons’ though not in the most traditional ways”. For instance, she would advise him just once and never repeat herself.
As a growing school student, Pushkar was affectionate and protective of her younger brother Ashish. Mehta writes of several instances when Pushkar came to the rescue of someone in trouble. (Sunanda was) “… known to have the largest heart in the family.”
Her business stints in Dubai, and also in Toronto, are described in telling detail, about her relationships with the men who aided in the transition of her base from India to those countries. Time and again Pushkar’s relationship with a man took the same course, first it was a passionate and loving one, soon to descend into ugly “vitriolic accusations” and disgust.
Mehta has given ample space to the Tharoor relationship, how the two met, fell in love and their lavish wedding that looked straight out of a fairy tale. Mehta surmises, “Marrying Tharoor appeared… as the culmination of all that Sunanda had pursued and desired in life.” He came with such impeccable credentials and pedigree that becoming Mrs Tharoor “instantly propelled her into the world of both power and respectability”. In fact, their marriage led to sniggers from quite a few. BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi had apparently stated that the UPA should consider making Tharoor in charge of a new “Ministry of Love Affairs.”
Veteran journalist Nalini Singh was certainly not among her best friends, but even she felt that Pushkar’s outreach was amazing, “like a honeycomb’s” and wherever she went camera flashes would go off; even to the extent of saying “ If (Pushkar) had lived and not made the mistakes she made, she would have definitely gone places.”
Mehta writes in detail of Pushkar’s cry of help to women friends on discovering the emails shared by husband Tharoor and Mehr Terar, Lahore-based Pakistani journalist and her nervous breakdown thereafter.
Both Tharoor and Pushkar had sons from their previous marriages, and they wanted a child together, a daughter. It was the third marriage for both. Trying to settle in a “tough city like Delhi” turned out to be a difficult scenario for Pushkar and she resurrected old associations like Suhel Seth and Tarun Tejpal as she “stilettoed her way through Delhi’s high society”… Writer Shobaa De who gradually took a liking to Pushkar, even to the extent of feeling like an “older sister who needed to drill some sense into a madcap sibling”, had remarked, “It was her candour. Her lack of judgement… her transparency that alarmed” her but De continued to hail her as a “free-spirited and spontaneous soul”.
However, Pushkar couldn’t fit into the typical “Dilli biwi’ image and lead a dual life. She was “way too honest for such hypocrisy.” Expectedly, she began to feel left out soon enough, even as Tharoor continued his activities as a high-profile politician; then around 2013 the couple’s public appearances began to dwindle. Mehta includes details of the IPL scandal and how that too affected their relationship. The final straw was perhaps their spat about Tharoor’s’ “relationship” with Mehr Tarar and which turned increasingly acrimonious as it became more and more public.
How and why did Sunanda Pushkar die? She was still quite in her prime, just about 50 when she died on 17 January 2014. Yet, till date, forensic experts have still not come to a convincing conclusion, whether it was suicide or murder or accidental death.
However, the narrative treads the ground carefully. Mehta has depicted Pushkar’s life as candidly as possible and without taking sides. So if she presents the Sunanda side of the story replete with anecdotes and tales of her protagonist, we also get to know about the other side from conversations with people closely associated with Pushkar, but not necessarily enamoured with her.
Just as in a dramatic presentation, Mehta begins succinctly, listing the people as the “Cast of characters in order of appearance”, starting with Shiv Menon (Pushkar’s son), Shashi Tharoor (third husband), Mehr Tarar (Pakistani journalist) … Ashish Dass (younger brother), Sanjay Raina (her first husband, married in 1984 and divorced in 1988), Sujith Menon (second husband, Shiv’s father), Daljeet Singh (Pushkar’s partner for a short while), Mukesh Sethi (close friend), Vijay Kalra (in a relationship in Toronto), Jiten Trasy (close friend in Dubai), Raja Waheed (close friend in Toronto), Regina Mazhar (among her closest friends in Dubai), Nalini Singh (veteran investigative journalist), Abhinav Kumar (Tharoor’s personal secretary, privy to details of Tharoor – Pushkar household), Dr Sudhir Gupta (HOD, Forensic Medicine, AIIMS, headed panel for Pushkar’s post-mortem), Subramanium Swamy (BJP politician, wrote to PM Narendra Modi in 2014 for CBI probe into Pushkar’s death, filed a PIL seeking investigation in 2017).
The book contains several photographs of Pushkar: in her childhood, with her brothers Rajesh and Ashish, as a young girl with classmates in school, with author Mehta in Srinagar in 1984, with her newborn son Shiv, with close friends at parties, several with Tharoor… looking glamourous and dolled-up.
Mehta has candidly admitted she had “clearly underestimated the task at hand” when she set out to write this book. Her acknowledgements to the people concerned and the many books she had to refer to for sources all find mention. Grateful to Pushkar’s family for helping her piece together this story and the vast circle of family and friends who rallied around whenever she needed them, Mehta rounds it off saying, “a first name is not the only thing we have in common.”