The Parable of the Vamp


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Amidst the immense noise of the IPL controversy, away from public view, a woman has been confronted with a deeply personal crisis: she can no longer recognise herself. A massive juggernaut has rolled over her, crushed her out of shape, and moved on without a backward glance. She has been left to cope with the painful out-of-body experience of watching the mangled remains of who she used to be. Left to muse, in private bewilderment, why her image and the person she knew herself to be no longer matched.

Sunanda Pushkar, the woman in the tableau, was not hit by some unheeding truck. She was hit by the media. As Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, the doctor parents of the slain Aarushi, know only too well, this is not the first time it’s happened. In its feeding frenzy for 24/7 excitement, the media has developed a curious way of turning fathers into murderers; women into vamps. Facts, evidence, the line between public and private — all the good, old-fashioned gears of journalism no longer have any place. Rash allegations are enough. The rear-view mirrors are gone. You can now recklessly ride over people and not look back.

Over the last two weeks then, every real and fictitious fragment of Pushkar’s life has been dragged onto airwaves and newsprint: Men she has and has not married; men she has and has not slept with; money she has and has not made; jobs she has and has not done. People have spoken with dripping scorn about her “eye-popping life”, her “insatiable ambition”, her work with “starlets and bimbos”, her “vampire-like thirst” and her “Louis Vuitton victimhood”. They have dissected her diaphanous saris and conjured clingy ones she’s never worn. The general consensus has been: She isn’t enough a girl’s girl. And for this transgression, she had to be crushed. So, overnight, Sunanda Pushkar was transformed from a living, breathing woman with a history of her own into a “proxy bimbette”.

What did Pushkar do to merit this public mauling? The reasons trotted out are that Pushkar is romantically involved with former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor and has therefore been given disproportionate sweat equity worth Rs 70 crore in the Kochi cricket team he helped put together. One can debate the finer points of propriety about Pushkar having equity, independently or otherwise, in a project Tharoor was closely associated with. Prima facie, it appears there was absolutely no exchange of money. Nor was there any misuse of public funds. In a world of brazen corruption then, this could only count as a minor lapse in manners. The curious thing is, the uproar over the sweat equity itself seemed misplaced. With the same reckless disregard for fact, everyone has forgotten that the offending Rs 70 crore does not exist as yet. Sweat equity is risky: There are no payments upfront. If the going is good, you take the ride; if not, there’s nothing.

So, the truth is, the reasons Pushkar has been pilloried lie elsewhere. Imagine for a moment that instead of Pushkar some nephew of Tharoor had been given sweat equity. Would the media have ferreted out every last detail about his girlfriends and colour of bedsheet — imagined or real? Pushkar says the last fortnight has been akin to a medieval witch hunt. She is right. A deep and unthinking misogyny has underscored all the reporting on her. Her real crime is that she is an attractive 46-year old widow, who is bright, vivacious and hot — in the way only those women can be, who have a comfortable relationship with themselves; who understand that beauty does not preclude one from being kind; or protect one from sorrow. If the media had wanted to try the two for financial impropriety, it should have stuck to doing that. Instead, all of it has become an ugly spectacle about a society trying to decide what women are allowed and not allowed to be. Ambition, sass, and self-assured sexiness are clearly high on the list of India’s penal code for women. This is why Pushkar has been asked by “well-wishers” to stay out of view. This is why she’s in the process of being tamed for Indian public life. The story of how Sunanda Pushkar has been treated then is not the story of just one woman: it is a parable about the society we are.


‘I’m proud of bringing up my son all by myself’

Sunanda Pushkar has always been self-reliant. She has held many jobs, crossed many continents. In the last fortnight, she has watched the media mutilate her resume. Now, in a stirring interview, she wrests back the story of her true self

There are so many versions of your life floating in the media, would you like to put the facts on record first.
I don’t really want to. My son and parents have already suffered enough on this. How many times I got married, who I dated — what does any of that have to do with the IPL?

That’s true, but unfortunately the absence of facts has allowed everyone to maul your image. There’ve been reports that you divorced your first husband Sanjay Raina because you fell in love with his friend Sujit Menon. Also that Sujit committed suicide because he was in financial trouble. Even if all this were true, it still wouldn’t make you a bad person, but the key thing is to establish how much is truth, how much fiction.
(Sighs) You are right. It’s probably important to set the record straight. My first marriage was a very dark period in my life. Everyone’s saying Sanjay Raina divorced me, but that’s not true, I divorced him. It was a very painful relationship but I don’t want to go into that. It’s over; he’s moved on, I’ve moved on. I was 19 when I met him and very innocent. My dad was in the army and I had a very protected childhood. I was always sorry for the underdog. My family and friends used to teasingly call me Mother Teresa. I was helping flood victims in Ambala in grade six. When I was in Jesus and Mary Convent, I used to work with abandoned and physically challenged children at an ashram. There was a blind and spastic kid there who was particularly attached to me. No one wanted him because he wasn’t very nice looking, but I used to bathe and feed him. Curiously, many people spoke badly of Sanjay, saying he was strange. Maybe in the beginning that is what drew me more to him.

But the marriage was a big mistake. I was totally unprepared for the worst. ‘The media said, why should the Kochi team pick me? As a woman am I not good enough?’ Soon after we got engaged I told my father I wanted to break it off. I had realised Sanjay and I were very mismatched but my father wouldn’t listen. For Kashmiri Pandits, if you got engaged, you had to marry; we’d never had a broken marriage in the family. Mine fell apart within days. I had a really tough time getting a divorce in Delhi. It was a very lonely time. My parents didn’t want me to divorce even though they knew what was going on. Looking back, I understand them now, but I felt very abandoned then.

The truth is Sujit rescued me. He gave me the strength, as a friend, to quit a very painful marriage. But he was dating another woman; I was just a friend. I got my divorce in 1988 and went off to Dubai in 1989. I married Sujit in 1991; my son Shivy was born in November 1992. If I had left Sanjay over Sujit, why would I have waited that long to marry him?

What about Sujit’s death? That has been turned into something very mysterious as well.
Yes, my son has had a really rough time dealing with those reports. But my husband died in an accident in Karol Bagh in March 1997. I can show you the death certificate. I had a really harrowing time finding the body and had to go from morgue to morgue searching for it. Again, it was a very dark time. Sujit was a financial consultant and he had run into some financial trouble. I disagreed with many of his business decisions at the time and after his death I got several threatening calls from his creditors. But that was less important to me than the fact that after his death, Shivy suddenly stopped talking. It was very strange, he probably got scared. He was barely four. There was so much to do — papers and fresh visas to be sorted, debts to pay. So I left him with my sister-in-law and, later, my parents for a few months. I keep asking them, someone tell me what happened to him because when I went to pick up my son, he had stopped talking. I took him to Dubai but in those days there was no concept of speech therapy there. I began to look for the best affordable health care and that’s how I hit upon Canada. I moved there to help my son. I had been doing pretty well at work, but I didn’t have that much money to spare. I was supporting my parents, supporting my brother through engineering college, trying to pay off Sujit’s debts.

Why did you need to support your parents financially? Everyone says your family was very wealthy.
Yes, we were wealthy till the trouble began in Kashmir in 1989. We had orchards and a lot of land. But after ‘89, my family suffered like everyone else. Luckily, they were wealthy enough that they didn’t have to go live in a tent. But I did help them financially to find their feet again. They couldn’t afford to put their son through college — you know you have those donations and capitation fees. I did all that.

Part of the muck being thrown at you for having sweat equity in the Kochi team is that you don’t have professional standing that merits it, so you must be a front for Shashi Tharoor. How do you respond to this?
I cannot tell you how insulted I feel. I’ve been fiercely independent and self-reliant all my life. And I’ve always been proud that I have made it alone — on my own terms — in a man’s world. And here, in one minute, without bothering to find out any facts the media just turned me into a slut, into some kind of brainless eye candy! I don’t know why people find it so hard to understand this — I really don’t care about money in that grasping way. Yet, please don’t misunderstand me. I enjoy making money, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a woman being ambitious. I like cars and watches but I don’t need any man to get anything for me. My kick is to buy it myself. I like to earn my own keep. I’d be very happy to set up home with a man I loved, but I would not marry a man just because he can buy me diamonds. I’m not judgmental about women who do that, I’m just saying I wouldn’t. So when people say I got into all this as a front for Shashi, chasing influence and money, it savages my soul. What else can I say?

The media has said, for Rs 70 crore, the Kochi team could have hired any foreign marketing firm, why would they pick me? Forget that no one in India seems to have understood the basics about sweat equity — there is simply no 70 crore on the table, in fact not one paisa has changed hands so far, and there will be no profits for years to pay anybody — but what is this attitude? As a woman I am not good enough? Some foreigner can do better than an Indian? And we call ourselves a superpower? Is this 21st century India or the British Raj?

Could you then run us through your career graph a bit ?
When I came to Dubai for the first time I worked in tourism. I had ideas about dhow cruises and dune dinners — much before Emirates Holidays even existed. Our accounts included Philippines airlines, Romanian airlines, Brazilian airlines — so I had lots of corporate clients. After I married Sujit, I got into events. Someone reported that all my shows made losses. That hurt. Sujit and I did only one event together which went badly — a Mammooty show which people have been writing all kinds of nonsense about. But apart from that I don’t think I did any events that made a loss.

I started my own company called Expressions with four or five people. We began to do many model shows for product launches. Everyone does it now, but it was a complete trendsetter then. I did 13 shows with Hemant Trivedi, shows with Rhea Pillai, Vikram Phadnis, Aishwarya Rai. When the Gulf War started, we did big fund raisers for the ‘We love Kuwait’ campaign.

After a while I got a great offer from an ad agency called Bozell Prime. I handled many big campaigns for them — Wella, Hersheys, Chrysler cars. I did big multi-million dollar events for Modern Pharmaceuticals. That was the most beautiful time of my life. But after Sujit died, I gave up Bozell for Shivy. I didn’t want a baby-sitter. He had gone into a complete shell and I was frightened for him and wanted to be there for him. So that last year in Dubai before I went to Canada, I worked with Ravissant.

In Canada, I had to start from scratch. I’d literally gone there with a suitcase and my child. But you know, Shoma, I have never taken my resume and looked for a job.I have always felt I can carve a niche for myself on my own terms. I’ve always been an entrepreneur that way. So for a while, I did many odds and ends. Then some friends in New York — two doctors who are still among my closest family friends — suggested I get into the IT sector which had just begun to boom. Everyone was looking for computer engineers from India, so we tied up with companies like Compaq and head-hunted in India for them.

After a while a friend in San Francisco alerted me that a company called Valley Resources wanted a partner. I told them I had no money to invest but they still wanted me. So, talk about sweat equity — (laughs) — that was my first sweat equity! It was a lot of fun and we did mighty well and made good money. I put Shivy in a private school; I bought ourselves a house; I got a BMW. And I did all this from the basement of my house. And through all that, I never used babysitters. I’m proud of bringing up my son by myself. Many of my friends across the world who knew me at that time are really disheartened and outraged by the way I am being portrayed in the media.

The press has been saying you are a beautician, a spa-owner, a mystery woman from Dubai — where did they get all that from?
Can you imagine! I have no idea where they got it! These reports were meant to deride me. I don’t even feel there’s anything derogatory about being a beautician — it’s just that it’s completely not true! I ran a small jewellery shop for a while, but while they were trying to ferret fictitious details about my life, they didn’t even come across that!

You know, all through my life, at different phases, things have fallen apart and each time I have just picked myself up and put the pieces back. I am a very positive person: I always say, this too shall pass. I am a great believer in Shiva and the idea of karma, so I never question and complain and ask why is this happening to me. I always tell myself that things happen to you so that you can learn from it. But this has been the biggest test I have ever faced.

We’ll come back to the way the press has reported on you and what impact that’s had on you; and what it says about attitudes to women in India. But, first, could you finish telling us about your professional life.
Just as our IT business was booming, 9/11 happened. This hit us bad and we had to shut shop. There was four months of anxiety and no work. We were cleaned out financially. That’s when I got into Emotional Intelligence. It was the latest thing in Canada those days. I did a course and joined a company called Noble House International. We started something called Human Potential Reengineering. [sighs] We did lots of programmes for banks like Royal Bank of Canada and ABN Amro in Miami, Amsterdam and Geneva. It was fun but I was not earning enough.

Then in 2004, Best Homes offered to send me to Dubai to set up their operations there in real estate. If I think about it, real estate runs in my blood. More than buying and selling, I love developing properties. I love the blueprint stage, the planning and the zoning. So I came back to Dubai in August 2004 as general manager of Best Homes and worked on a big project with them.

Dubai had changed completely. My friends had all become rich and powerful; there was a completely different buzz. But Shivy was not very happy and I was just planning to go back to Canada and start again, when I was offered a job by Mohamad-bin-Ghalib of Tecom to work on an International Media Production Free Zone. This was one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on. We had to plan publishing zones, convention centres, hotels, schools and hospitals over 44 million square feet of land. Then I was offered a position that the company usually only gives to locals — I had to sell land to Gulf nationals. Everyone thought I’d fail because I didn’t know Arabic. But as one of my bosses said about me, “She can sell sand to the Arabs and ice to the Eskimos!”

Were you a sales manager there? Some press reports have been saying that you actually live — to use their words — in a ‘low-class ghetto’ in Dubai and that Shashi was a leg up for you socially and financially. How would you speak of yourself? As middle- class, well-to-do, very well-to-do?
I think I’m pretty well to do. I drive a Range Rover. My son has a driver and a Ford. I live in a decent apartment because I don’t want to live in a villa and have the headache of a garden and stuff because there’s just the two of us. I have a cook and a domestic help. I own two 3-bedroom apartments in Jumeirah Palm. I also own a beachside apartment in Jumeirah Beach Residence, and I have two apartments in Executive Towers. I only live in this rented apartment because it’s close to Shivy’s school and his friends live around here. I also have my house in Canada and some land in Jammu. So I’m pretty alright, I think. I’m pretty alright. [laughs]

That’s an understatement.
Yeah, I guess, I’m okay. The part I feel really good about is that I’ve done it all on my own. The only thing they’ve got right about me is that I was a sales manager at Tecom. What they don’t get is that this suited my entrepreneurial spirit just fine because it allowed me to get a commission over my salary.

Of all the kite flying about you in the media then, what aspect has really upset you the most?
Oh God, I can so tell you that! It’s been like a medieval witch hunt! It’s been so misogynistic. The bizarre part is, I think it’s not even just to do with my being a woman, it’s to do with my being an attractive woman. That’s what makes it even more disgusting. That’s what really makes me sick to the core of my being. That, to so many people in this society, if you are attractive you are immediately deemed to be a loose woman.

What have they not said about me! I am supposed to be married to some automobile businessman in Delhi; my second husband is supposed to have committed suicide; I am supposed to have slept with god knows how many men, and I am supposed to be a tart.

I have always prioritised Shivy because he is the most important thing in my life and I have always been proud that I had made it alone, on my own terms, in a man’s world, and in one minute, without checking on any facts, they have just reduced me to a slut. Just because I am an attractive working woman in a man’s world.

All my women friends in Dubai — women from all across the world, Serbia, England, America, Canada — are so upset. They are furious! As one of them said, we thought India is going to be a world power, but how can they be when their attitudes to women are so warped!

I have realised that women have made some inroads into politics in India, but in business? God forbid, you want to be feminine and wear nice saris or dresses into a boardroom — that’s totally not allowed. I saw a Hindi film called Corporate — it disgusted me. A woman must sleep around with someone to get business, she can’t get it otherwise? She must utilise her body and only then her brain will function. Suddenly — boom! — her brain is functioning because men are sleeping with her!

I have a wonderful, grown-up son — a son who says that whenever he thinks of duty and integrity and honesty, he thinks of his mother. I want to ask all these people in the media, if I was sleeping around, when did I have the time to bring up my child?

Do you know that there was a report that said I went to Jitin Prasada’s wedding wearing a bright-red, clingy, seethrough sari with a low cut blouse and some socialite is supposed to have sniggered that this was just not the “Congress code”. I wasn’t even in Delhi for Jitin’s wedding. I went to his reception huddled inside a black sari and shawl because I was so cold. How much can the media lie?

There’s another thing I want to clarify. They are saying I have given up my shares to save Shashi Tharoor. Now, I’m not even supposed to have that much agency of my own! I DID NOT give it up for Shashi Tharoor. I gave it up for exactly the reason that I said in my statement: I have no enthusiasm to work on this anymore. You tell me, Shoma, after all that has happened would you have the enthusiasm to work with the IPL? I might still do stuff for them, as I said, because I love Kerala — but how can they turn around and crucify me for something I am giving up in disgust? One BJP man said that the fact I am giving it up is further proof of my corruption. I mean how much more perverse and bewildering can things get? And now I have someone impersonating me on Facebook when I don’t have either a Twitter or Facebook account!

I have to say the conjecturing about you has been shameful.
(Starting to cry) I have always thought of myself as a kind, proud, honest and ethical person. I can’t recognise what they have turned me into publicly. In my family, everyone calls me ‘Didi’ — even my father — because I am the person everyone turns to for help. I was always the ‘boy’ in the family. I never even had a doll as a child. So even now, though this is my worst fall, I am not asking why all of this has happened to me. I am sure there is a larger lesson to be learnt and I am sure I am going to grow from this. And mark my words, I will grow, I will come out of this a bigger and better person. I can feel it in my bones. I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in my life; I’m just a regular human being. But I keep telling myself, I must be a good person because, god knows, I have brought up a good child.

Let’s talk about Shashi Tharoor and the IPL. How did you meet? How did the IPL thing come about? What is the sweat equity everyone is in a tizzy about?

I don’t really want to talk about Shashi because everything I say will have some repercussion for him. He is a public figure, I am not. But I met him about two years ago through a friend called Sunny Varkey, and we got along immediately. We are certainly close now, but that closeness only developed less than five months ago. I am very proud to know him because, most of all, he is a good and honest man.

As far as the IPL goes, again the media has twisted my words. I have known Karim and Ali Murani since 1998, since we were all in the events business. Over the years they have become close friends. When they took on KKR, I was generally throwing ideas at them about how they should market and package the team. Ali liked my ideas enough to ask me to come down to Bombay to discuss working for them — the Muranis, not KKR itself. The conversation was serious enough for me to fly down to Mumbai, but Shivy was still in school so we all just let it slide. But that’s how I first got to know about the IPL.

As far as the sweat equity for the Kochi team goes, I am genuinely bewildered by the allegations of corruption. I did agree to offer my skills as a marketing consultant. I have a knack for it. I also helped them raise a lot of money. But there’s been absolutely no exchange of money between us. I don’t even have the shares. It’s more like a promissory note with absolutely no guarantee that the shares will amount to anything. People are calling me and saying why did you give up the Rs 70 crore? What Rs 70 crore? It’s not there! I haven’t earned it as yet, there’s no surety I ever will. People have been throwing up fantastical numbers — what no one seems to understand is that all of it is notional. I am told Mumbai Indians made a loss of 40 odd crore last season, so there’s a huge risk involved. There’s no money upfront.

And again, why are they accusing me of being a proxy for Shashi? That’s so insulting. Can’t I make my own money? He has not been corrupt for so many years — for which I am proud to be his friend — why would he be corrupt now? Just look around you in India and see the corruption — in government, in industry, in every crevice of public life and they call this corruption! Indians couldn’t handle a man who is not corrupt so you tainted him and literally made him look corrupt so that he had to leave government and not embarrass his party! [laughs]

My faith in India is so shaken. Shashi and others keep telling me not to say this, but I don’t know Shoma — why shouldn’t I say it? I am shocked at the way events unfurled. It had no basis in truth. There was no intention of even getting to the truth. Why has the media taken this beyond the realm of reality. I can’t understand it!

There were three people in politics that really created hope for millions of Indians across the world that even clean men can join politics — Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Shashi Tharoor. I know that when Shashi entered politics, many Indians felt, oh, if he can, even we can. Otherwise Indian politics was always thought of as such a dirty game. But Shashi has been hounded out for now — ironically — for not being dirty enough. In just the cricket scene I know how much corruption is floating about, but the big powerful men will get away, and Shashi has been made a sacrifice. Was Shashi given a fair hearing? The media made sure he couldn’t get one. As I said, it was a medieval witch hunt in every way.

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Shoma Chaudhury is Managing Editor, Tehelka, a weekly newsmagazine widely respected for its investigative and public interest journalism. Earlier she had worked with The Pioneer, India Today, and Outlook. In 2000, she left Outlook to join Tarun Tejpal, and was among the team that started When Tehelka was forced to close down by the government after its seminal story on defence corruption, she was one of four people who stayed on to fight and articulate Tehelka‘s vision and relaunch it as a national weekly.

Shoma has written extensively on several areas of conflict in India – people vs State; the Maoist insurgency, the Muslim question, and issues of capitalist development and land grab. She has won several awards, including the Ramnath Goenka Award and the Chameli Devi Award for the most outstanding woman journalist in 2009. In 2011, Newsweek (USA) picked her as one of 150 power women who “shake the world”. In May 2012, she also won the Mumbai Press Club Award for best political reporting. She lives in Delhi and has two sons.