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The troubled life and death of Sunanda Pushkar

  • A new book chronicles Pushkar’s tumultuous life and the mystery surrounding her death
  • This excerpt gives a glimpse into the disintegration of her marriage to Congress politician Shashi Tharoor

Sunanda Pushkar and Shashi Tharoor at a friendly cricket match in Delhi in March 2010.
Sunanda Pushkar and Shashi Tharoor at a friendly cricket match in Delhi in March 2010. (Photo: Ronjoy Gogoi/Hindustan Times)

Mehr Tarar. She was the real trouble. Everything else that was exploding around them was a mere spin-off from the core issue that had turned Sunanda (Pushkar) from a feisty, vivacious and confident woman into a suspicious, cantankerous, antagonistic wife scrambling for proof of her husband’s infidelity.

A graduate of West Virginia University, Tarar, a Lahore-based journalist and single mother to a son, had first met (Shashi) Tharoor in April 2013 at a social gathering and had remained in touch with him on email and Twitter. Mehr was apparently working on a book on Kashmir, which led to her exchanging frequent posts and mails with the minister, whose books she admired and who she hoped would help her meet the right people for her project.

Sunanda, however, instinctively believed that there was more to this relationship than what met the eye. In June 2013, she accused Tharoor of spending three nights with Tarar in Dubai, where he had gone for a conference. Later, many news websites also threw up visuals of Tharoor with Tarar at a social event in Dubai. While Tharoor, of course, denied that there was any liaison between him and Tarar, Sunanda was beside herself with anger at the supposed betrayal.

The same month, at Sunanda’s birthday party—the last before her death—on 27 June, Mehr’s shadow loomed large over the celebrations. Sunanda had by then quit being discreet about what was clearly tormenting her all the time. Just a couple of months earlier, the journalist Vrinda Gopinath had met a politician who told her that Sunanda had been saying her marriage was over and that she had been asked by the Congress party leaders to wait until the elections were over in May 2014, before taking any drastic steps.

Amongst Sunanda’s many friends at her birthday party that year was her journalist friend Nalini Singh. Nalini made sure she attended the event as she had missed Sunanda’s birthday party the previous year in Dubai. Sunanda had threatened to never talk to her if she missed the next one. As Nalini walked into the party at the Tharoors’ Lodhi Estate residence, she spotted Sunanda looking gorgeous in fitted jeans, a white shirt, a long tilak on her forehead and a rudraksh mala around her neck.

The Extraordinary Life And Death Of Sunanda Pushkar: By Sunanda Mehta; Pan Macmillan India; 344 pages;  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
The Extraordinary Life And Death Of Sunanda Pushkar: By Sunanda Mehta; Pan Macmillan India; 344 pages; 599.

Nalini also noticed that she seemed much slimmer than before. She knew Sunanda had just returned from a visit to a spiritual leader in Bengaluru. ‘Now where did you find this ridiculous Baba?’ she had teasingly asked Sunanda.

‘Don’t say anything against him. He is the last word. Can’t you see I have lost two kilos too?’ Sunanda had replied.

‘I can see that you are looking outrageously gorgeous. What could have happened in one week?’

At this Sunanda sobered down. ‘I have lupus,’ she revealed. ‘I have only two years left. It’s terminal.’

‘If people who have lupus look gorgeous, you really have the right symptoms,’ replied Nalini in jest, not quite sure if Sunanda was serious or just pulling her leg.

By then the party started getting crowded and Sunanda was pulled in different directions by her friends. But she soon found her way back to Nalini. She caught hold of her arm and said, ‘Did you find out about Mehr, like I asked you to—did you?’ Sunanda had confided in Nalini some days back about her suspicions regarding Tharoor and Mehr.

‘I’ll tell you tomorrow morning about it,’ replied Nalini softly, reluctant to discuss the issue at the party.

But Sunanda had decided to throw caution to the wind and began to loudly blurt out that she was certain there was something going on between the two. ‘I just know they were together in Dubai. You forget Dubai is my city. Nothing happens there without me knowing. This Mehr Tarar was there at that time with him. The receptionist of the hotel told me.’

Nalini began to feel alarmed at how loud Sunanda was getting, particularly as some guests had started looking in their direction and turning their ears towards their conversation. She asked Sunanda to lower her voice. Tharoor was nearby too and Nalini was sure he had heard all the savage words said about him.

On her way out, she met Tharoor at the door. He seemed to have watery eyes. He told her he was just back from Dubai and wasn’t feeling well. Nalini, still unsure about what he may have heard of Sunanda’s conversation with her, made some small talk about the envious number of followers he had on Twitter and scurried away.

But soon enough, Sunanda caught up with Nalini again at a formal and very exclusive sit-down dinner. There were just eight people at this dinner in honour of the president-elect of a European country. Sunanda had come without Tharoor. Nalini was there mainly to speak with the woman who was being trained to take over the office of the current president, and whom she considered extremely bright. But Sunanda would have none of it. She pulled Nalini to the side and poured out her anguish about both Tharoor’s family’s patronizing attitude towards her and the alleged Mehr affair. Nalini realized this was going to become a routine between them.

Sunanda also had her guns out for a woman named Katy, who according to her was Tharoor’s biographer. She suspected Tharoor of having an affair with an air hostess as well. In fact, many of her friends recall having had conversations with Sunanda in the second half of 2013 about her husband’s supposed infidelities. Sunanda’s loneliness in a marriage going downhill was no more a conjecture.

From the Spanish Fiesta Couture Fashion show organized by Indian fashion designer Ritu Beri at the residence of Spanish ambassador to India in October 2013 to a Jaipur event hosted by the royal family in November to communications consultant Dilip Cherian’s Christmas party in New Delhi—all taking place in 2013—Sunanda was spotted alone. When Sagarika Ghose met her at Cherian’s party and asked her about Tharoor, she had apparently retorted, ‘Why do I need him? I am happy on my own.’ She had then proceeded to take a selfie with Sagarika and tweeted the photograph with the caption: ‘I admire you.’

But Sunanda was not herself at that lunch, says Sagarika. Sunanda told the journalist that day that she felt like a misfit in Delhi.

Excerpted with permission from Pan Macmillan India. The book will be on sale from 30 July.

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