Think You've Got a Tough Mother-in-Law? Indira Gandhi Kicked Out Her Son's Widow

updated 04/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/26/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Dear Mummy," the letter began, "...The indignities and physical and mental abuse I have suffered in the house no—and I repeat, no—human being would have suffered.... Please let me live my life decently without shouting and abusing me all the time." Though the prose was as tormented as a paperback novel's, the letter from Maneka Gandhi, 25, to her mother-in-law, Indira, 64, soon became one of the best-read documents in India after Maneka leaked it to the press a few weeks ago. It was the latest salvo in a vitriolic quarrel between the two women that has shattered the upper-crust dignity of India's First Family.

The rift between the Gandhis dates to the morning in June 1980 when Sanjay Gandhi—Maneka's 33-year-old husband and Indira's son—died in New Delhi at the controls of his stunt airplane. The death hit both women hard. The charismatic Sanjay, leader of the youth wing of the Congress Party, was his mother's closest confidant and heir presumptive to her political power. As his wife, Maneka had shared the exhilaration of living and dining at India's top table. As his widow, she found her importance painfully diminished. She inherited Sanjay's substantial wealth, including a trucking company and real estate holdings, but Maneka was relegated to the background and boredom. Though she had never completed her college education, she wanted more from life than watching three movies a day on her video recorder, or talking to Mrs. Gandhi's resident swami and other minions.

Maneka's first thought after Sanjay's death was to run for her husband's seat in Parliament, then take over his political following. Mrs. Gandhi had other ideas. She persuaded her elder son, Rajiv, now 37, to drop his career as an airline pilot and assume Sanjay's mantle as the crown prince of Indian politics. As a Gandhi by marriage alone, Maneka was frozen out of the family that, between Indira and her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, had ruled India for most of the past three decades. Indira disapproved of her daughter-in-law's flighty ways and her casual use of coarse language, and tension between them swelled. Mrs. Gandhi tolerated Maneka's presence because Hindu custom dictates that a widow must be supported by her husband's kin. But her patience wore thin last month when one of Sanjay's old cronies, Akbar "Dumpy" Ahmed, asked Maneka to speak at a rally of her dead husband's political followers. Maneka went to the microphone even though her mother-in-law denounced the meeting as "anti-party." The rally lasted only 20 minutes, a remarkable display of brevity for India's notoriously garrulous politicians, but it was long enough.

At home the next day, the Prime Minister flew into a rage and ordered Maneka to leave the house immediately. The argument deteriorated into a shouting match. Maneka's sister, Ambika, joined in, yelling abuse at the Prime Minister, until Indira retired from the fray, crying with rage and humiliation. The next day's papers carried pictures of Maneka's luggage dumped on the lawn outside the family home.

The fighting has since cooled. Holed up in a New Delhi motel room, Maneka is waiting for Mrs. Gandhi to take the first step toward reconciliation, announcing: "I will go back if she asks me." But without an outright apology, the Prime Minister seems in no mood to invite Maneka to return. While Sanjay's 2-year-old son, Varun, is still allowed to spend time with his grandmother, Maneka is shopping for a separate home. Cast deeper into political obscurity by the encounter, Maneka will have ample time to study an eternal truth: the formidable power of an angry mother-in-law.

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