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Gursharan Kaur
First Among Equals

by SAROJ NAGI & SHALINI SINGH

 

 

"You may be going to work, hmm?," Gursharan Kaur reminded her husband, Dr. Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, as guests began to disperse after the private dinner they hosted for U.S. President Barack Obama and wife Michelle on November 7, 2010. With a half-smile, the PM called for principal secretary T.K.A. Nair and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon - who had both left - and convened an unscheduled meeting with them to discuss the Obama visit.

Many a time, India's First Lady knows more than her husband what he may want to do.

The Prime Minister hinted at this at a press conference in May this year when he made mention of the two women in his life whom he relies on: one, the Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and the other, Gursharan Kaur. "I have the benefit of being advised by (both) the Congress President and my wife," Manmohan Singh said. He added in a rare attempt at humour: "Both of them deal  with different subjects."

Last week, as Gursharan Kaur and the PM played host to the Obamas over the four-day official visit by the US president, the rapport between the PM and his wife was clear. Restrained and elegant, she complemented his own low-key personality. At the same time, her warmth and natural graciousness embodied Punjabi hospitality, endearing her to millions watching the Obama visit on TV.

Like Michelle Obama, Gursharan Kaur, 73, perhaps never imagined that the man she married would one day be his country's leader. Yet, like Michelle, when she found herself in the position, she was ready. In the years of Manmohan Singh's job as Prime Minister, not only has she managed his household and been supportive of his role at home, she has held her own even in the glamorous First Wives Club. She accompanies her husband on foreign tours and has her own itinerary - which includes connecting with the vast network of relatives living in the diaspora who must be assured that Manmoha's elevation hasn't affected the warmth.

When her husband is busy taking care of matters of state, she's found her own way to forge First Wives ties. As she told a TV channel, she once joked about her short stature with Michelle Obama. "Don't worry, I'll take off my heels," Michelle reportedly replied.

While the Obamas' comfort level with Gursharan during their visit showed a warm fondness, she has even impressed global fashion watchers. In a story on first wives during the G-20 summit last year in London, Vogue UK made special mention of Gursharan Kaur's natural elegance. The piece noted that she was the only first wife to have not dyed the grey in her hair - she wore it with such grace that it marked her out to be comfortable in her own skin. Graceful yet real is the face of India that Kaur presents to the world.

Not that she hasn't been conscious of her image. Gursharan Kaur, who mostly wore salwar kameezes, put together a wardrobe of silk sarees, matched with understated strings of pearls, after Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister.

Naturally, she now has a personal secretary to manage her schedule - which is reasonably busy, filled with with book launches and cultural events. She also shares a good relationship with Congress top boss, Sonia Gandhi. "We mostly talk about children," Gursharan once said.

Those who know the couple say she is an ebullient, expressive and humourous wife to an understated, shy, man-of-few-words husband. And many a time, Manmohan Singh himself is the subject of her humour. "I will learn better, teach me," she told a prime ministerial aide who was giving the PM tips in public speaking in his first innings as Prime Minister.

When Manmohan Singh broke the news to her a couple of days prior to his taking over as Prime Minister on May 22, 2004, her stoic silence matched his flat statement that the couple may have to move house. Sonia Gandhi had already told Manmohan Singh he would be Prime Minister.

She has a sharp sense of humour. "I cooked for him," she once told author Khushwant Singh, who asked her what she had been doing when Manmohan went places - literally and figuratively.

 When the residence changed from Safdarjung Road to a cluster of houses across the Race Course Road, Gursharan Kaur carried her humility, along with the Maruti 800 driven by the couple for decades, to the new home. Her drives to Mother Dairy to buy vegetables might have ended, but she keeps the car even today so that she doesn't forget their hunble beginnings.

She continues to meticulously run the house and keep a close watch on the PM's diet. When the diabetic Singh impulsively reaches for a sweet, a subtle glance from her would stop him. When he was recovering after an open-heart surgery last year, she controlled all access to him. And she visited the gurdwara to pray for his speedy recovery.

She still cooks for the PM. Not only the dal-roti-sabzi, Manmohan's standard, but also for friends who get invited to their residence. "She makes it a point to serve tea if you are at their home," says a Congress leader close to the PM.  When Manmohan was leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Gursharan would pack him a lunch consisting of dal, lauki/ghiya and two rotis. The only change she made in the cooking area at the residence was to get the shelves lowered so that she could reach the cooking ingredients and condiments.

Those invited to the PM's residence on Sundays often found the couple engrossed in reading. Gursharan is an avid reader, of books ranging from political biographies to religious texts. She likes music and used to sing for All India Radio.

She once wanted to be a schoolteacher but ended up being the better half of the man Obama once called ‘Mr. Guru.' Her dream was carried forward by her daughter Upinder, who teaches history at Delhi University. Neither of the couple's other two daughters, Damandeep or the US-based Amrit, stay with the PM either.

Gursharan Kaur, who joined Manmohan Singh's incredible journey in 1958 through an arranged match, is devoutly religious and visits Gurdwara Rakabganj opposite Parliament House every Sunday, usually in the company of good friend Isher Kaur Ahluwalia. "Humour, humility and emotional strength are her defining characteristics," says Sanjay Baru, who worked with the PM.

"She is a very humble, warm and a forgiving person. Her brother was killed in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms but she has no sense of anger in her," says Khushwant Singh. The one occasion when she lost her cool was in 1999 when Manmohan Singh lost the parliamentary elections from South Delhi. She thought the people handling his campaign could have done better.

 

[Courtesy: Hindustan Times]

November 14, 2010

Conversation about this article

1: N. Singh (Canada), November 14, 2010, 10:19 AM.

She pales into comparison with the likes of Princess Diana who spent her life trying to help the underprivileged. No mention here of Gursharan Kaur visiting the poor, the ill or those who have been affected due to the anti-Sikh pogroms. Like a subservient Sikh, she has changed her dress from salwar-kameez to a sari to please her masters and spends her time visiting her relatives in the diaspora ... instead of mixing with the Dalits or other 'backward' castes which our Gurus wanted us to help uplift. She meets and is friends with the wife of the man who ordered the massacre of thousands of Sikhs in Delhi, including her brother. In the eyes of Indians, this is seen as not having any hatred, but in my eyes with a western education, this is someone who has lost all self-respect and would do anything so her husband can be PM ... As the writers correctly assert, she is the second half of an equally pathetic, lame man!

2: R. Singh (Canada), November 14, 2010, 12:36 PM.

Is Salwaar Kameez not 'Indian' enough? For that matter, who dictates which dress is more or less Indian? Just the fact one has to change one's appearence to appease some, is not exactly a indicator of self-respect.

3: Taran (London, United Kingdom), November 14, 2010, 1:13 PM.

I respect Gursharan Kaur ji! But what is this that she has no anger, her brother got killed in anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 but she was saddened for her husband's electoral loss. Is this writer trying to make a joke on her? OK, she doesn't need any anger for any material or physical loss to her or her family but surely in this article, this writer is trying to make everyone laugh as this is some kinda joke.

4: Kanwar (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 14, 2010, 4:43 PM.

Perhaps her choice of the sari over the salwar-kameez for state functions is simply a personal choice. I have no problem with criticisms of Dr. Manmohan Singh's policies but to make an issue of his wife's wardrobe while citing his poor handling of the anti-Sikh pogrom issue is self-defeating.

5: S. Singh (Canada), November 16, 2010, 4:42 PM.

Wait! What is that part about her not holding any anger or even crying for the Sikh victims of 1984 including her brother! Yet she cried for her husband's electoral defeat and feels anger towards the people handling her husband's campaign! As the husband, so is the wife. By the way, is salwaar kameez not Indian enough? An inferiority complex a lot of current Indian leaders seem to suffer from!

6: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 16, 2010, 4:47 PM.

It is with the greatest restraint that I write this and do apologize, as the comparison drawn saddens me. A more valid comparison: if service with all the trappings of royalty, beauty and worldly advantages is the touchstone, how does it compare with Bhagat Puran Singh's Sikh way of service. If Diana wiped an odd running nose of a poor kid amidst the battery of pressmen and TV cameramen, lauding her concern for the poor, how many kids did she invite to Windsor Palace to mother them? Bhagat Puran Singh, a true royal in his tattered clothes carried them on his back and brought them to his humble abode ... and remains unsung. "Kaho Nanak sabh tgayree vaie-aa-ee koe-ee naa-o na jaanai mayraa" [GGS:383.12] - 'Says Nanak, this is all your greatness; no one even knows my name.'

7: N. Singh (Canada), November 16, 2010, 7:35 PM.

Sangat Singh ji: Please do not be upset with me! I understand your point as well as your previous posts. I apologize for my outbursts. However, this article is titled 'First Amongst Equals' ... neither Princess Diana nor Gursharan Kaur are or ever will be the equals to Bhagat Puran Singh or other Sikh heroes. However, Gursharan Kaur falls far short of the expectations of a First Lady. At her mature age, her emphasis should be on other people, less fortunate than herself, not just on her husband's political career. How is she different from many other wives and mothers in India ... how is she 'leading' the way or inspiring people?

8: Raj (Canada), November 16, 2010, 9:17 PM.

We can't compare Sikhs born, raised and living in India with Sikhs born and raised in the west. The standards are vastly different, most important one is being independent thinkers. As per Indian standards, the Prime Minister and the First Lady are exceptional Indians. As far as Sikhi is concerned, they're not any better than the average one.

9: Gurteg Singh (New York, U.S.A.), November 19, 2010, 1:09 PM.

Gursharan Kaur has every right to wear what pleases her. However it looks like the that the choice of wearing a saree (the female version of the dhoti), which of course looks quite odd on her, was made for purely political reasons. In spite what every one says about Manmohan Singh's much vaunted integrity, the man has made all kinds of compromises to keep his Government in power. Gursharan Kaur is merely doing her part in their common endeavor. Speaking out loudly about the killing of your own brother and tens of thousands of other innocent Sikhs is politically incorrect and can be the cause of losing your Prime Minister's plum job.

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First Among Equals"









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