At home, Smriti Irani has concocted a thriller. A pug keeps a close eye on the office of the Union Minister for the Development of Women and Children at 28 Tughlaq Crescent, New Delhi. Chloe, clearly unimpressed with the new entrants, is sunbathing on a day when winter in Delhi doesn’t seem like a death sentence.
The alley is dotted with green date palms, fragrant parijat, a row of champa and lime in full bloom. Sitting under a date palm is the last safety ring, Sheru, black as the nights of Himachal Pradesh, from where he was found on a road and rescued.
Irani’s debut novel, Lal Salaam, comes out next week. It’s 10:30 a.m. on a weekday and Irani, 15 kg lighter – “Covid”, she suggests as an explanation – is sitting behind her favorite painting, Durga on a tiger. All the imaginable works of contemporary Indian masters, from Jamini Roy’s cat to Anjolie Ela Menon’s jewel, hang on its walls. Much like a pantheon of gods that greets visitors at the entrance, with a fresh dot of marigold flower at the base of their portraits.
“I think life came full circle at a very young age. I was barely 36-37 when I became a minister, ”she says. “I think there’s been a lot of thinking that there’s nothing I put my finger on that I haven’t been able to do. I was a daring child. I remember my mom gave me a hard blow when I was about 10 years old. Because I was absolutely convinced that I was going to be someone. It was at a time when we were in financial difficulty. She looked at me and said, ‘Look around, what makes you say you will.’ I just said, ‘Don’t worry, I will.’ “
And she did. It is this assurance, with a little distrust – often too easily taken for impetuous by his opponents – that has become the signature of Irani. Irani, 45, has proven time and time again that she is a survivor. “I had a political obituary written about me in 2016,” she says.
A natural storyteller, Irani shares anecdote from her childhood in the minutes following the interview, making sure you’re hooked and rooted. Irani, the politician, is lively, articulate and combative; Irani, the writer, is a disarming chatterbox, sharing insider tips from Delhi on where to find a good deal. His extended family includes actors Boman Irani and John Abraham, and writer Anosh Irani.
Another politician who dared to make the leap into fiction was former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao (not while in office). The Insider, with its political betrayals and steamy scenes, has created more controversy than anything else. It was believed to be loosely modeled on Rao’s political career. There was a sequel, which was never released.
Irani is not a thinly disguised version of his life in politics. There will be a few easily distinguishable characters, but none of them are politicians. Lal Salaam is an all-round thriller, very Bollywood style. Vikram Pratap Singh, a young officer, is stationed in the heart of Naxal country and is tasked with avenging the murder of 70 CRPF officers.
Written over two years, Irani’s thin book is a curvy page turner. So much so that it kept the 80-year-old mother of her publisher VK Karthika from sleeping at night. “I write while the world is sleeping,” Irani says. “The fact that I have insomnia has helped me.”
The book was born out of a televised debate in 2011 – intense, moving and, as always with Irani, immensely quotable. “I was so outraged,” she recalls. “One of the panelists said that security personnel know he must die while wearing his uniform. I was furious. I said, ‘Imagine if someone who loves them is looking at us now. Can you imagine how ungrateful we seem? The fact that the rage lasted over a decade says a lot about how I was feeling at the time. I wanted to do it in a very fictional [style] and [with] many characters steeped in satire.
Irani paints a living picture of the Naxal region, offering readers the complexity of the situation, not moralizing, but with masala. It is clear who the heroes and the villains are; but there are shades of gray. There is even a fiery and honest young journalist.
This may be his first book, but it’s not the last. There are two more in the pipeline, completely different from his first one. The second is almost halfway. The book found its way into publishing like everything at Irani, a little unusual. A frequent visitor to Khan Market and BahriSons, booksellers of politicians across the border, Irani found herself with an agent, Anuj Bahri, and the book, an editor, Karthika, who has the last writer to her credit. Indian winner of the Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga. .
“I love my editor because she wouldn’t let a word get by just because I’m Smriti Irani,” she says. “We are ideologically poles apart. So, for us, coming to a conclusion about a book is truly a sign of a healthy relationship between an author and a publisher.
It’s hard to stereotype Irani – she always finds a way not to. A aspiring beauty contender, Irani has become one of the biggest names in television, playing a traditional bahu in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (2000). Tulsi, with a vermilion trail, has become a phenomenon, an advocate for Indian family values, and Irani, the highest paid actress.
Yet it was Irani who chose to “trust Indian families” and took her on-screen son to jail when he raped a woman. It was a scene Irani had written herself, tearing apart what the writers had been working on for seven days. “From I’m Going to Die, he just turned to Tulsi telling his son that there is nothing manly about [rape]; that that makes you a (helpless) napunsak. Ekta literally choked, ”she laughs. “But she let it fly. It became the top rated scene.
As a politician, Irani keeps alive her image of Tulsi – a mother of three, the devoted wife who eats last – but she’s not afraid of ambition. “I have no guilt as a mother,” she says. “I saw what guilt did to my mom – that your whole life is just [about] your relationships…. That I love my family is not in dispute. That I don’t have empty nest syndrome is true. That I won’t fall apart if everyone leaves is equally true. It’s just me.
She ventured into politics as an outsider. It sounds a lot like her acting career. Eighteen years later, with many firsts to his credit in his television and political career, Irani is still very lonely in politics. But that doesn’t seem to bother her. She works 18 hours a day, a skill she learned on set.
She remains isolated, has no entourage, which she is very proud of, grants very few interviews and fiercely protects her privacy. “I think most of the criticisms of my political being were very personal,” she says. “There was never any question of a political decision. I think it’s because I wouldn’t hit on anyone. I am not someone who has cultivated journalists.
It was probably advice Jaswant Singh had given her that she had ignored. In 2003, “Jaswant Singh, the legend” called her for a cup of tea. He said, ‘I want you to understand that you have to be nice to a particular group of journalists so that you get good coverage. You have potential, but you need that support, ”she recalls.
“I drank this delicious cup of tea. I enjoyed the company of Jaswant Singh. Looked at him speechless. I asked him everything I ever wanted to ask him about geopolitics. And I said a big no. He said, ‘You know you won’t survive.’ I said, ‘I will.’ I did this when I was in the media business. I didn’t have a public relations agency. I didn’t have a manager. So I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll do very well in politics.’ “
Irani strives to meet the challenge, the more impossible the better. “It’s a life. You live it, ”she says. “You bear the consequences. So the decision of how you want to run it should be more up to you. I decided that when I was 17. Whenever her career was canceled, she would get up to fight another day. She had the heaviest portfolios – human resource development, information and dissemination – where she successfully won the India International Film Festival. While both wallets were scrapped, the schemes she had initiated continued.
Irani, however, remained in cabinet, along with the ministries of textiles and women’s and children’s development. Although the textiles portfolio has been dropped, she is still a powerful voice.
But it was not easy. Her first election was in Chandni Chowk in 2004, when she was still the favorite bahu. Irani gave everything, but lost to Congress pillar Kapil Sibal. In 2014, she was pitted against Rahul Gandhi in Amethi. She lost, but refused to forget. His team, handpicked and available, worked hard. And, Irani went from bahu to Amethi didi to finally become the giant slayer in 2019.
“I don’t have an entourage,” she said. “I don’t walk around with all this swarm of cars or people. I still remember when I went to fight in the Amethi elections, there was this young man who said: ‘You know, Didi, there is a problem with your politics. Aapke paas bhaukal nahi hai. ‘ I asked, “What do you mean by bhaukal (pageantry)? He said, ‘When you walk you should have 50 cars behind you.’
“I said, ‘Can you imagine how much of a small individual I would be if I needed a multitude of cars to resonate with people as a politician. “People don’t want representatives distant from them. They want someone empathetic, someone approachable. Irani wants to be just that. It’s clear who the beard is for.
The power of Irani is the people. Whether it is her audience or her voter, she knows it, she knows the pulse of the people and the right tone. It’s no different with his book.
Lal Salaam: a novel
By Smriti Zubin Irani
Posted by Westland
Pages 256, price Rs399