WHAT DOES TRASHING SUNANDA PUSHKAR SAY ABOUT
OUR ATTITUDES TO WOMEN, ASKS SHOMA CHAUDHURY
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.
'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 RESUMÈ. NOW, IN A
STIRRING INTERVIEW, SHE WRESTS BACK THE STORY OF HER TRUE SELF
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.
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?
|Sunanda Pushkar with her now deceased second husband Sujit Menon, her father and uncles in Jammu.
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
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
What about Sujit’s death? That
has been turned into something very
mysterious as well.
With baby Shiv at home in Dubai
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.
|‘The media said, why
should the Kochi team
pick me? As a woman
am I not good enough?’
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?
|With her father at her wedding to Sujit at the Shiva temple in Kochi,Kerala
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.
|‘Calling me a beautician from Dubai
is not derogatory. It’s
just not true’
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.
|‘The film Corporate
disgusted me. Must a
woman sleep around
to get business?’
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.
|Pushkar celebrating Diwali with her son and friends in Toronto,Canada in 2003.
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.
|‘Why are they accusing
me of being a proxy for
Shashi? Can’t I make
my own money?’
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.
|Sunanda Pushkar with the UAE's Minister for Foreign Trade Sheikh Lubna Al Qasimi
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!
|One of my bosses said
about me, ‘She can sell
sand to the Arabs and
ice to the Eskimos!’
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.
|Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar at a New Delhi book launch in March. GETTY IMAGES
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
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
|CALM BEFORE THE STORM Shashi Tharoor and Sunanda Pushkar
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
||The Parable Of The Vamp
WHAT DOES TRASHING SUNANDA PUSHKAR SAY ABOUT OUR ATTITUDES TO WOMEN, ASKS SHOMA CHAUDHURY
All For Profit
THE BCCI AND IPL HAVE PROVED THAT THE INDIVIDUAL IS SUPERIOR TO THE SYSTEM, SAYS RAHUL MEHRA
Doomed To Fall
THE BELATED PURGE MUST NOT END WITH MODI’S EXIT ALONE. AFTER ALL, HE IS THE BCCI’S OWN PATENTED FRANKENSTEIN, SAYS SANJAY JHA
Swarming Out Of The Woodworks
THOUGHT YOU KNEW EVERY LAST MURKY CHARACTER INVOLVED IN IPLGATE? THINK AGAIN, SAYS SHANTANU GUHA RAY