Pet hate

Maneka Gandhi's brazen, holier-than-thou attitude can get on your nerves

Rupa Gulab

I'd forgotten all about Maneka Gandhi till the launch of Rang De Basanti, when she created her usual tedious hoo hah about the use of animals in the film. And then, the memories started flooding back.

I have always believed that Maneka Gandhi makes a better model than a role model. The very first time I saw her, she had a towel draped around her. And very nice she looked too, with an engaging smile instead of the run-of-the-mill pouty plastic dolls one saw in glossies those days. Thereafter, she became a Gandhi daughter-in-law and quit modelling. She had elegant neta-type saris modestly draped around her instead. And her smile was replaced with an expression that clearly said, "That was my twin in those towel ads, you'd better believe it buster."

Many years later, long after her rift with the Gandhi clan, there she was on my TV screen, smiling engagingly again while holding up a pack of frozen peas and urging me to become a vegetarian. While I didn't exactly rush out and buy the peas or stop fantacising about bacon and eggs, I appreciated her sentiments. Her earnestness was genuine. And the touching little apocryphal story that was doing the rounds about how Sanjay Gandhi told her that if she really loved animals she'd better stop eating them, almost brought tears to my cynical eyes.

The problem is, she's only likeable when her lines are scripted out for her. When she speaks for herself, she's about as cuddly as a porcupine. During her stint as minister for animal welfare, she was practically everybody's pet hate, from laboratory personnel to the boy next door. Does she have to step on people's toes with hob-nailed boots to prove that she loves animals? Granted, she did a lot of great work during her tenure, and the fact is, most of us Indians do treat animals like, well, animals. But as the saying goes, it's not what you say, it's how you say it. And she said it very abrasively. She's so insufferably self-righteous and over zealous, you could call her the Osama bin Laden of animal rights.

Another story, this time about her exit as minister of culture, made me roll on the floor with mirth. She apparently caused a minor diplomatic row when she attempted to play watchdog in her Maharani Bagh neighbourhood, where quite a few Korean diplomats lived. Some stray dogs were missing and she reprimanded the South Korean Ambassador about the Korean practice of eating dogs, implying you-know-what. My bet is, she didn't mince her words.

And then, a few years ago, in the run up to the general elections when the BJP was oh so confident of being back in power again (tee hee), I caught her on a TV show where she did her best to make Sonia Gandhi look like a bimbette. She talked at length about how Sanjay and she would stay home and read (read what? Recipe books for born again vegans? ) while Rajiv and Sonia preferred to party (very bad, they acted like normal human beings, tut tut). To me, she came across as being insidiously vindictive. Of course, I'm sure lots of people must have fallen for her act, she spoke in an exhausted, "I'm just doing my itty bitty bit for the country" voice, like a martyr. And, horror of horrors, she smiled tiredly too. Honestly, she needs more proteins in her diet.

I still have a grudging respect for her efforts towards animal welfare, though. If she stood for elections again, I'd consider giving her my vote to empower her efforts as long as she promised to do it tactfully and pleasantly, instead of throwing her weight around. Some issues may hold me back, however: What about rats? Will she stop us from killing rats and damn us with plague instead? The silverfish that eat our books: are we to lovingly feed them Tolstoy and Tagore? Hello, where does one draw the line here? Remember, she goes to absolutely ridiculous lengths sometimes. 

Ah, forget it. We'll all be better off if she gets back to modelling instead. She can sell us flea medication with a charming smile instead of packing us off with sundry fleas in our ears. And then, maybe, we'll stop picking bones with her.