POLITICS TO PAGE TURNER
THE WEEK|December 05, 2021
Smriti Irani kept you hooked on to the TV screen, as an actor, and later in Parliament, as an orator. Now she has you booked, with her debut novel, a thriller
MANDIRA NAYAR

At home, Smriti Irani has plotted a thriller. A pug keeps a wary eye on the office of the Union minister for women and child development at 28, Tughlaq Crescent, New Delhi. Chloe, distinctly unimpressed with new entrants, is sunning herself on a day when the Delhi winter does not seem like a death sentence.

The driveway is dotted with green—date palms, fragrant parijat, a row of champa and sweet lime in full bloom. Sitting under a date palm is the last ring of security, Sheru—black as the nights in Himachal Pradesh, from where he was found on a road and rescued.

Irani’s debut novel, Lal Salaam, is out next week. It is 10:30am on a weekday and Irani, 15kg lighter—“Covid,” she offers as explanation—sits behind her favourite painting, Durga on a tiger. Every conceivable contemporary Indian master’s work—from Jamini Roy’s cat to Anjolie Ela Menon’s jewel—hang on her walls. As do a pantheon of gods that greet 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 cabinet minister,” she says. “I think there was a lot of reflection on the fact that there has been nothing that I have put my finger on that I have not managed to do. I was an audacious child. I remember my mother giving me a tight whack when I was around 10. Because, I was absolutely confident that I was going to be somebody. It was at a time when we were struggling financially. She looked at me and said, ‘Just look around you, what makes you say that you will.’ I just said, ‘Don’t worry, I will.’”

And she did. It is this self-assurance, with a little bit of defiance—often too easily mistaken as brash by her opponents—that has become Irani’s signature. Irani, 45, has proven, time and again, that she is a survivor. “I have had a political obituary written about me in 2016,” she says.

A natural storyteller, Irani shares the childhood anecdote within minutes of the interview, ensuring you are hooked and rooting for her. Irani, the politician, is sharp, articulate and combative; Irani, the writer, is disarmingly chatty, sharer of Delhi insider tips on where to find a bargain. Her extended family includes actors Boman Irani and John Abraham, and writer Anosh Irani.

One other politician who dared make the leap into fiction was former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao (not while he was in office). The Insider—complete with political treachery and steamy scenes—created more controversy than anything else. It was believed to be loosely modelled on Rao’s political career. There was a sequel, which was never published.

Irani’s is not a thinly disguised version of her life in politics. There will be a few characters that are easy to distinguish, but none of them politicians. Lal Salaam is an all-out thriller, very much in the Bollywood style. Vikram Pratap Singh, a young officer, is posted in the heart of Naxal land and is tasked with avenging the killing of 70 CRPF officers.

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