Four years before Atal Bihari Vajpayee breathed his last, his Krishna Menon Marg home in Delhi saw a death. There was no media glare. But the house saw a steady stream of visitors including the then Congress president Sonia Gandhi on May 3, 2014.
Narendra Modi, who was busy campaigning for the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, could not attend the last rites of Mrs Kaul, unarguably Delhi’s ’most famous unknown other half’.
Top BJP leaders including LK Advani, Amit Shah as well as Congress politician Jyotiraditya Scindia attended the cremation of Mrs Rajkumari Kaul, a longtime companion of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Mrs Rajkumari Kaul died of a cardiac arrest in 2014. Her death marked the end of a friendship unlike any Indian politics has ever seen or will probably ever see.
Rajkumari Kaul was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s companion for many decades. Vajpayee adopted her daughter Namita. He stayed with the Kauls for many decades, through his rise to being India’s Prime Minister.
WHO WAS MRS KAUL?
When Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away last week, the stories of the elusive Mrs Kaul came up in discussions from drawing rooms to debates. Who was Mrs Kaul, who was known more famously by her husband’s surname than as Vajpayee’s companion?
In the 40s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajkumari Haksar went to Victoria College (later renamed as Laxmibai College) in Gwalior. The youngsters often wrote to each other to express their feelings. In the severely conservative Partition years, friendships between girls and boys were not exactly appreciated. Vajpayee and Kaul’s too met a similar fate.
Atal is said to have expressed his feelings for Rajkumari in a letter that he left in a book in their college library. Rajkumari replied in a similar fashion, but as fate would have it, the book never reached Atal.
Around the Partition years, Rajkumari’s Kashmiri Pandit father Govind Narain Haksar got her married to a Kashmiri Pandit, Brij Narain Kaul. Haksar did not want to get his daughter married to the man who would later go on to change the course of Indian politics.
Vajpayee and Rajkumari Haksar moved on with their respective lives. She moved to Delhi. He moved to Kanpur, and then Lucknow. BN Kaul was a professor in Ramjas College in Delhi University and later went on to become the warden of Ramjas hostel.
Years later, when the unmarried Vajpayee had become a full-time politician, his path crossed with Rajkumari’s in Delhi. Rajkumari was now Mrs Kaul, the wife of Ramjas College professor BN Kaul.
In the 60s, Professor Kaul was the warden of the Ramjas hostel. He frequently played spoilsport in the plans of hostellers who wanted to stay late to sneak in a drink or two. Someone devised a plan: complain to Mrs Kaul. When this bunch of hostellers landed up at Mrs Kaul’s door to speak about her husband and his strict ways, they are said to have encountered Vajpayee there.
Over the next few years, Atal Bihari Vajpayee remained a frequent visitor to the Kaul household. He then moved into the Kaul house while the professor was the Ramjas warden.
By 1978, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the external affairs minister in the Morarji Desai government, Mr and Mrs Kaul and their daughters had all moved in to his Lutyens’ house at 5, Raisina Road. Atal adopted Mrs Kaul’s daughter Namita and later, her granddaughter Niharika.
Former President Pranab Mukherjee told Hindustan Times in an interview, "We lived next door and they made an entrance through a side wall so Vajpayee and his family members could come easily to our place. He was very fond of fish. Namita, his foster daughter, used to regularly play at our place. My wife and Mrs Kaul (Namita’s mother) had a very deep bonding. When Namita’s marriage was decided, my wife helped in preparations because the groom was a Bengali [Namita married Ranjan Bhattacharya]."
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s friendship with Mrs Kaul was not spoken of in the media. There was an unwritten protocol that neither the media breached, nor Vajpayee ever felt the need to explain.
His relationship with Mrs Kaul is best summed up in her own words to a women’s magazine - the only interview she ever gave - that once the dirty rumours (about Atal living in her house) began, she never felt the need to offer ’apologetic explanations’.
In the same interview, she also said that her friendship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee was ’way too mature’ for anyone to understand, and that her relationship with her husband was way too strong for these rumours to dent.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was bed-ridden when Mrs Kaul died. He could not attend her last rites. When he died last week, Mrs Kaul’s daughter Namita lit the pyre as an entire nation watched in rapt attention.
That is how their lives were. While Vajpayee was the cynosure of all eyes, Mrs Kaul was the quiet force behind the man.