For a young man in search of “something more”, as his oldest brother Sombhai put it, the RSS gave Narendra Modi a sense of purpose and direction. But he remained unsure of his calling: whether to pursue the priestly life or volunteer himself towards the advancement of Hindutva. His parents had arranged him a marriage in keeping with the traditions of the Ghanchi caste in Vadnagar, which involved a three-step process that began with an engagement at age three or four, a religious ceremony (shaadi) by the age of 13, and cohabitation (gauna) around the age of 18 or 20, when the parents felt the time had come.
Modi was engaged to a girl three years younger than him, Jashodaben Chimanlal, from the neighbouring town of Brahamanwada. They had completed shaadi when Modi was only 13, Sombhai told me. But at age 18, with a higher call beckoning him, Modi decided to set off and wander in the Himalayas, leaving his wife and two uncertain families behind.
The only source of information for Modi’s travels during this time is Modi himself: even his family had no idea of his whereabouts. “Mother and all of us were very worried for him,” Sombhai recalled. “We had no idea where he had disappeared to. Then, two years later, he just turned up one day. He told us he had decided to end his sanyas and would go to Ahmedabad and work at our uncle Babubhai’s canteen.”
“I remember,” one of the Modi family’s neighbours in Vadnagar told me, “before Narendra left again, his mother wanted to set him up with his wife, so they asked Jashodaben’s parents to send her here for gauna. On the day Jashodaben came for gauna, Modi fought with the family and left home again.”
After his rise to prominence, Modi kept an unsettlingly close watch on anyone who tried to learn about this past life. In May 2002, when word first began to spread among local reporters that Modi was not actually unmarried, an Indian Express journalist in Gandhinagar, Darshan Desai, managed to locate the chief minister’s wife in her village near Vadnagar. He set out early one morning for the village, Brahamanwada, and met Jashodaben, her brother and the headmaster of a primary school where she was teaching. None of them would agree to an interview, fearing retribution, and several local BJP men made it clear his questions were unwelcome and insisted he leave.
“I remember I had just reached home and removed my shoes when I got a call on my cell phone,” Desai told me. “The voice on the phone said in Gujarati, ‘The chief minister wants to speak with you.’ Soon, Modi came on the line. He said ‘Namaskar’, and then he asked: ‘So what is the agenda?’
“I said, ‘I didn’t quite get you.’ And he said, ‘You have written against me. Your newspaper even started Modi Meter,’ referring to a column my paper ran during the riots. I just kept quiet, and he said, ‘I’m aware what you’ve been up to today. What you’ve done today goes much beyond. That’s why I want to know what your agenda is.’ I wasn’t scared, but I remember being a little nervous, and I said, ‘I have no agenda. You can contact my editor.’ He just said, ‘Okay. Think it over,’ and hung up the phone.”
An extract from ‘The Emperor Uncrowned,’ published in The Caravan’s March 2012 issue. Read the story in full here.
Vinod K. Jose is the Executive Editor of The Caravan and an award-winning journalist. He has previously worked as a producer from South Asia for public radio stations in the US and Europe. Jose has an MA in Journalism from Columbia Journalism School, where he was a Bollinger Presidential Fellow. He also has graduate degrees in Communication and English, and a PhD in Sociology.