She later recalled presenting Mrs. Gandhi with a list of men who said they had been forced to undergo vasectomies during a coercive mass sterilization campaign spearheaded by her son, Sanjay. Expecting to encounter resistance from the prime minister, she had asked each man for his telephone number.
âI said, âIndu, you know I never talk to you about politics, never, no,â â Mrs. Nehru said in an interview with Indian state television. â âPlease look at this â these are all complaints about sterilization of young boys and old men. You know yourself that there is no need to sterilize. Why?â She listened, looked at me. âBut.â What but?â
Mrs. Nehruâs husband, in his own memoir, reflected that virtually nobody â including himself â was willing to take the risk of alienating Mrs. Gandhi, who resented any criticism of her son. He said his wife was less cautious, and âcertainly on more intimate terms with Indira Gandhi than I was.â
âI guess she was like that,â Ashok Nehru said. âShe felt she had to get the truth across to her. It was a close family relationship, not a political relationship. She felt free enough to do that.â
Mrs. Nehru was 90 when she asked an Oxford classmate of her sonâs, the British historian Martin Gilbert, to suggest some reading material on the history of the Jews. Mr. Gilbert wrote that he was perplexed by the inquiry, having always seen her as âan Indian woman,â until she recounted the story of her childhood in Budapest.
âAuntie Fori wanted to learn the history of the people to whom she belonged, but from whom, 67 years earlier, she had moved away, to the heat and dust and challenges of India,â Mr. Gilbert wrote in âLetters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-Year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith,â published in 2002.
She was born on Dec. 5, 1908, into a prosperous, assimilated Jewish family that had changed its surname from Friedmann to the less Jewish-sounding Forbath. Her motherâs family, Mr. Gilbert wrote, was one of the few Jewish families licensed, under the Austro-Hungarian empire, to use the aristocratic prefix âvon.â She rarely visited a synagogue except to collect her father after services.
âShe used to say, âBoth my sister and I didnât believe in all this stuff,â â Ashok Nehru recalled. âShe said they would stand outside the synagogue, stamping their feet in the cold.â
An anti-Semitic tide was rising in Hungary, and the family was forced by law to revert to the name Friedmann. In 1919, hoping to stave off a Communist revolution, right-wing mobs roamed the streets, killing Jews.
âOnce a week my father would travel to the villages to get…