WHAT a delight it is to read Nayantara Sahgal’s latest book, Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing A Savage World. The title is somewhat misleading. Nehru is not out to civilise anybody, let alone the world. What this book is all about are personal reminiscences of Nayantara, Nehru’s niece, insights into the political action he often – and regularly – had to take, and anecdotes that only a niece of Nehru could relate.
It is by no means a biography of Nehru. But it tells us much more about India’s first Prime Minister than many books written on him in the past do. That is its unique feature. As Nayantara herself explains, the subjects she has chosen are “Jawaharlal Nehru’s (she doesn’t say ‘Uncle’s’) major concerns and which translated into politics at home and abroad were a realist’s response to the world of his time.” In a way she keeps her distance from her much-loved uncle. She treats him as a national figure, which he was, nothing more, nothing less.
She neither tries to defend him or extol him. She leaves his letters, his speeches, his private conversations speak for himself. She has drawn a great deal from the Jawaharlal Nehru Papers accessible to anyone interested in knowing him. She similarly quotes frequently from the dairies and letters of her own mother, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. She has also drawn from a few secondary sources like books authored by well-known writers. The net result is a highly informative and wholly readable book that is a treasure to keep. In the process she exposes some lies. In the thirties it used to be said that the Pandits were so rich that they sent their laundry to Paris. Not true, Nayantara asserts, but what is true is that the family patriarch, Motilal Nehru, donated his fabulous mansion to the Congress and on one occasion “the family made a blazing bonfire of all their British goods and apparel”. The watchword then was swadeshi. It must have caused a great deal of wrench.
Says Nayantara: “Silks, satins and lace had no place in a lifestyle cut off from pursuits of wealth and leisure”. But Motilal stuck to his drinks, claiming “I simply cannot bring myself to yield to the puritanism affected by Congress circles….” But that is only a small part of the larger picture Nayantara draws about her family and its problems. She talks about her mother, her father who died in 1943 after he fell mortally ill behind bars, her aunt Krishna who married Raja Nutheesing, her cousin Indira and how they got along in good times and bad, with no pretensions.
Correspondence is quoted. Jawaharlal wrote affectionate letters to his nieces signing himself off as “Mamu”. Nayantara is emphatic that by no means was Nehru “the last Englishman” as he was labelled by some though “he was clear about the debt he owed to England”. Some of the anecdotes Nayantara reports are touching and at least one teasing. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was famous for hugging those he came to know and Nehru forewarned Nayantara not to get upset if he hugged and kissed her, which he did when Nayantara went to receive him. Ho Chi Minh later sent her a picture of himself signed Chacha Ho Chi Minh and addressed to “my dear niece Mme Nayantara Sahgal” with “kindest souvenir and affection”.
There are several stories Nayantara recounts of Nehru’s own encounters with world leaders like Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Truman, Marshal Tito, Sukarno, JBS Naldane and many others that tell us as much of himself as of what he thought of others. There are references to his own colleagues in the Congress, but none with any malice.
The US Ambassador to India, JK Galbraith, it would seem, was opposed to US meddling in the Himalayas, saying this would poison America’s relations with India. China proved to be untrustworthy and Nehru was apparently quite hurt. But certainly Nehru had no illusions about China’s behaviour and does not deserve to be dismissed as naïve. His brother-in-law (Vijaya Lakshmi’s husband) Ranjit Pandit, a Maharashtrian spent over a year with him in jail. He fell ill-he was soon to pass away-and when Vijay Lakshmi heard that he was suffering from pleurisy and pnuemonia she managed to get permission to see him in jail. Afterwards she was to write: “It was a tremendous shock to see Ranjit brought into the Supreintendent’s office on a stretcher. His head had been shaved and he was emaciated and almost unrecognisable. It cost me a tremendous effort to restrain my tears… I was shocked by his appearance, did not know what to talk about and did not dare mention that I had asked the Governor’s special permission for this interview, for even in illness he would have reacted angrily to this…”.
Ah, but those were another times Nayantara writes about her mother and what she went through and what she achieved and the admiration she evoked. In all it is a tribute to Jawaharlal and a loving homage to her mother. The only thing missing is an index. In summing up she says: “Nehru’s policy of steering clear of alignment and chosing to lead, not follow, may still be the wisdom needed for some solutions”. Perhaps Dr Manmohan Singh should read this book. He may make a better Prime Minister.
(Penguin Books (India) Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017, Email – [email protected])