How Nehru’s letters to Indira Gandhi helped turn her into a nature lover

[Book extract] Correspondence between daughter and father further suggests what Indira voraciously pored over in 1932.

 |  4-minute read |   25-06-2017
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Nehru influenced Indira’s love for nature not just through the letters he wrote, but also by the books he gifted her when she was very young, among them The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlinck — the well-known Belgian writer on entomological subjects who had received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911. Nehru’s inscription in Hindi read:

Indira Priyadarshini, Papu ka Bahut, Bahut Pyaar (Lots and lots of love from Daddy)
Naini Jail
10 December, 1930.

Indira loved The Life of the Bee enough to mention it in one of the earliest letters she wrote to her father (December 1930; date unknown) from Calcutta: “I have enjoyed reading The Life of the Bee... I have also begun The Life of the Ant (also by Maurice Maeterlinck). But as I have read only a few pages I have not formed my opinion about it...”

That these books stayed in Indira’s mind is evident from a comment she was to make very much later to an American lady: “Entirely different types of books, for instance, the Faber Book of Insects and Maeterlinck’s books on bees, ants… also contributed to the shaping of my personality. They inculcated the habit of close observations of everything around and reinforced what my mother used to tell me of the links between all creatures. My father’s letters had explained how rocks, stones, and trees told not only their own story but those of the people and creatures who lived amongst them. Very early I became a conservationist with a strong feeling of companionship and kinship with all living things.”

Indira Gandhi’s private library sometimes throws light on the books she grew up reading — such as, The Book of Baby Birds by EJ Detmold — with a handwritten inscription on the opening page: Indira Nehru, Calcutta, 5/1/29.

life-in-nature_062517022134.jpgIndira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh, Simon & Schuster. [Photo: Mail Today]

Correspondence between daughter and father further suggests what Indira voraciously pored over in 1932. There were some sixty books, both in English and French, that included several classics such as What Dare I Think by Julian Huxley, spanning both biology and religion; The Life of a Butterfly by Friedrich Schnack, examining the life cycle of the peacock butterfly; the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome, which engaged with children camping, fishing and exploring; and Far Away and Long Ago by William Henry Hudson — an autobiography of a well-known naturalist of those times who spent the first eighteen years of his life in the Argentinian Pampas.

A letter from Indira to her father on 13 April 1940 from Leysin in Switzerland — where she was undergoing treatment for pleurisy — gives a glimpse not only of her wide reading preferences, but also of the policies she was to later adopt as prime minister: “I have been reading, in the Reader’s Digest, a condensation from the book Flowering Earth by DC Peattie. I am sure it would fascinate you, as it did me. It is a story of green life — the plant kingdom — upon the earth. Is it not wonderful, the oneness of life? It is ever a source of marvel to me how intrinsically the fates of all living things are bound together and how dependent on one another they are.”

This must be the only book of that time that Indira read without her father suggesting it. In fact, it was one that her father himself hadn’t read. In a letter dated 25 April 1940, written from Bombay, with an addition made the next day, Nehru admitted to his daughter that he found her account of DC Peattie’s book “fascinating” and that he would try and get the book — a rare biblio-victory for Indira over her father.

(Excerpted with permission of Simon & Schuster India from Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh.)

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Jairam Ramesh Jairam Ramesh

The writer is an MP (Rajya Sabha) from Andhra Pradesh, politician (Indian National Congress) economist, policy expert,

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