The fictional love affair of Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten
[Book extract] She was my escape and I was hers.
- Total Shares
[Here Nehru talks to the fictional special assistant to Lady Mountbatten, Lady Wallace, after hearing that the former has passed away.]
There was a rusty click when he opened the dispatch box and timidly lifted the lid, as if he were somehow afraid of what he might unleash. Slowly, he turned the box around to reveal its contents, deliberately offering them to me.
Quickly, I pushed the breakfast tray down to the far end of the coffee table so that he could lay the box in the space created. It was full of letters. Hundreds of them in different sizes and shapes, all neatly tied up in batches of twenty or so with lawyer’s red tape. And I realised immediately what they were. He had no need to say anything. Here was his confession. That was why he had come.
“All this time? All these years, Panditji?” I said. I knew these letters were the sum of Edwina’s correspondence to him. And somewhere in a box or drawer on the Mountbattens’ country estate, Broadlands, in England, was the other half from him. “Yes,” he whispered, his voice soft, almost feminine with old age.
“Two a day, at first, after she left. I would work all day and unburden myself to her at night. Then once a day and then, with the pressures of state, sometimes just one or two a week. She would tell me off for that!” He hesitated, as if having come so far, he had become unsure of how much to trust me with. “Always in diplomatic bags, always under a double cover. We were so afraid of letters falling into the wrong hands, communists perhaps. Look!” He selected a bundle of letters and handed them to me. “She made me number them, so that we would know if one went missing.”
I was reluctant to intrude, but he stole a march on me, deftly untying the tape and letting the letters drop into my lap. They separated with a gentle rush, like slowly melting snow from the branch of a tree, and came to rest on my knees and on the floor around me. Seizing the opportunity, the little boy abandoned his train and moved to pick them up. Meticulously, he delivered them alternately, one to me and one to Jawahar.
“Precious,” I said. Widening his eyes, the child nodded and stroked the soft watermarked paper of one letter with the tip of a finger. Taking it from him I noticed that Edwina had written “To the Prime Minister” on it in her spidery writing, while the next one had been addressed To Himself. “May I smoke?” Jawahar asked.
He knew very well that he could and had done so on many occasions in our house, but it was a mark of the man that still he sought permission. I assented and taking the matchbox from the drawer in the coffee table, I struck a match for him. He leant forward to cup his hands around the flame and I felt the warmth of his breath on my hands and face. Sitting back on the sofa, he drew up his legs and crossed them beneath him.
Inhaling and exhaling, he watched the curls of smoke rising and dancing as if he might somehow conjure the tall svelte figure of Edwina out of the air. “I think,” he said, his voice thin and quiet as if coming from a far off place, “It was that she was my escape and I was hers. Writing to her, being with her — it was always dreamlike, a state most unbecoming of a Prime Minister.”
He exhaled slowly. “But in truth, Pippi, I think I am only incidentally a prime minister.” He was losing himself in a reverie and I realised that for him, I too was now only incidentally there.
“I would send her poems: Yeats, Swinburne, Euripides, Auden, Blake, the Song of Solomon and poor ham-fisted efforts of my own. I would lose myself in tales of myths and legends. I would write about the Buddhist caves of Ajanta and the Temple of the Sun in Orissa, where there is no sense of shame or hiding anything. Ah! Pippi, you should see the faces of the Bodhisattvas on the walls at Ajanta. They are thousands of years old yet still so real and alive, looking down at me, each one a jewel in itself. The women are painted with such beauty and such grace, they make me feel pain at the vulgarity and cheapness of the life we see.”
He heaved another sigh and tapped the ash off the tip of his cigarette.
(Reprinted with the publisher's permission.)