Why bigots must read Nayantara Sahgal's Nehru's India
The 11 contributors to this volume look at the great man from different angles and thus offer bracing, stimulating insights.
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Jawaharlal Nehru read history, wrote history and made history. Yet, history has been unkind to him. In surveys asking, who is the best prime minister of India, Nehru is placed at number four or five. He should be placed at number one. Nehru was not only a very great man he was also a good, guileless, magnanimous and sensitive man and a hero of the freedom movement. In popularity, second only to Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru spent nine-and-a-half-years in British prisons which was longer than Gandhiji, Sardar Patel, Rajaji and Jaiprakash Narayan. In prison, he wrote three seminal books, and all three continue to sell even today.
I have been a Nehruite all my life. I had the good fortune to meet him dozens of times and have been in his presence hundreds of times. I was with the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations when he died on May 27, 1964.
I wept. Within a few weeks I asked his American publishers John Day if they would be interested in bringing out a volume of tributes which I would edit. Yes, they would. I wrote to 20 of Nehru's contemporaries. Fifteen of them responded including, CR Attlee Pearl Buck (Nobel laureate for literature). Arnold Toynbee, Martin Luther King Jr, Bertrand Russell, Adlai E Stevenson, twice the Democratic presidential candidate and former governor of Illinois, UN secretary-general U Thant and Ilya Ehrenburg, the well-known Russian writer.
Most notable was the letter by former US President Harry S Truman. In response to my letter he wrote: "In reply to your letter, my recent mishap caused me to lose contact with my correspondents until my return to the office several days ago. I wish that it were possible for me to act on your request to write a tribute to the late Prime Minister Nehru, for it is something that I would very much like to do, but under the present circumstances I am well advised to forego all such undertakings until I resume my full working schedule."
The book was published on May 27, 1965, Nehru's first death anniversary.
Nayantara Sahgal's edited book Nehru's India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation, has come out at a time when the demonising of Nehru is at its peak. The bigots are going for him in evil language. Nayantara is not only Nehru's niece; she is a widely-read novelist, as well as a non-fiction writer of repute, and a public spirited and gusty individual. I first set my eyes on her in Shimla, soon after her marriage. She was then one of the most beautiful women in the country. Her mother, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, I got to know well towards the final decades of her long life.
The 11 contributors to this volume look at the great man from different angles and thus offer bracing, stimulating insights. Mani Shankar Aiyar's long piece brings Nehru to life, catching the refinement of his character and his inspiring vision. He does not shy away from lauding Nehru's secularism and his policy of non-alignment (which took a beating in 1962). Mani is a lover of words and phrases and employs them with literary skill and panache.
Kumar Ketkar's impassioned essay came as an agreeable surprise. He provides telling insights into Nehru's character while writing about the Mahatmaji's relations with Nehru. The former, to a considerable extent, provided the freedom movement its ethical and the moral dimension, while Nehru provides the intellectual and the rational underpinnings. Ketkar also rightly calls Nehru a deep stambha for human civilisation and his essay adds to the value of this alluring book.
In his essay, Ketkar takes a not so subtle swipe at Prime Minister Modi. "Nehru did not have to go in for any gimmicks… neither broom nor Madison Square were required for a careful crafted photo-op." I was also delighted at Ketkar mentioning my home town Bharatpur, where both Nehru and Indira Gandhi had visited the world famous bird sanctuary.
A couple of minor errors, in no way diminishes the quality of his essay. For instance, the 50th anniversary of the Congress was in 1935 not 36. Gandhiji sailed for London in 1888, not 1889. Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Rajendra Prasad, JP Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia should have been added to the list which mentions Sardar Patel, Veer Savarkar, BR Ambedkar and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee.
As for the others, Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee highlight Nehru's solid achievement in different areas of India's polity. Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan's overwritten and gusty essay is lyrical about Nehru, bringing in Raj Kapoor's "bond" with Jawaharlal Nehru. There are however, one or two minor slips. Pablo Neruda was never Chile's ambassador to India.
He had a minor consular post in Calcutta. I met him once in Warsaw in 1972 where one of his plays was being staged. In his memoirs he is devastatingly critical of "the arrogant Nehru". Finally, Nehru wore a Gandhi topi not a Nehru one.
This is a book worth-reading and buying. It captures Nehru's incandescent personality brilliantly.