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Mrs. India


Anand Bhavan, the family mansion of the Nehrus, lies in the small North Indian city of Allahabad. It was bought by Motilal Nehru, the lawyer-father of Jawaharlal, in 1898. It was later added to, and turned into a base for the Congress Party that led India’s freedom movement and then ruled India for four decades after independence. It is only a five-minute walk from the campus of Allahabad University, where I lived as an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s, and it is strange to think now that I hardly ever went there.

Not that there was much to see. You walked through the wide verandas and balconies and peered into rooms where French meals were once served on Dresden china with Czech glasses, and where, in a more political time, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and other great men of the Congress Party discussed ways of liberating India from colonial rule. In a newer building on the large walled compound, you could see peasant women in gaudy nylon saris shuffling shyly through an ill-lit gallery of photographs from hopeful times: of Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, inaugurating dams and factories—what he called “the new temples of India”; Nehru with other celebrities of the postcolonial world, Nasser, Sukarno, Nkrumah; and Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, in an elegant silk sari, hugging Fidel Castro at a summit meeting of nonaligned nations.
In Allahabad, a decaying city whose brief moment of glory belonged to the anti-colonial struggle, you couldn’t but feel distant from these celebrations of postcolonial nationalism and third-world solidarity. It was also hard not to wonder what, if anything, the peasant visitors made of the photographs. Most of them came on day trips from the vast rural region around Allahabad where the young Jawaharlal Nehru had, after his seven years at Harrow and Cambridge, first been exposed to “the degradation and overwhelming poverty of India.” Their parents and grandparents were probably among the enthusiastic voters who, after independence, repeatedly elected Nehru to the Indian parliament from a rural constituency near Allahabad. But they themselves had remained close to destitution: even two years ago, I could still see people in the villages around Allahabad begging their rare election-time visitors from the cities for drinking water and primary schools and culverts.1

Things haven’t changed much even for those with privileged access to the owners of Anand Bhavan. In the late 1970s, Dom Moraes, the Indian writer and poet, met an old couple, Becchu and his wife Sonia, who had worked as servants in the house for much of the century. Moraes was then researching a semi-authorized biography of Indira Gandhi; the officials in charge of Anand Bhavan let him take out the leatherbound books from the shelves and discover Nehru’s interest in Balzac, Dickens, Maugham, and Koestler. The same officials, one rainy day at Anand Bhavan, brought Becchu and Sonia to see Moraes, and told him that “Becchu was beating Sonia too much. Now he is not beating. Since she is becoming blind, he is taking care.”

The two of them sat before Moraes, “dripping and shivering after coming in from the cold.” The interview wasn’t a success. Moraes got only a blurred picture of the “splendour, hedonism, and ostentation,” that had marked life at Anand Bhavan until the early 1920s, when Gandhi, the charismatic new leader of the freedom movement, partly converted the Nehrus to his ascetic and defiantly Indian lifestyle. Becchu, a “skinny old man,” kept shouting at his wife in between fits of crying. His “convulsive sobs turned into positive roars of sorrow” when Moraes mentioned Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the national elections she had held two years after imposing, in 1975, a “state of emergency” on India and suspending civil rights.

Becchu’s grief, however, was more personal. During her nine years as prime minister of India Mrs. Gandhi had promised him a pension; it hadn’t been paid and it now looked very unlikely after her defeat. An unsettled Moraes tried to console him with a big tip. Becchu stretched out a “wizened hand” for the rupee notes; but his wife, “blind or not,” was quicker. “She whipped the money away and stuffed it in her blouse” and “Becchu started to cry once more.”2

Nehru was often perceived by foreign visitors as a “lonely Indian aristocrat… presiding over his deficient but devoted peasantry.”3 But the description “aristocrat,” which Nehru himself encouraged, is too easily achieved in India. You only need to be placed slightly above the general wretchedness.

The Nehrus were Brahmins from Kashmir who became in the early eighteenth century minor courtiers to Mughal emperors in Delhi. After the British destroyed Muslim power in India in the nineteenth century, the Nehrus found new roles in the new imperial dispensation. Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal’s father, was trained as a lawyer; and he moved to Allahabad in 1886 to practice in the new high court that the British had set up. He first lived in Allahabad’s old “native” quarters—a brothel filled with very young Nepalese women now stands on the site of his house. But he outgrew these modest beginnings very fast, in time with the rise in Allahabad’s importance as an administrative and educational center. There was much money to be made from representing in court the decadent and exuberantly litigious landed gentry of North India—the upstart men rewarded with grants of land by the British for their loyalty during the mutiny of 1857—and soon after buying Anand Bhavan, Motilal acquired liveried servants, horses, an English chauffeur for his imported car, and an Irish tutor for his son, and started to order his clothes from Savile Row.
These were also the affectations of the half-literate landlords he represented. In Bengal, where India’s first modern culture was almost a century old, these aspirations to respectability would have been met with sarcasm: Rabindranath Tagore and then Nirad Chaudhuri wrote witheringly of the shallow and gaudy Anglicization of socially ambitious Indians. In feudal North India, which possessed little of the self-confident egalitarian spirit of the Bengal Renaissance, the meeting of East and West usually resulted in tackiness and a crude kind of snobbery: Nehru’s younger sister, who was educated by an English governess, looked down upon Nehru’s wife, Kamla, mostly because the latter could not speak fluent English.

As his letters to this sister, Vijaylaxmi Pandit, reveal, Nehru was closer to her than to the woman his father had bullied him into marrying—he later gave Mrs. Pandit glamorous ambassadorial jobs in London, Moscow, and Washington.4 At a crucial moment in India’s transition to independence in 1947, Nehru confided more in Lord Mountbatten, the pompous and incompetent last viceroy of India, than in many of his Indian colleagues, including Gandhi. But then Nehru’s greater intimacy with English or Anglicized people, which Gandhi himself remarked upon, was hardly the result of his upbringing in Allahabad.

His intellectual and emotional outlook were formed by his early years in England, by the strain of liberalism in English life, of which the Fabians, whom he admired, were an obvious manifestation. This later made him a hero to Anglicized Indians. But in India he was restless and alienated, with a mystical longing for the Himalayas; and he was actually floundering until he met Gandhi, who set him out on the path to individual greatness by first alerting him to his world—the awakening Nehru later elaborated upon in such books as A Discovery of India—and then by anointing him, among many deserving aspirants, his political heir.
India became, after independence, Nehru’s private laboratory for the ideas—a state-controlled economy, industrialization—he had picked up from his reading and travels. It also forgave mistakes of the kind—his refusal to share power with Muslim leaders made inevitable the partition of India, his complacent belief in pan-Asian solidarity led to India’s military humiliation by China in 1962—that would have tainted the career of any politician.

Other postcolonial leaders were similarly unassailable. But unlike Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno, Nehru was aware of the dangers in his situation. In 1937, the Modern Review, a prominent Indian magazine of the time, published the following anonymous analysis of Nehru. “He has all the makings of a dictator in him—vast popularity …an intolerance of others and certain contempt for the weak and inefficient…. His overmastering desire to get things done, to sweep away what he dislikes and build anew, will hardly brook for long the slow process of democracy….”5

This remarkably acute description of a postcolonial leader in a hurry looks more impressive when you learn that the author was Nehru himself. It was the kind of thing that probably made Nehru appear to his daughter like “a saint who strayed into politics.” Certainly, such self-awareness was absent from Indira’s own life; the gap between father and daughter was wide. “You are such a stranger to me,” Nehru once wrote to her, “and perhaps you do not know much about me.”

Indira, in fact, liked to think of herself as a “tough politician”—one of her more accurate self-descriptions. Interestingly, as Katherine Frank reminds us in her scrupulous, consistently engaging biography, very little in Indira’s early life hinted at the toughness. Born in 1917, just as the freedom struggle got into high gear, she grew up in a distracted household. Nehru was usually away, in prison or traveling across India. It was Indira who accompanied her perennially ill mother to various spas and sanatoriums in India and Europe, and, in the process, drifted through nine schools in Switzerland, England, and India, without distinguishing herself at any one of them. Her star fellow pupil at Badminton School in England was the English novelist Iris Murdoch, who later remembered Indira as being “very unhappy, very lonely.”

The unsettled upbringing probably only deepened the usual insecurities of adolescence. She was “tall for her age and thin,” Frank writes, “with a large nose and skin she felt was too dark.” Mrs. Pandit, who didn’t think Nehru’s wife was good enough for him, also didn’t much rate his daughter, Indira, whom she described as “ugly and stupid,” a remark that Indira overheard as an adolescent and took with her into her tormented old age, its wound still unhealed, or so she claimed to a close friend a few months before she was assassinated in 1984.6

Indira later tried to inject some excitement and glamour into what had been a dull, anxiety-infested childhood and adolescence. Dom Moraes reports her claim that she saw from her house in Allahabad the British police shooting dead Chandrashekhar Azad, an Indian revolutionary. This is quite implausible, given the considerable distance between Anand Bhavan and the park where Azad was killed. And the most convincing rebuttal of her claim that she was ill-treated in a British prison comes from Mrs. Pandit’s daughter, Nayantara Sahgal, who, in a shrewd book about her ambitious cousin, excerpted letters written at the time from the same prison by her mother that attest to the kid-glove treatment the Nehrus generally got from their British jailers.7

  1. 1

    See my essay “The Other India,” The New York Review, December 16, 1999.

  2. 2

    Dom Moraes, Indira Gandhi (Little, Brown, 1980), pp. 56–57.

  3. 3

    V.S. Naipaul, The Overcrowded Barracoon (Knopf, 1973), p. 94.

  4. 4

    See Before Freedom: Nehru’s Letters to His Sister, edited by Nayantara Sahgal (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2000).

  5. 5

    Quoted in Rajmohan Gandhi, The Good Boatman (Delhi: Penguin India, 1995).

  6. 6

    See Pupul Jayakar, Indira Gandhi (Delhi: Penguin India, 1992), pp. 44–45.

  7. 7

    See Nayantara Sahgal, Indira Gandhi: Her Road to Power (Ungar, 1982).

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