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.

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 …

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