The Light that Failed

Nehru: The First Sixty Years

by Dorothy Norman
John Day, 2 vols., 1354 pp., $27.50

Jawaharlal Nehru
Jawaharlal Nehru; drawing by David Levine

Time with his swinging scythe, the executioner of human reputations, is hard on the heels of Jawaharlal Nehru. The architect of Indian independence, we can see today, was a more equivocal figure than people realized during the rejoicings of 1947; and even before his death on May 27, 1964, the world statesman who loomed so large at Bandung in 1955 had lost much of his glamor. Ten years ago Nehru’s international prestige was at its height; today the “five principles of co-existence” have passed into limbo along with Dulles’s “negotiation from strength.” Nor have events in India stood still. Shastri’s India has drawn apart from Nehru’s India; and inevitably the shift of scene has brought a shift in perspective. Across the sea of political change which India has experienced since May 27, 1964, Indians and others have begun to take a long, bard look at Gandhi’s “favorite son.” The time for panegyric is past; the time for historical appraisal has arrived.

It is against this changing background that Mrs. Norman’s monumental study of Nehru must be seen. Like other great statesmen from Napoleon to Churchill, Nehru has left behind a reputation compounded of myth and reality: and historians will long be busy disentangling the two. They will find Mrs. Norman’s volumes a magnificent quarry of relevant fact; but the overall effect of her book—and, since Mrs. Norman is a devoted admirer of the great Panditji, perhaps its basic intention as well—is nearer in many respects to hagiography than to history. In other words, it is more likely to fortify than to clear away the barrier of legend that stands between us and the historical Nehru.

It does this in two different ways. To begin with, Mrs. Norman’s method of presenting Nehru in his own words and from his own point of view, whatever else may be said in its favor, has one obvious drawback: it shows us the man not as he was and as others saw him, but as he saw himself and wished to be seen. And secondly, whatever practical reasons of length and space may have been involved, her decision to break off the story with the achievement of Indian independence was bound to create a false impression. It is as if a biographer of Bismarck were to stop with German unification in 1871 and leave out the problematical years from 1871 to 1890. The division between Nehru’s first sixty years and his last fifteen is not only artificial; it results in a portrait which is necessarily only a torso, crowned with the laurel leaves of victory, but lacking some of the essential traits which went to make up the historical reality.

If we are to penetrate the overgrowth of myth and legend which surrounds the figure of Nehru today, the first necessity is to realize that we cannot divide his work into two self-contained parts. The years since…

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