The American press made much of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s [Nan] appointment to the United States. The New York Herald Tribune called her “India’s most notable woman,” while an analysis in the Daily Boston Globe went further, saying that she was “without question one of the three or four most influential women in the world.” The Washington Post pointed to her “remarkable record” and called her a person of “great charm and unusual ability”. Gossip columnists fixated on how “strikingly handsome” she was. Some journalists, like those in Black media, heralded her as “one of the world’s great enemies of racial discrimination,” and a true champion of justice. But others were especially interested in her transfer from the Soviet Union, with several highlighting reports of her disappointment and disillusionment with life there. The Cold War jaundiced their view and they saw a hopeful opportunity to swing India fully to the American side. The Baltimore Sun inversely observed that Nan’s commission already reflected the increasing importance that India placed on its relationship with the US and discussed the imperatives of capital investment in the subcontinent. The United Press reported that “[d]iplomatic and official quarters” in the US all “reacted favourably to the appointment”, and that “Washington [was] [p]leased.”

Just before she began her journey West, she spoke to The New York Times to clarify matters. She acknowledged her frustrations while she had been in Russia but insisted that her interest, and that of her country, was “to avoid entanglement in the ‘cold war’”, and to “be friends with everybody”.

The Times’ Robert Trumbull wrote a lengthy feature on her, ostensibly devoted to talking up India’s aims for world peace. But a substantial portion of the piece devolved into a discussion of clothing choices. Nan, he titillatingly told his readers, was “a beautiful woman” with a “youthful complexion”. “She looks as good in a sari,” he emphasised, “as a sari looks on her.”

Nan days later told the Indian press that she had several primary objectives while in the US, aside from furthering mutual understanding. She was hoping to increase US capital investment and technical aid, particularly as it related to “food self-sufficiency” and “accelerating industrialisation.” In a formal editorial, the Washington Post dubbed her the “hope of the East” and India the “real bridge between the East and West.”

Washington was abuzz with the news of Nan’s arrival, as people clamoured to know about her comings and goings, which parties were thrown in her honour, and what shows she was headed to see. The adulation she received was equal to that of any celebrity. But underlying it all was a recognition of the immensity of her achievement and the potent possibilities she symbolised for so many. One writer, Malvina Lindsay, wrote “that women are getting restive again. This publicity about Mrs Pandit . . . has started them asking questions.” In a remarkable essay, she asserted that women would no longer settle for being “an adviser, a consultant, an observer . . .” “Mrs Pandit,” she said, “didn’t come here to do research or to smirk at committee meetings.” She was a political leader with the ability to effect real change. Women everywhere were inspired to demand this for themselves now.

The very evening that Lindsay’s column was published, Nan attended the annual dinner of the Women’s National Press Club. The President and Mrs Truman presided over a meal and a series of comedic skits, while also presenting a “Woman of the Year” award to Eleanor Roosevelt. The evening was good fun and facilitated Nan’s introduction to some of Washington’s powerbrokers. Among the most significant attendees was Perle Mesta, who immediately took special notice of Nan. Mesta had only just been featured on the cover of Time Magazine a few weeks previous. A few years later, she would be known as “the hostess with the mostest,” when Irving Berlin penned a song about her for the musical about her life, “Call Me Madam.” Mesta threw the hottest parties in town and was considered one of DC’s most influential socialites.

Several weeks after the Press Club get-together, Attorney General Thomas Clark arranged a programme for charity, headlined by contributions from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, the country’s top talent. Mesta invited Nan to “join her party” at the event and then to join her for a private supper party thereafter “at a fashionable club”. Nan agreed and stood waiting at the appointed time. She was taken aback when Mesta arrived not in a simple car, but in a full motorcade, complete with a police escort. The night only grew more elaborate from there. “The gowns + jewels + food + drinks were all fantastic,” Nan observed. She admired the exquisite taste and elegance of it all but suddenly grew uneasy. It just seemed too much, especially given all that was happening in the world at that time.

Her feelings recalled her initial reaction to New York when she could not help but compare the glitz she saw there to the misery of those she had just witnessed starving from the Bengal famine. “Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit where exactly are you heading for,” she asked as she chided herself to remember who she was, where she came from, and what she stood for.

Nan knew that she had a special responsibility to speak out on all of this. “I think that [it] is very pleasant to attend so many official functions and dinners and cocktail parties and so on, but I think they might easily impair one’s health and also get in the way of objectives which one wants to carry out,” she announced in a radio interview. In another engagement, she grew specific about one issue she cared about deeply. “Too many sugar things are said in the world today, and I am surfeited with them,” she declared. There was “discrimination against women” in the United States, as elsewhere. Women needed things to change and deserved the positions of leadership to make it happen, she said

About a month after the big charity event, Perle Mesta was appointed Ambassador to Luxemburg, becoming only the third woman in United States history to hold such a position. Madame Pandit was credited as the catalyst.

Excerpted with permission from Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit: A Biography, Manu Bhagavan, Penguin India.