The Nehru whom today’s India does not know

Unlike most of India’s political leaders, Jawaharlal was not a one-dimensional man.

Going through his selected works one afternoon (an exercise that is inevitably rewarding and one that I recommend strongly to readers), I came across this note that Nehru wrote to the then Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, B.V. Keskar, along with an enclosed letter: ‘I have been rather worried at the progressive disappearance of Western music from India. Bombay is practically the only centre left, where this is encouraged. I think Indian music will profit by contacts with Western music. I know nothing about the person who has written this letter. But, as there appear to be few Indians who have studied Western music, I feel a little interested in him.’

The content of that letter is unknown, but its writer was Adi J. Desai, a Parsi. Nehru’s worry was justified, though he was optimistic in assuming that Western classical music would survive the exit of the British. Fifty years later, it is dead everywhere in India except South Bombay. And here it is dying as one community depopulates. But the interesting thing is the level at which Nehru engages with the subject. It is obvious that he hasn’t merely ‘forwarded’ it to ‘the concerned person’ as happens in our time, but actually thought about it.

The other interesting thing is that the letter is from May 1957, a decade after Nehru had been leading India and at a time when a lot must have been occupying both his mind and his schedule. But to him this was important.

Unlike most urban Indians, Nehru was a naturalist.

He took great joy in putting together a garden in his official residence. He could identify trees and flowers, according to those who knew him, and he kept a whole zoo of animals inside the house including pandas. It is these various interests of his that produced the man who could gift us institutions whose quality required more than just funding. They required real vision and Nehru more than any other leader we have had, possessed this in abundance.

This came to him not through his academic studies, as I have already referred to earlier. Crocker says he was instinctively brilliant. He once took a biologist, who had won the Nobel Prize, to Nehru. At their meeting, Crocker says, the scientist ‘made a careless remark about some work. Nehru pounced on it, politely, and demolished it. This was typical. Few errors in reasoning escaped him.’

Being a man of such intelligence and sensitivity, Nehru did not necessarily love the behaviour of the Indians whom he met. Where he could not influence or change such behaviour he would shame people into following him. For instance, once at a parade in Delhi, some Congressmen were objecting loudly to being seated on the grass instead of on chairs. Nehru did not respond to them but got off his chair and himself sat on the grass, silencing them all immediately. Similarly, at a reception where MPs began littering the ground with banana peels and wrappers, Nehru himself began cleaning the ground, getting them to behave likewise.

One of the most revealing paragraphs about Nehru is this one which opens Crocker’s book: ‘I first saw Nehru in 1945. At the time I was serving in the British army, and the end of the war happened to find me in India for a while before demobilization. Nehru had not been long out of prison and was making a triumphal tour in Bengal. Crowds gathered to see him at the railway station in my area; huge and enthusiastic crowds. I noticed at the station where I was waiting for him that his evident satisfaction at the crowd’s welcome did not prevent him from impatiently pushing – some of my brother officers said slapping – people who got too near him.’

It is perfectly true that Nehru was irritable, but he was also bombastic and verbose, making too many speeches (often three a day) and spending too much time lecturing the West.

He was careless with his time, once giving three hours to a high school delegation from Australia, while his ministers waited outside.

These were of course teenagers but it would surprise many people that the Chacha Nehru who loved little children was apparently a myth and Nehru did not really have time for or enjoyed the company of children. To quote Crocker, ‘Nehru certainly did some acting on public occasions and before TV cameras…The acting was never worse than the pose of Chacha Nehru with the children. This was at its worst on his birthday for a few years when sycophants organized groups of children, with flowers and copious photographing, to parade with him. It was out of character; his interest in children was slender.’ In my opinion this clichéd typecasting of him has taken away from many people real knowledge of his angularities and interesting facets.

Crocker thought Nehru ‘had no sympathy for Gandhi’s religion, or for religiousness at all’. But there is a photograph in Mushirul Hasan’s The Nehrus that shows Jawaharlal entering the Ganga wearing a janoi, the Brahmin’s sacred thread. The thread looks new, however, and it’s not visible in two other photographs of him bare-chested, one in swimming trunks and the other doing shirshasan, the headstand practised by followers of yoga.

I think Nehru engaged with the culture but did not succumb to it. He was an Indian and proud of being one, as his magnificent work The Discovery of India (another text that is not but should be made compulsory reading in our schools) shows. But he did not feel the need, as do many leaders including our current one, to find security in the symbolism (tikas, turbans and so on) of religion.

Some other aspects of Nehru are revealed through anecdotes. He did not dismiss those who came to him with petitions and while they waited for their turn to meet him they were not chased away. He had great tolerance and patience for the poor and he allowed a slum to slowly come up right in front of the prime minister’s house, sympathizing with its occupants rather than turning the police on them. Such things reveal the man, and we can safely rule out any of our leaders doing this. The sanitized localities they live in and sanitized corridors they travel in are far removed from Nehru’s acceptance of the facts and his decision not to turn his eye away from the reality of India.

Nehru had great physical courage.

We know this from the famous story of an incident during the riots of Partition in Delhi. Nehru was already prime minister when he was passing by a mob that was attacking a Muslim tailor at Chandni Chowk. He ordered the car to stop and jumped in to save the man, swinging a lathi that he took from the police. He had no care for his personal safety and of course this was in the time when prime ministers did not have the sort of security that they do today. But he thought of nothing other than the victim and the mob, terrified at the enraged leader in their midst, fled.

Nehru was dyed secular through and through. It was not something that he put on. It is said that he rejected advice to remove the Muslim cooks in his kitchen because he refused to see all individuals through the lens of their faith. Every generation is fortunate to have such a man leading them and Gandhi knew what he was doing when he trained and gifted Nehru to us.

Excerpted with permission from Nehru’s India: Essays on the Maker of a Nation, edited by Nayantara Sahgal, Speaking Tiger Books. This passage is excerpted from The Many Faces of Jawaharlal, by Aakar Patel.

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