BOOK EXCERPT

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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.