Most ancient historical accounts of the Roman Emperor Tiberius would have you believe that he was the apotheosis of an implacable, sublime gloom. Despite his militaristic acumen, the man's career was hardly described in positive terms. One of the reasons behind this could be the fact that Tiberius zealously guarded the details of his personal life. He treasured the solitude that retirement offered, giving historians little to work with when it came to writing about him.
In the modern age, it's become increasingly hard for public figures to retreat to the undisturbed quietude of environs like Rhodes, where Tiberius went. Recently, in what seemed like a logical extension of the Donald Trump narrative, The Washington Post released leaked video footage and an accompanying transcript of a conversation Donald Trump had with Billy Bush in 2005, one where he provides a vivid account of his history with sexual assault.
In the face of a well-oiled PR machine, leaks like these can be used as an extremely effective tool for media to topple the mighty. It’s become clear, even in India with its own cache of political sex scandals over the past decade or so, that the private lives of people in power are no longer impenetrable.
The Nehruvian age only had tales, rumours and conjecture. Had there existed the technological scope for the leaks that we are privy to these days, neither Jawaharlal Nehru or any of his global contemporaries (JFK or Winston Churchill, for instance) would come out looking particularly saintly. At a time like this, MO Mathai, “private secretary” to Nehru, could be considered an extremely important man, a concierge in the private quarters of the corridors of power.
Mathai decided to write his memoirs, Reminiscences of the Nehru Age, in 1978, long after Nehru’s death and soon after Indira Gandhi was briefly ousted by Janata alliance, for reasons that he chooses to articulate by quoting a long passage of the introduction to a compendium on Napoleon Bonaparte: “This is how history shall be, no longer either political or anecdotal, but human; no longer a chronological arrangement of dates and words, of names and facts, but something which will remind you of life itself.” The details of how Mathai’s book ended up being banned aren’t particularly clear. However, I can personally attest to how elusive the books remains.
Towards his dictum of providing a “human” account of the Nehru years, Mathai sets the tenor early with way he chooses to name the chapters: “Nehru’s Attitude To Money” – where Nehru is glowingly described as a pious and humble man, terms that would make Plutarch’s Parallel Lives seem an exercise in subtlety; “Nehru and Alcoholic Drinks” – it turns out Nehru largely abstained from drink, a notable lapse being one time when Charlie Chaplin offers him a glass of Sherry in Switzerland; “Was Nehru Arrogant?” – a two-page ramble that might as well have said NO in large block letters; and “Nehru’s Sensitivity To His Surroundings” – which, despite the strange title, is an illuminating insight into Nehru’s pet peeves, American Chesterfield cigarettes being one of them.
Mathai’s memoir can be garrulous, with his inclusion of source materials like long private correspondence and his obsession with that Nehruvian Socialist ideal of the joys of being pennywise, all of which seem anachronistic to modern eyes and dangle tenuously in the flow of the narrative. It is hardly an ambitious work of art like the French art theorist and public servant Andre Malraux’s Anti Memoirs or as richly detailed as Henry Kissinger’s infamous White House Years, but it does bear a faint trace of both these books written by men who spent most of their life close to power.
Much like Malraux, Mathai is an erudite raconteur who alludes to Greek and Roman history, and much like Kissinger, he positions himself as the ultimate hero of the story. Mathai’s book is very readable for the most part, offering the gleaning Nehru geek (if there exists such a thing) a variety of trivia and what could probably classified as factoids along the way – like how Nehru’s “Tryst With Destiny” speech would have been “A date with destiny” if Mathai hadn’t interjected with the American romantic connotations of the word “date”, or the fact that “The Light Has Gone Out Of Our Lives” speech, delivered after Mahatma Gandhi’s death, was completely extempore.
Mathai’s account of Nehru might be hagiographic at times, but it would be unfair to paint him as a Nehru sycophant. Considering the fact that he spent most of his adult life taking care of both Nehru’s political and personal life, he adopts the tone of a custodian writing about his ward, at most times he speaks of Nehru the way Jeeves would of Wooster: “He was childlike in many ways and sometimes had to be treated like a child.”
Mathai is far less diplomatic when it comes to describing Nehru’s contemporaries, where he takes a freewheeling and sometimes eugenic tone: “Mountbatten was a human dynamo where work was concerned. He possessed the German thoroughness reinforced by his naval career...one thing I could never understand was the amount of time he spent on his family tree. He revelled in this exercise almost as an elevating hobby...as Nepal is an exporter of soldiers, Germany used to be an exporter of princes and princesses.”
Or: “Rajagopalachari had the peculiar gift alienating people. The man with the dark glasses would make most of his visitors feel that they were fools.”
And: “Beautifully black as ebony, with lips like those of an anteater, Kamaraj always reminded me of Homo Erectus, the earliest generally accepted representative of the genus man.”.
Mathai is most stern when it comes to chapter on Gandhi, resorting to bullet points to bring out his displeasure with the man, where he blames him for alienating most of the minority Indian populace with his “preaching of cow worship and incessant writing about it” and the general Indian populace for his “preaching of celibacy for married couples”, his “fanatic advocacy of Hindi, one of the least developed languages of India...” and his economic model which he felt was “a sure way of achieving eternal backwardness and perpetuating poverty in India.”
An important element of Mathai’s memoir that simply can’t be overlooked is the rabid misogyny that floods the pages. Reflecting on Gandhi’s ridiculous advice to victims of rape during Partition, that they ought to “bite their tongue and hold their breath until they died.”, Mathai decides to go one up him in this antediluvian repartee by offering a Confucian parable: “ If you find yourself in a situation where rape is inevitable and there is no chance of escape, my advice to you is to lie back and enjoy it.”.
Mathai holds a deep disregard for Indira Gandhi – “It was amusing and pathetic to see her attempting to put herself two steps higher than her father while she was Prime Minister. Poor fish! I suppose most women are overburdened by illusions.” – a narrative element that keeps festering like a tumour through the book, with every prominent character chiming in with their two cents about her. Rajaji is quoted: “She has not grown since the age of two. She has nothing of the father in her.” So is Kamaraj: “Chinna pennikku moolai illai (The little girl has no brains.)”.
In a chapter titled “Nehru and Women”, Padmaja Naidu, the daughter of Sarojini Naidu, exclaims, “Nehru is not a one woman man!” – an apt preface to the profiles of all the women Nehru allegedly had affairs with, some known (Padmaja Naidu herself, Lady Mountbatten) and some unnamed. Mathai whitewashes Nehru’s complicity in most of these alleged affairs by giving us the impression that he no choice in the matter and had to pay attention to all the fawning women falling at his feet every now and then, with one of these trysts leading to a pregnancy, a child whom Nehru decisively abandons.
Mathai ultimately justifies these liaisons by giving it the good old stamp of Indian patriarchy in the final paragraph of this chapter. “Lord Krishna had 16,008 women in his life. Neither he nor his favourite Radha have suffered in reputation on this account...that is a basic Indian tradition. On the whole the Indian people did not suffer from Mid-Victorian prudery.” These days, the lives of those above us in the power hierarchy are far more transparent than they ever were. However, this has hardly made a dent on the way powerful men treat the women around them.
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