In a series on Jawaharlal Nehru, it does not seem fair to concentrate only on his role as the builder of modern and democratic India during the 17 long and formative years when he was the country’s first prime minister. There ought to be at least one human touch at some stage.
After deep thought, I have chosen an aspect that is discussed rather rarely. The wide world knows that Nehru was a strikingly handsome man, with a disarming smile, who exuded a magic charm that swiftly won over individuals and crowds alike. In the words of one of his earliest biographers, Michael Brecher, there was hardly any difference between Nehru’s photographs at 20 and 60. Evidently, his face caught up with his age only after the shattering effect of the brief but brutal border war with China. Surprisingly, even Acharya Kripalani once said: “It is difficult to compete with the prime minister. For he is a darling of the masses, and to women he is Prince Charming.”
Also, Nehru had been a widower since 1936, when his long-ailing wife, Kamala, died in a sanatorium in Switzerland. Moreover, as he often admitted regretfully, well before her passing, he had become so busy with politics and rushing from one end of the country to the other that he neglected his wife and other members of the family. His loneliness had to have certain consequences, and that is where Lord and Lady Mountbatten come in. They had stayed in India for no more than 15 months in 1947-48. But they, especially Edwina Mountbatten, had instantly developed a warm, cordial and lasting rapport with Nehru. Probably she filled a void in his life. In any case, during the 12 years that she lived after leaving India, Edwina came to Delhi twice a year and stayed at the prime minister’s house. For his part, whenever in Britain, Nehru saw her over the weekend at the Mountbatten country house, Broadlands. On one occasion, the British press published a photograph of Edwina opening the door to Nehru clad in a nightgown. In the circumstances, is it any surprise that “an enduring love affair” between the two has been widely written on? Hundreds of Nehru’s letters to Edwina have been published; hers to him seem to have disappeared.
Other books on the subject of women in Nehru’s life — one of them written by M.O. Mathai, at one time his most trusted and powerful aide, who had to be sacked for a lot of wrongdoing in 1958 — speak of his protracted romance with Padmaja Naidu, a daughter of the nation’s “nightingale”, Sarojini Naidu, who was a poet as well as president of the Congress. Khushwant Singh is one of the many authors who insist that Nehru also had a torrid affair with beautiful Shraddha Mata, whom many worshipped as a “godwoman”. On the other hand, we must take note of what Amrita Sher-Gil — an Indian artist so great that, even though she died at a very young age, a road in Delhi has been named after her — is reported to have said. Amrita herself had had numerous affairs, of which, to her credit, she never made a secret. One of her partners, the famous British writer and journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, has written about the “animal intensity” of her personality. Many had questioned her about Nehru. Her answer always was that she would stay away from him because “Jawaharlal is too handsome and too good a man.”
However, a love affair, lasting or fleeting, is one thing, and a deep friendly relationship between a man and a woman without a trace of sensuousness quite another. In Nehru’s case, I witnessed it at the end of the first recital of the melody queen, M.S. Subbulakshmi, that I heard in Delhi in the early 1950s. After cheering her wildly, the audience had begun to disperse when Nehru, who was present throughout, ascended the stage. He held MS’s hand, said that he hadn’t words enough to praise her performance and asked: “Compared with you, what am I? A mere prime minister without an iota of your talent.” He treated Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and some other women friends the same way.
The masterpiece on the subject, however, is narrated by John Kenneth Galbraith, America’s economic guru and his country’s ambassador to India in the early 1960s. At one time, the famous and highly attractive Hollywood actress, Angie Dickinson, was in Delhi and staying at the ambassador’s residence. Constantly, she told her host that her visit to India would be pointless if she couldn’t meet Nehru. So the ambassador sent a note to the prime minister asking whether he could spare some time to see Dickinson. To his surprise, he received a phone call immediately, telling him to bring the lady along right away. While ushering them into the PM’s office, the aide whispered to Galbraith that Nehru had only 20 minutes. Actually, the meeting lasted nearly two hours, with the prime minister and the star absorbed in their lively conversation. As Angie and Galbraith were about to leave, Nehru asked her: “Does it ever happen that a role you play briefly becomes a part of your personality?” Laughingly, she replied: “I hope not, Mr Prime Minister, because the last role I played was that of a prostitute.”
Let me round this up with what happened when, in November 1961, Nehru visited John F. Kennedy at the White House. He was very tired and somewhat distracted, and therefore talks between the two leaders were desultory. Kennedy — who, in his inaugural address, had spoken of the “soaring idealism of Nehru” — was disappointed. Arthur J. Schlesinger, Harvard historian and Kennedy’s aide at the time, commented that the prime minister had brightened up “only after the first lady came in”.
JFK: “That seems to be the problem with all my distinguished visitors.”
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator