This would have been a difficult book to write at the best of times. At a time when it has become de rigueur in public life to boast about the humbleness of one’s origins, it must have been doubly difficult. There is a considerable literature of great houses – Brideshead Revisited and Howard’s End are the ones that come first to mind, as the symbolically resonant foci of densely imagined lives — but the English country house is a durable narrative device in both high, and popular, literature. But the device — as much in Evelyn Waugh as in Agatha Christie — inevitably brings with it a certain limitation of social range. At a certain point in her “intimate history” of our own great house, Anand Bhawan, Gitanjali Surendran remarks that it had become “an idea and not just a place.” I am not quite sure if she quite understands how problematic an assertion that is, particularly in a time when another inevitably related “idea” — the “idea of India”, which is so much in the air, and up in the air — is so fiercely contested.
Apropos Clive Bell’s innocently insular book, Civilization (1928), someone remarked acidly that Bell made civilisation sound like “a tea party in Gordon Square” — where Leonard Woolf ran Hogarth Press in his basement, Virginia spun her fragile fictions in her study and, a few houses down the road, John Maynard Keynes reconfigured the foundations of the global economy. The great danger in writing a book like the one under review, is that of diminishing great historical transformations into domestic trivia. Gandhi is a frequent house guest; Gandhi, Patel and others plot Quit India in the library even as Indira’s wedding ceremony is winding down; and “Uncle Harcourt” — Harcourt Butler, the detested ‘Laat Sahib’ of the United Provinces at a particularly difficult time in the sharpening national movement — drops in for tea and cakes. They are all here — the Saprus who are conservative, as against the progressive Nehrus, and the Katjus have Hindu proclivities — and they, Kashmiri Pandits all, live within a few miles of each other, and share the usual social emotions of affection and antagonism. I’m not sure if the problem — of scale, of marrying the domestic and the historical — is one that is easily solved. But it must first be confronted.
The question of privilege is, of course, central to any account of Anand Bhawan. Even today, when hundreds of pilgrims file through the museumised rooms of Anand Bhawan, it still takes one’s breath away to see the unabashedly aristocratic location where the most influential vision of India’s modernity — and, yes, socialism — was born. And this, be it known, is only the new, “compact” residence that was built by Motilal Nehru, in contrast to the sprawling old Anand Bhawan — now renamed Swaraj Bhawan — which he bought from Sir Syed’s son, Ross Masood. It is to Surendran’s credit that she does not seek to underplay the luxury of life at Anand Bhawan. There is full detail here about the many servants and underservants, the horses and the grooms, the governess who sought to bring some “English” discipline into what could easily have become the typically spoilt existence, particularly of a male member of the Indian elite. I was particularly taken by one resonant detail — Indira’s wedding sari was made of fine pink Khadi which had been spun by her father in jail, and woven with a border of silver thread. How much history is packed into that one detail! But what this account of Jawaharlal’s aristocratic origins does — apart from catering to the celebrity-hunger for stellar lives — is to enable one to get a measure of the heroic reinvention that was involved in the making of all these lives: Motilal, throwing up his phenomenal legal practice in response to Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation; the incomparable Jawaharlal; Indira, growing up alone in the verandahs and halls of the great house, practically orphaned by the demands of the national movement, and improbably making herself into the formidable leader whom Vajpayee hailed as Durga; Rajiv, too soon gone… All the cavilling about dynasty cannot take away from the aspiration to nobility that informs these lives. After all, in a country that is still basically feudal, there are many other ‘dynasties’ that are rather less noble. Of course, they are relatively “humble” dynasties but — to adapt Winston Churchill’s famous quip about Clement Attlee — they have much to be humble about.
These are not matters that Surendran engages with. To be fair, this book is an altogether different kind of creature. It is a commissioned “intimate history” of Anand Bhawan — commissioned by the Nehru Memorial Trust. I imagine that the commission brings with it certain responsibilities as well as certain limitations. Surendran starts out with a potted history of Allahabad, which is perhaps strictly not relevant to her appointed task — but is nonetheless useful in the context of the historical fictions that are being circulated in order to legitimise the renaming of a well-established Mughal-colonial town after a fine train that runs between Allahabad and Delhi. The imposition of ‘Prayagraj’ on Allahabad is merely a symptom of a cultural disease.
Any account of this book would be incomplete without mentioning the priceless photographs interspersed throughout the text. The Trust is a jealous guardian of its archive, and this access to a past that is relentlessly and rapidly being eroded by assiduous Sanghi calumny is, therefore, particularly welcome. Naturally, these archival photographs are in black and white. There is a particular pathos that attaches to them — Indira posing in the Anand Bhawan garden after becoming Congress president in 1959, with a bed of black and white flowers at her feet; a full family group, with the women in black and white saris… It is curiously touching: these distant ancestors, stranded behind a pre-colour threshold. In a peculiar way, this absence of colour becomes a metaphor of the distance between that world and our raucous, all-too-colourful present.
The writer taught in the department of English, Delhi University
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines