Happy Children’s Day 2018: From 1964 onwards, his birthday has been celebrated throughout India as Children’s Day—a day to remember the first Prime Minister of India, who loved children as much as he loved his country.
(Excerpted with permission from Jawaharlal Nehru by Aditi De, published by Puffin Books.)
When Jawaharlal was a child, he dreamt of a world where India stood tall and proud on the world stage. He did not know then that he would shape an independent India, alongside the Mahatma.
During his years of studying at school and college in England, he learnt that it was fine for people to be different. That Asia could be as strong as European powers.
That India could find its own voice though it was ruled by the British.
One of his favourite poems was by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, from his Gitanjali published in 1910.
Jawaharlal learnt to fight for the causes he believed in, to march with the Mahatma even when his father did not approve at first. He was bold and brave as he led an independent India into the world, looking out for the needs of the poorest of its poor.
But through it all, one aspect of his life remained constant—his love for children. When ten-year-old Indira was at Mussoorie in the Himalayas, he began to write her a series of letters from Allahabad in 1928. In Letters from a Father to his Daughter, he wrote of when there were no men or women on an earth that was too hot for human life, of the rocks and fossils that reveal these times. Before the written word, rocks and mountains, seas, stars, rivers and deserts were the book of nature.
In his words, ‘If you see a little round shiny pebble, does it not tell you something? How did it get round and smooth and shiny, without any corners or rough edges?’ Through the book of nature, he taught Indira of a school without walls, where people once wrote on the bark of the Bhojpatra tree! And more, much more, before handwriting and printing presses made it easy to record new facts, even to share these with others. He wrote of languages and trade, of kings and temples, of Egypt and China.
As an Indian Prime Minister herself, Indira Gandhi wrote of these letters, ‘They taught one to treat nature as a book. I spent absorbing hours studying stones and plants, the lives of insects and at night, the stars.’
Indira passed on Jawaharlal’s ways of seeing to her granddaughter, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. The latter wrote of her grandmother, ‘Even a little walk in the garden with her was an adventure and an exploration, as she taught us to observe the swirls and textures in a little pebble and the myriad colours in a beetle’s wing, and identify the stars in the sky.’
From adult to child, through the generations, Jawaharlal passed on his love for nature, the Indian people and a world at peace with itself. A caring person, his friends watched him help old women who were in trouble, without a second thought. Or he would secretly give money to those in distress. In the villages, he would remember to ask a peasant how his family was.
One day, the Prime Minister asked the peon in his office how much he earned each month. ‘Rs 14 a month,’ replied the peon. Horrified at this pittance, Jawaharlal ordered that peons’ salaries should be hiked to Rs 30 monthly immediately, at least a rupee per day!
At home, Jawaharlal would often take his grandchildren—Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi—for a piggyback ride. He loved to take them with him to visit his pets, the tiger cubs and panda bears from China, in the garden around Teen Murti Bhawan in Delhi, where he lived as the Prime Minister!
Every day, Jawaharlal would do some yoga before a breakfast of porridge. At the table, he was a good host. He enjoyed slicing fruit neatly and offering it to his guests. Before he went to his office, he would meet members of the public who had stories or complaints to share with him. Sometimes, when he had an official lunch at the Teen Murti garden, he could not resist showing his guests the pet pandas he so loved.
Whenever he needed a break, he would go away to the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas or the unspoilt woods far away from the city. He loved to be amidst birds, animals and plants.
Those who knew Jawaharlal saw how deeply he loved children. At public gatherings, he would throw his marigold garlands to them. He would sit cross-legged on the floor to listen to happenings at their school or tales their grandmothers had told them. Jawaharlal often wore a red rose on his jacket. Some people say he began to do so from the day that a child pinned one on him.
Over the years, he came to be known as Chacha Nehru, a favourite uncle to children across India. He thought of each bright young face as a light for the future of the country. He would meet thousands of children at rallies in Delhi on his birthday. He enjoyed their company as much as they did his. Children from Jaipur would send him handmade birthday cards in the 1960s. He would respond to each with a thank you note that he signed personally. Hundreds of Indian children in the 1950s and 1960s owned photographs of the Prime Minister handing over their prizes after a competition of drawing or writing.
Jawaharlal worked so hard that, by 1964, he was very tired. He flew to Dehradun for a holiday, then returned to Delhi cheerful and rested. But on the morning of 27 May, he felt too ill to get up. Doctors were summoned. Indira Gandhi rushed to his bedside. But he never woke up from that long day’s sleep.
In his will, Jawaharlal wrote:
I am proud of that great inheritance that has been and is, ours, and am conscious that I too, like all of us, am a link in the unbroken chain that goes back to the dawn of history in the immemorial past of India. That chain I would not break, for I treasure it and seek inspiration from it. And as witness of this desire of my mind and as my last homage to India’s cultural inheritance, I am making this request that a handful of my ashes be thrown into the Ganga at Allahabad to be carried to the great ocean that washes India’s shores.
The major portion of my ashes should, however, be disposed of otherwise. I want these to be carried high up into the air in an aeroplane and scattered from that height over the fields where the peasants of India toil, so that they might mingle with the dust and soil of India…
At Shanti Vana, where he was cremated, thousands still pay their homage to the man who was Jawaharlal. At Teen Murti Bhawan, the constantly burning flame in his memory is called the Jawahar Jyoti.
From 1964 onwards, his birthday has been celebrated throughout India as Children’s Day—a day to remember the first Prime Minister of India, who loved children as much as he loved his country.
How did Jawaharlal see himself? He once said, ‘This was a man who, with all his mind and heart, loved India and the Indian people. And they in turn were indulgent to him and gave him their love abundantly and extravagantly…’
It was a long and winding road that took the child born at Anand Bhawan to his last steps as the Indian Prime Minister at Teen Murti Bhawan. It was not an easy journey. He often had to remind himself of how much more he had to do with every breath he took.
By his bedside at Teen Murti, Jawaharlal had scribbled the lines of one of his favourite poems by the American poet Robert Frost. They read:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep…