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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 47, November 12, 2011

Grace Under Pressure

Saturday 12 November 2011, by K. Natwar Singh


Jawaharlal Nehru. What a man!

This May, we observed his twentyfifth death anniversary. Six months later, India and the world celebrate his centenary. Without Jawa-harlal Nehru the history of the twentieth century would be incomplete. Nehru, the statesman and leader, left his imprint on India and the world. He changed the course of history.

Jawaharlal Nehru was much else. He was a great author. He enriched the Republic of Letters. Through his writings he reached out to history. But even in his widely read books the private Nehru remains elusive. The veil is lifted now and then in his Autobiography, Glimpses of World History and The Discovery of India, but suddenly the curtain is drawn and great public issues ease out the intimate and the personal. So, when do we look for Nehru, the obedient son of Motilal, the caring husband, the doting father of his only child, the loving brother, the loyal friend? Does he ever bare his soul? How does he cope with his loneliness, battle with depression, annihilate dejection, conquer despair?

To discover the very private Jawaharlal Nehru we must turn to his Selected Works—a project of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund. Volume I of the First Series appeared in 1972 and Volume 15 in 1984. The period covered was from 1903 to 1946. These volumes totalled 9292 pages. Another eight are due. The editor is S. Gopal and he has done a superb job, combining research with professionalism. For those interested in the evolution of Jawaharlal Nehru’s thinking and the Indian freedom movement, these books are indispensable.

Jawaharlal Nehru spent ten years in jail between 1922 and 1945. He occupied his time by keeping his mind and body in good shape. He read voraciously, wrote copiously. He writes exceeding well. Attention is paid to literary style and literary form. “I am a lover of words and phrases and try to use them appropriately. Whatever my opinions might be, the words I use are meant to express them intelligibly and in ordered sequence.”

In jail, he kept a regular diary to keep himself going. It was a tremendous exercise in self-discipline. Nehru was at his best in adversity, when the flame of life burnt low.

There was no external sanctuary to absorb his melancholy. He had to fall back on his inner strength. The fountains of that inner spiritual strength never dried up. Character triumphed over circumstance. Hemingway defined courage as “grace under pressure”. Nehru had that kind of courage.

All is not smooth sailing (I have the 1930s in mind). Freedom is nowhere in sight. He is at oods with Gandhiji and the Congress. His wife is terminally ill, his widowed mother has been struck by a paralytic stroke, daughter Indira, not in robust health, is shfited from one school to another. He himself is in jail. Would there ever be a break in the clouds? One entry will reveal the state of Nehru’s mind during this period: “January 12, 1935. A terrible and unexpected shock. Early in the morning a telegram came from Nan (Mrs Vijayalakshmi Pandit) from Allahabad that Jivraj Mehta had telephoned from Bombay to say that mother had had a stroke of paralysis and was unconscious.... I collapsed and wept and found some difficulty in pulling myself together.”

A lesser man would have gone to pieces or worse. Not so our hero. From each sojourn in jail (“I have seldom felt quite so lonely and cut off from the world as I have felt here. It is solitary confinement with a vengeance”), he emerged a nobler man. No self-pity, no quarter to hatred. No moral trade-offs. This was the measure of the man.

WE get wonderful insights into his mind and heart, his emotions and passions in these volumes. Every aspect of life and letters is touched upon. He was undoubtedly a very good man. He was also an exceptionally wise man. Without him the Indian freedom movement would have lacked its vital intellectual dimension.

With his spoken word, Nehru reached the hearts of man. With his books he penetrated their minds, he enhanced their awareness. He gave us hope. He gave us pride. Such political awakening that has befallen me, I owe to him. For him ideas were not mere abstractions. He made them come alive—alive in our minds, inspiring us, shaping our lives, influencing our lives. I now deeply regret not drawing him out on literary matters when the opportunity presented itself. My sole literary encounter with him was brief, yet unforgettable.

It was the lunch hour on a hot summer day in 1961. By an extraordinary coincidence, Pandit Nehru and I met in the first floor corridor of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). He was coming out of his room, I from my humble perch in the same now. I greeted him with folded hands with a book between my palms. He stopped, returned my greetings and asked me what the book was. I handed it over to him. It was my friend Amaury de Riencourt’s The Soul of China. “I have read his The Soul of India,” the Prime Minister announced.

“So have I, sir.”

He took a few steps towards the staircase of the MEA and remarked: “Rather Spenglerian, I thought.”

Having never read Spengler, all I could do was to give a nervous smile.

He walked on and as he started to descend the staircase he looked around and said with a beautiful smile and a twinkle in his eye: “Nehru Imperator hmm!”

This was Pandit Nehru at his spontaneous best. The great man was sharing a little joke with me, as I had read The Soul of India, which carries a chapter entitled, “Nehru Imperator”.

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