When I was seven, an age when children look forward to their birthday weeks ahead of the event, mine was a source of acute embarrassment. The principal of my school had the habit of announcing, during the morning assembly of November 14, that it was Children’s Day because it was the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru. Then she would proudly announce that it was my birthday as well and that my parents had given me the middle name Jawahar because of this coincidence. Certain that my classmates would make fun of someone saddled with such a highfalutin name, I never used it.
Like many of her generation, the principal revered Nehru. For her, to have a student named after him, even merely for the coincidence of sharing his birthday, was cause for celebration. I was born six months after Nehru died in May 1964, a time when many of my parent’s vintage felt bereft because Nehru had been centrestage their entire adult life. In a way, the coincidence of my sharing Nehru’s birthday was a saving grace. My mother, one of those women of her generation who took for granted the superiority of her sex, had burst into tears after I was born; she’d hoped for a girl.
Decades later, I would hand my father a lengthy essay by the historian Ramachandra Guha, who contrasted to India’s the less happy post-colonial experiences of Kenya, Tanzania and Pakistan and concluded that we were fortunate to have had such a first prime minister. I returned to my father’s bedroom later to find him overcome with emotion. Alarmed, I asked what the matter was. “We were so lucky to have Nehru,” my father said. My middle name, which I had long dismissed as the product of my father’s obsession with auspicious dates, had been a conscious act of homage.
While working in Delhi recently, I spent a Saturday afternoon at the magnificent Teen Murti memorial where Nehru had lived until his death. Nehru, an agnostic, did not believe in an afterlife. Yet, his is the strangest of afterlives. It is almost as if he had an alter ego we never knew about. The ills of the socialist economy are placed at his door even though it was Indira Gandhi who suffocated the economy with industrial licensing and import controls in the 1970s. The persistence of the dynasty today, which makes me consider dropping my last name in the hope of becoming minister of state for sewage, is also unfairly blamed on him.
That Nehru increasingly amounts to a forgotten hero is brought home when one visits the Teen Murti memorial. By contrast, Mahatma Gandhi’s samadhi or Indira Gandhi’s memorial nearby have a conga line of tourist buses outside. I had the house entirely to myself. I gasped at the contemporary look of the sculpture on the ground floor. I looked into his modest bedroom and marvelled at how spartan his tastes were, for someone born into wealth.
The simplicity of the house and its furnishings was not matched by its bookshelves. They ran along long corridors. They took over entire rooms. It was Nehru’s bookishness that I had come to admire after reading a beautiful passage by Dom Moraes in his memoir, Gone Away: An Indian Journal, recently. Moraes, who had just graduated from Oxford, describes visiting Nehru at a turbulent time—mere months before India’s trouncing by China in 1962. After Moraes is tongue-tied because he is embarrassed for having becoming hopelessly entangled in the curtains when he entered Nehru’s office, the two men find plenty of common ground. Early on, Nehru admiringly lets slip a line from a Moraes poem—that the “wise alternative to death” on a hot Delhi afternoon is a nap.
What is remarkable is the complete lack of ceremony between them. Nehru enquires about the book Moraes is planning on India. Moraes, thinking about an essay Nehru had authored about the Spanish Civil War, “written in a peculiar succession of images that recalled a masculine Virginia Woolf”, asks the prime minister if he remembers it. Then, the 22-year-old asks if Nehru would have been a writer if he had not become a nationalist leader. “I don’t know what I would have been... What I wrote I wrote because it seemed politically necessary or necessary to me to clear up a confusion in my mind. I wasn’t a creative writer. Perhaps I would have been a scientist,” Nehru replies. “Or a writer? Yes, perhaps I would have been a writer.”
Moraes’s depiction of Nehru is not wholly uncritical. There is a sense of a leader, like King Lear, who was removed from the crisis swirling around him. Nehru shows perhaps a flash of his infamous temper when Moraes tells him that he and the writer Ved Mehta had found themselves addressing only the teachers at a small college. When they had asked to meet some students, the principal had replied, “They are too badly educated to meet you.” Moraes had found the incident amusing, but Nehru glowered and snapped, “Ridiculous. Quite ridiculous. What was the name of this college?” Reading this, one can’t help wish that Nehru had been as good at keeping the big picture in mind. Perhaps then the campaign for universal literacy would have been put on an emergency footing early on.
Moraes was such a skilful writer that his depiction of the meeting has the feel of an epic poem; the mythical hero is ageless, unbowed until suddenly his elixir of universal adulation is removed. Nehru waves off Moraes’s apologies about having taken up too much of his time.
Visiting the Nehru memorial that Saturday, I could not help recalling these passages, which I had grown so fond of that I had taken to reading them to friends. I bought a postcard of a very dapper
Nehru laughing at some witticism of Albert Einstein’s. I bought another of Nehru reading, which now adorns the bookcase in my living room. In both, he looks—and this jars because we ought not to describe leaders in this manner—shockingly handsome.
On a large rock hidden in the shrubbery is a quotation from Nehru’s last will and testament. He puts on record his gratitude for the love he received from the Indian people. A literary genius to the end, Nehru had penned an eloquent farewell note to India that doubles as an epitaph.
I am reminded also of watching footage of huge rallies for India’s first general elections where he would talk of electricity and dams. These are the most apolitical of stump speeches; the Congress party is scarcely mentioned as Nehru lays out his vision for modernity. The audacity of choosing democracy for an illiterate and poverty-stricken country could be called the biggest bet the world has ever seen.
As Moraes observed, “In any shop or business office you enter in India, there are always two guardian angels... over the cashier. One is Gandhi, always in these photographs, venerable, and the other Nehru, frozen into perpetual youth. Beautiful and young, he fills the gilt frame, one hand flung to an invisible crowd beyond. One can feel this crowd vibrating outside the photograph, not quite getting what Nehru is saying, but believing it anyway, because it is Nehru.” Like Moraes, who writes in the run-up to the 1962 war that “the glass of the photograph has cracked”, I feel saddened by the scandal after scandal that has rocked the Congress-led coalition, reducing it to the butt of ridicule.
Is it unpatriotic to wish Nehru had no afterlife so that he does not have to see the nation he built riddled with corruption and its political parties, including his own, characterised by sycophantic dynastic rule? As I reread the inscription on that rock in Nehru’s garden, I hear a strident peacock nearby. Is it a mating call or a shriek of indignation at his unworthy successors?
(Rahul Jacob is South China correspondent for the Financial Times)