March 30, 2020
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Yours, Goongi Gudiya

The way their public personages enter this intimate realm makes it more than a filial diary

Yours, Goongi Gudiya
N. Thiagarajan
Yours, Goongi Gudiya
Two Alone, Two Together—Letters Between Indira Gandhi And Jawaharlal Nehru 1922-1964
By Edited By Sonia Gandhi
Viking/Penguin Pages: 648; Rs 995
The first collection of Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to his only daughter, indeed only child, Indira Gandhi, that I read as a schoolboy appeared when she was only 10. Then followed the classic and monumental Glimpses of World History. Fourteen years ago, Sonia Gandhi painstakingly edited the rest of the correspondence between father and daughter (1922-1964) and published it in two large volumes running into 1,180 pages. Now she has compressed the two tomes into a single volume reducing the size by nearly half. While preserving the essence of the earlier work, she has enabled a wider readership to access it at a reasonable price.

Unsurprisingly, the range of subjects covered by the letters is awesomely wide, stretching from personal and family matters to major issues of national and international politics, to say nothing of the comparing of notes on the numerous books that both of them were reading all the time. As Indira grew up, the content and style of her letters changed accordingly and attained maturity.

Letters written from Europe where she and her husband-to-be, Feroze Gandhi, were stranded at the start of World War II form a substantial and important part of the book. A remarkable feature of these letters is her frequent expression of disagreement with her illustrious father’s views. Evidently she’d taken to heart Harold Laski’s advice that she should not become her "father’s shadow". Another is her deep concern over, and pithy comment on, whatever was going on, be it the Spanish Civil War, Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing Hitler, the confusion in France, the Russo-Finnish war or whatever.

v Simultaneously, she kept a careful watch on happenings at home. For instance, on hearing that Subhash Bose had resigned as Congress president, she shot off a letter to "dear Papu" to say, "This is disturbing news ...a terrific setback to the socialist movement and great victory—one may almost call it personal—for Vallabhbhai."

It is not possible to deal with the treasure trove that the charming correspondence between father and daughter in a short review as this. All one can do is to convey its flavour fleetingly. But even to do that one has to leave aside the human and humorous elements and concentrate on the politically important letters written mostly during the period when Indira was her father’s chatelaine and confidante.

On pages 561-62 is a short but significant letter of May 1, 1958, in which, after making the customary declaration—"I should not presume to advise you"—Indira bluntly asks her father whether "having once suggested giving up the Prime Ministership...(was) it wise to go back to the status quo? Will it not have adverse effect?... Let them try to manage by themselves, otherwise they will drag you down with their own rottenness...."

In June 1959, a month before she, as Congress president, virtually stampeded Nehru into dismissing Kerala’s Communist ministry unfairly and improperly, she wrote to him, "There is no point in calling the agitation (against the Communists) communal. It is communal only in so far as everything is communal in Kerala, including the Communists." Interestingly, as PM a decade later, she had no compunction in forming a coalition with the same Kerala Communists.

Far more revealing is an exchange of letters in December 1949 (pp 526-30). On December 16, Indira wrote in high dudgeon from Lucknow that the "rottenness" of UP politics had "come into" her own house. Then followed a lengthy complaint that Pantji (Govind Ballabh, then the state’s CM) and Chandra Bhanu Gupta had "moved the whole government machinery" to collect "proxies" so that some tainted businessmen could take over National Herald, of which Feroze Gandhi was then general manager. "You tolerate a lot of things but are you willing to have the Herald run by black-marketeers?" Nehru’s reply sent the same day was cool, concise. He understood her "distress" but advised her not to become its "victim". "I myself do not think that anything terrible is going to happen.... You are irritated at me because, as you say...I ignore such matters.... One can only function according to one’s capacity...."

Indira was not impressed. She conjured up the possibility that the Herald would "become a Ji-Huzoor paper," adding, "I know you have a lot of big and intricate problems and it is impossible for you to deal with such small matters. But it is these very small matters that are causing the rot in the country." Nehru’s reply, if any, is not included in the collection.

Altogether, the book has the quality of vintage wine. It needs to be savoured slowly, not gulped down.

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