Why write another book on Nehru? The reasons were as much personal as political, says Chief Guest Nayantara Sahgal, during the course of an interaction with N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, The Hindu, at the literary evening in which the winner of the The Hindu Best Fiction Award 2010 was announced. Subash Jeyan listens in...

She has lived through some of the country's most tumultuous periods: the heady days of the freedom struggle, Partition, Independence, the slow rotting of institutions in the decades after Nehru, the Emergency, and then the era of economic liberalisation. Here she is, travelling back in time through the pathways of a country's on-going journey to modernity which was often inseparable from the personal. Her considered and thoughtful responses to perceptive questions and comments set the tone for the rest of the evening.

N. Ram: Taraji, can you tell us how you came to write this book, which is an extended essay, and how did you cope with such massive amount of material?

Nayantara Sahgal: Well, first of all, let me say that I am really delighted to be here to introduce this new book at the invitation of my favourite newspaper, to be in Chennai after many years and also to be associated with this new fiction award. I am always a little surprised when I hear people say that Indian fiction has come of age. Well, in my view, it is Western awareness of Indian fiction that has come of age and I am delighted that Indian fiction is now getting the exposure it deserves...

Coming to your question about how I came to write this book, well, first of all because Penguin asked me to... They commissioned it as an essay which then became an extended essay and then it became a book...The other reason why I decided to write it is that I had got tired of reading political commentary and hearing people talk about India as if India had come to life the day before yesterday during liberalisation. There is a sort of amnesia about India's past and when it's talked about, people say that it was ruined by Nehru, by socialism. Now, I decided it was high time to put Nehru in perspective for our times and that is why I wrote this book.

Now, fiction and extended essay writing are two different genres. Do you steel yourself to write an essay or does it flow?

Well, this was not just any essay. It was something I really felt impelled to do. It's something that was part of my life as it were. I'd grown up during the struggle for freedom. Jawaharlal Nehru was a person whose home I'd grown up in. I'd always thought of him as my third parent. I think it is very important for people to remember that we did not begin the day before yesterday. There was a huge, grand infrastructure laid down, of institutions, by Nehru without which we'd not be where we are today or functioning as well as we are doing today. Institutions like the Parliament, a free press, an independent judiciary. Now in the course of these 45 years after Nehru if these have become somewhat corrupted and not as pristine as we'd wish them to be, it is not the fault of Nehru. I wanted to put all this in perspective and I was driven by this urge to write this as a kind of thank you to him for being part of my life...

You start with your family, your origins. You belong to a section of Indian society that benefited, that made good during the British Raj. You start by saying we are bourgeois and then something happened... Mahatma Gandhi. Could you explain what Gandhiji meant, not just to Pandit Nehru but to the entire family, to all of you, including you?

Well, it's been three generations of interactions with the British Raj, starting with my grandfather Motilal Nehru who was a firm believer in the Raj. He entertained the British elite in his mansion, champagne flowed and all the rest of it and that was turned around overnight by Mahatma Gandhi by whom Jawaharlal Nehru became captivated and it was he who then persuaded his father to join Gandhi and there was an overnight change in the family, long before I was born, of course, but they completely abandoned the luxurious lifestyle and joined Gandhi and then it became a question then of bleak harsh discipline, of offering civil disobedience and repeatedly going to jail...

You state later that it was a lot tougher later, in fact when we asked you why you write you said “well to make a living”. You had to do that, The granddaughter of Motilal Nehru who supposedly sent his laundry to Paris...

That was a fiction. In fact, that was the kind of fable his reputation inspired. No, In my case my childhood was in a home that had given up all luxury and where we children were trained not to cry when the police came to arrest our parents. My parents, if I remember correctly, between them they spent about eight years in jail and my uncle who was sentenced to 15 years actually spent about 10. Now, this is a long time in a child's life, and it was a very hard time and at the same time it was a very inspiring and wonderful time because we took great pride in what the family was doing and my ambition during childhood was to grow up quickly so that I could go to jail too... But yes, this was the change from Motilal Nehru's time to my own generation. We had not inherited any fortune because our elders had given up their flourishing careers in order to join Mahatma Gandhi.

What was the advice given by Mahatma Gandhi to your mother, after she got married...

Well, Gandhiji came into our family when my mother was a little girl, in her teens. In fact once she was sent to his ashram to give her a spell of discipline. You know, her father thought she was getting spoiled, he sent her off to Gandhi. Of course she hated it , it was terrible. When she got married, Gandhiji was a guest in the home. After the wedding my parents went to him to get his blessing and being Mahatma Gandhi he said, ‘You must abstain from sex'. But they said, ‘Absolutely not, we love each other'. But he gave them his blessing just the same...

Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru had quite opposite views on many issues including the path to development but how do you explain that kind special closeness which perhaps no two other leaders of the freedom struggle had? How did that happen? Any insights?

It's as hard to explain as falling in love. The ultimate reason is mysterious. And there was that bond between them. Nehru was a kind of Sir Galahad and Gandhiji recognised a purity of character in him from the beginning and although my uncle was an atheist and Gandhiji was a devout Hindu, it made no difference to him choosing him as an heir.

A running thread in the book is the delicate treatment of the big issues of the day. So far as India and governance was concerned, you mention foreign policy, economic policy, and an end to the communalism of Hindu revivalism. For your uncle these were important and you believe that they enhanced India's capabilities and the capabilities of her people, do you?

Yes, actually the central focus of the book is his foreign policy. Because that was the period just after the Second World War when the Cold War began. One war had ended and another one began right away and we forget now that the world was really under threat of destruction from this new bomb, the atomic bomb and then of course the world was split up by the two super powers each demanding the world's allegiance. The central focus of my book, because it was about foreign policy, was the cold war. and the fact that Nehru tried to create a moment in history when, this old business of might is right and power ruling the world's affairs and everybody else having to fall in line, he wanted to change it to a world where the newly emerging nations need not side with either warring side. Where they could emerge and remain peaceful and build their new nations. And coexist. And that word was very important because it implied that, no matter what your internal policy is, that does not prevent you from getting on peacefully with your neighbour and with the rest of the world. And for him this was vitally important, that the world remained at peace so that Asia and Africa could come out of colonial paralysis and exploitation and build their new nations.

It was a very difficult scene for a newly independent India. I remember that Nehru was once asked by an indignant lady in America, ‘Are you with us or against us?' and he said ‘Yes'.

So foreign policy was crucial and it was in the hands of Nehru, the Congress Party had never questioned his views on foreign policy. But economic policy was a matter of divisiveness in the party and I bring that out in the book.

Communal feelings and hysteria was very high after the Partition. Right wing Hindus had wanted a complete exchange of populations: all Muslims must be in Pakistan and all Hindus in India, which was of course the very antithesis of what the Congress had stood for and which Nehru would not subscribe to one little bit and he opposed it tooth and nail. So these were the three issues he was dealing with all the time.

You make a very significant statement on the economic issues, because Nehruvian economic policies have come in for a lot of criticism, a lot of flak, especially post-1991, and he is blamed for the failure of the planned centralised economy, the Hindu rate of growth and so on, for stagnation. But you challenge the assumption behind this negative assessment and you say on p155, “Nehru's India took a giant stride out of colonial stagnation. Succeeding governments, lacking his ground-based realism and the practical approach that rejected hide-bound ideological constraints, failed to take off from the foundations laid during the Nehru era. And to make the changes required for changing conditions. India lost invaluable time, held back from the next natural stages of her stride towards modernisation”. I think this is a very significant assertion and I don't find the Congress Party or anyone else championing this view. They have forgotten this.

What I keep hearing all the time is that Nehru should have done this or that instead of what he did. Well, they forget that Nehru was not in 2010. In his time he did what he considered the urgent need of that time and therefore I consider him an extremely pragmatic man and not the woolly-headed idealist that I sometimes hear people condemn him to being. I mean it is so amazing, it is like saying he should have done what we are doing today, it's like saying Hannibal should have crossed the Alps by Swissair. Absurd idea but this is how people talk and this is why I wrote this book, you know, it had to be written, putting him in the context of his times and he was the first person to say and he repeatedly said it in interviews with foreign correspondents that ‘I am improvising. We are in a situation that has never been there before. At every step we are groping our way forward and changing if changes were required, and hopefully those who come after me will then adapt to changing situations.' Well, those who came after him did not. I personally feel that decades were lost...

You have a very interesting, perhaps exclusive material, from Robert Oppenheimer, a message he sent to Panditji. Could you tell us about it...

When my mother was Ambassador to the U.S., 1949-51, he was at Princeton, teaching there. This will show you the meaning of non-alignment to a man like Oppenheimer who created the atom bomb, that he sent a desperate message to my uncle through my mother saying, ‘Do not for any reason give up non-alignment, it is very important that you stick to it, because the United States is in the process of building the most horrendous method of destruction ever devised. We who are involved in it are... are losing our minds. We are disintegrating.' He sent a very strong message. This is a letter that has never been published before and it was so revealing of the situation where a man like Oppenheimer, who knew better than any other human being what a destructive war, more destructive than a nuclear war, would do, advocating that Nehru keep non-alignment (going) because he considered Nehru the only advocate of peace .

Now, this brings me to your source material. You worked with an archive. How do you usually research a novel and what did you do different for this? What did you really get here?

For this, I had to go to the Nehru Library because my uncle's papers are there and my mother's papers are also there (I donated them myself after she died). Nehru's papers are very closely guarded and people have told me they couldn't get access to those papers. I was very happy that I had access, that I could go there myself and find the material that I needed and use some of it may be for the first time. I was particularly interested in combining my mother's experiences as an Ambassador under Nehru who was Prime Minister and sort of connecting the two...

To close the session, Nayantara Sahgal also answered a series of questions from the audience.

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