Witness to history

Nayantara Sahgal, Nehru's niece, who will be introducing her latest book Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing a Savage World at The Hindu Best Fiction Awards 2010 ceremony in Chennai on Monday, talks to Ziya Us Salam on what it was like to grow up surrounded by history in the making, the pragmatic vision and policies of Nehru and their impact on the country.

Updated - November 17, 2021 05:19 am IST

Published - October 30, 2010 05:53 pm IST

A PERSONEL VIEW OF THE POLITICAL: Nayantara Sahgal. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

A PERSONEL VIEW OF THE POLITICAL: Nayantara Sahgal. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The road to Nayantara Sahgal's home is long; not so wide or easy, flanked, as it often is, by gravel and rubble. This is October and the leaves of varied trees, old and withering, are covered with dust; testimony as much to the time of the year, as man's callous indifference to Nature. A few metres amid the cacophony of spice sellers and street-corner eateries, and I am in a lane that's a world removed from the hustle and bustle of the city. Soon, I am at Nayantara's Rajpur Road residence, a picture of dignified calm, easy repose.

A glance at her study and one notices photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit do not so much break the monotony of the brick and mortar wall as provide a window to the past. History lends dignity to the mantelpiece here. There are photographs of ‘Mamun' Nehru, by himself, then those where he shares space with his sister, Vijaya Lakshmi, Nayantara's mother. There is the priceless one with Mahatma Gandhi. Some are sepia-toned; others bright and attractive. Amid all this sits Nayantara, her apparel carefully casual. Often accorded the privilege of being a non-participant observer to the political crucible, Nayantara, one discovers, is no fence-sitter when it comes to history. Or dynasty. With Nehru for an uncle and Indira Gandhi for a cousin, she chooses her words with a care that would get the nod of a geometrician. Occasionally though, she allows herself the luxury of spontaneity. It has been more than four decades since Nehru went away, but the distance in time has not dulled Nayantara's senses. By turn, she can be incisive and insightful.

As a host she is gracious and generous. As an author, she shows admirable dexterity. Her latest book, aptly, almost inevitably, titled Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilizing A Savage World — published by Penguin and to be launched in New Delhi this week — is dedicated “in memory of Jawaharlal Nehru” to Mani Shankar Aiyar, “who speaks the same language” and Gopalkrishna Gandhi, “for the language he speaks”. The subtle difference is for the discerning to appreciate.

Historical necessities

Nudge her a little bit about Nehru — no — suggest as much that he groomed Indira to take over from him, like Rahul Gandhi is being groomed today, and she springs to her uncle's defence. “Indira's coming to politics was natural. Nehru did not groom her as a successor. He always said, ‘After me the people'. He did not name any successor. He did not like the idea of Indira being the President of Congress in 1959, a year after he had expressed a desire to quit. He, however, could not stand in her way. She stayed there only for a year. But yes, Indira did nominate a successor.”

So, isn't it the tragedy of the nation that some 60 years after Independence we still have dynastic politics?

She coolly deflects the insinuation. “There are a hundred political dynasties in the country today. It is commonplace for every State leader to appoint his relative to posts.” What she leaves unsaid is, ‘It is not just the Gandhis. See the Lalus, the Mulayams, the Thackerays'.

So, how did this take on Nehru come about?

“Penguin asked me to write an essay on Nehru as there is a revival of interest in him. They wanted me to do a piece of 15,000 words. Then it became 25,000 words. Now, it has become a book! I am not an academic, nor a historian. But I have often been at the personal and political centre of his life. At times I am puzzled by some comments on Nehru when people fail to see him in the circumstances in which he lived. It is not fair to judge him in today's light. Rather, we need to look at him from the perspective of his times. Personally, I looked at him as a third parent. At times personal depictions are illuminating and they should help see him in a new light with this book.”

She believes every word she speaks. “Nehru was dedicated to the nation. His commitment to the nation lasted till death. Peace was his prime objective, as the condition for lifting India out of colonial stagnation. But he was an internationalist. He made sure India's voice carried weight and was heard across the world.”

Then she blends the political with the personal. “He shared a rapport with my father Ranjit Sitaram Pandit like none else. My father was a fine gardener. He had this green finger. He planted a little garden in Dun prison when they were together. My father died young. He translated three Sanskrit classics, Rajtarangini , Mudra Rakshasa and Ritusamhara .”

Indeed Nehru said as much after Ranjit was released from the Dehra Dun jail. “Ranjit left me yesterday after a full year with me. A year together in jail means something much more than outside. We are together all the time, night and day, within a few feet of each other. …his interests are varied….As an expert gardener he looked after our little garden and I was his willing but inefficient assistant. He used to spot and tell me the names of new birds that passed Dehra Dun.”

Personal touch

Similarly, Allahabad is described with the fondness of the familiar. “Located in the heartland of Hinduism, among the gardens and monuments of Islam, theirs was a city whose roads were named after Englishmen.” It is at such times that Nayantara's narrative has the warmth of a personal touch. Then the canvas gets bigger, less personal. “Our family was one of agnostics but also there were great believers within the family. For instance my grandmother and great aunt were devout Hindus. Bibima taught me that if Krishna Bhagvan was on your side, let the armies of the world be on the other side. Religion and atheism lived together at our house. It helped Nehru frame the secular nature of the country. Secularism was his religion. He believed everybody had a right to worship the way he wanted. We were a modern nation then. The BJP has set us back by many centuries. They are taking us back to the Dark Ages of Europe when religion identified a nation. The BJP talks of the Hindu core and people often draw parallels with the social reformers of the 19th Century. But the social reformers had nothing to do with Hindutva. India can never be a Hindu Republic.”

The book also seeks to clear the perception on Nehru's different reactions to the crisis of Egypt and Hungary during his Prime Ministership. He is said to have been proactive in the case of Egypt and more patient with Hungary. “There was this widespread criticism that he was being partial towards the Soviet Union. But we must realise we had no embassy in Hungary at that time but Mamun did speak out strongly and unequivocally in Parliament, condemning the actions of the Soviet Union in Hungary. His reaction was not different but the same as in the case of Egypt. He could not afford to ignore one crisis and pay attention to the other. Similar was the case with Goa, the last outpost of colonialism. If he sent in his troops, he would have stood accused of using violence. If he did not, he would have been accused of inaction. Ultimately the liberation of Goa was a huge exercise in self-restraint and non-violence. Nehru ignored all criticism. He was an internationalist from his early days itself. He often used to say, ‘The world is not just the country you live in.' He believed no man or nation is an island. He made common cause with fellow internationalists and aligned non-violence to non-alignment. He knew the world. He was widely travelled. On questions of economics within the party, there was debate, even difference of opinion but on foreign affairs, the party left everything in his hands.”

Talking of the economic policies of Nehru, did he not bring about Socialism which is an idea that has had its time? “He never went for labels. Left, Left-of-the-centre…these terms were coined by others. Mamun was pragmatic, he did what was right. Where changes and adjustments were necessary he did make necessary changes. His view of socialism was not ideological. He saw in it the solution to problems of India. If the successors could not change with the times, it is not his fault or that of the ideology. He did not, nor do I, look at socialism as huge government intervention. I look at it as a culture of responsibility.”

Wrong priorities

Does she not feel a little upset with the rampant capitalism today, with the ever-widening gap between the urban rich and the rural poor? “‘Upset' is a mild term. ‘Alien' is more appropriate if you look at the way we are heading. The commercialism, the money mania is not natural. I feel like an alien from another planet. I have nothing against young politicians enjoying life or wearing perfumes if they perform the basic job they are elected for. Development has to be a priority today, as it was during the time of Nehru.” Indeed.

So, on to the new book. “I took three months to write, but there was a long period of research. I work alone but it was fascinating, wonderful. The writing came from my past.”

As Nayantara hails Mani for “speaking the language of Nehru” and Gopalkrishna for making himself “heard at the right time”, it is time to take leave of the gracious host. Having drunk from the nectar of the past, I find the sun's rays are slanting now and the day is about to fade away. On the road ahead there are stretches of absolute brilliance. Then those of unremitting darkness. Just like the past. Night is about to set in. Time for introspection. Time to think of the miles we have covered. And the hard yards that still remain. Time to think of Nehru. Nayantara. And a world once savage, today merely unequal.

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