Surrogates of Nehru in Indian literature

Nehru’s significance is seen in Shyam Benegal’s movies.

Nehru’s significance is seen in Shyam Benegal’s movies.  


The demise of Pt.Jawaharlal Nehru during a crucial time of Indian national politics and the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi are the events that evoked a strong sense of melancholy and despair among the people. In particular, several Indian authors whose works portrayed the traits and personality of Nehru, either explicitly, subtly, allegorically or as a ‘guest appearance’ in its narration.

“Salman Rushdie and his generation identified themselves with a national feeling kindled by Pt. Nehru,” said Prof.Rajeswari Sunder Rajan from New York University while speaking on

‘Nehru’s shadow: Memory and Melancholy in some Post Colonial Indian novels in English’ at The American College.

She unravelled the striking imagery and symbolism employed by Salman Rushdie in ‘ The Midnight’s Children’ to depict Nehru’s complete profile as portrayed in the character of Dr.Adam Aziz.

Prof.Rajan explained how Aziz’s large nose, blue eyes, the Kashmiri ancestry, his education abroad and liberating ideas, his optimistic involvement in nationalist politics and his defiant agnosticism, and the dates of birth and death coinciding with that of Nehru’s make him the national leader’s intimate fictitious surrogate.

The author brilliantly substantiated her claim with extensive reference to several such narratives from numerous other works including Upamanyu Chaterjee’s English August (1988), Salman Rushdie’s The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), Rukun Advani’s Beethoven among the Cows (1994), Shama Futehally’s Tara Lane (1993), Suguna Iyer’s An Evening Gone (2002) and Sharmistha Mohanty's New Life (2005).

Prof.Rajan described her work of analyzing the novels of modern Indian writers as a psychobiography which highlights post-colonialism’s continuities with the colonial-nationalist period. She called it a matter of generational inheritance.

Pointing out that India’s elevation in the global scenario - as the largest democracy, a secular state and the leader of the Non-Alignment Movement was due to Nehru’s initiative and stature, Prof.Rajan used the French phrase, ‘noblesse oblige’, to delineate the ethical and existential dilemmas of an elitist leader. “Translated to the post-colonial context, it characterizes the protagonists of these novels,” she added.

Replying to questions, the author of many post-colonial research books, admitted that the power equations of the society changed in the ‘90s leading to the creation of a new political class wherein the Nehruvian ideologies evoked only nostalgia.

Shyam Benegal belongs to the same generation as Salman Rushdie, when new liberal ideas were much in public debate, followed up Dr. Anuradha Needham from Oberlin College, Ohio.

She spoke about Benegal’s first four movies Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977) which demonstrated their portrayal of Nehru’s personality and ideals.

“These Hindi movies are feministic works,” said Dr.Needham and explained how Ankur, Nishant and Bhumika were about a liberal, emancipated female protagonist doing the unthinkable of that era. “His works also depicted our society’s inability to provide the means necessary for emancipation of women,” she added.

Benegal, a Dadasaheb Phalke Awardee, in his works indicates that access to modernity hinges on our treatment of female sexuality. “So there is a need to take a woman’s sexuality seriously”, quipped Dr. Needham, who last month published her book ‘ New Indian Cinema in Post-Independence India: The Cultural Work of Shyam Benegal Films’.

Both the speakers reiterated their conviction in the Nehruvian ideals of modernity, secularism and feminism and took exception to the present-day intelligentsia’s growing disenchantment with our first Prime Minister.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 5:43:50 PM |

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