The Jewish bahu of Anand Bhavan

Apart from being the oldest living member of the Nehru family, Fori Nehru, who passed away at 109 on Tuesday, was the founder of the Cottage Industries Emporium, is known to have played a silent role in the 1971 War, and inspired a classic on Jewish history.

In 2010, when she granted this reporter a rare audience, I found her pre-occupied by the plight of miners trapped in a Chilean copper mine.

“Have you been following the condition of the miners in Chile? I am so happy that they were finally rescued by NASA,” she said to me, offering tea on a wintry evening in Dharamshala.

Wall Street tracker

Fori had then just turned 102. Apart from international affairs, her other fascination was Wall Street, which she tracked carefully. She was, in fact, a close friend of billionnaire financier George Soros, who flew to India on his private jet to wish her when she turned 100.

Fori, a Hungarian by birth, was Magdolna Friedman before she married Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin, B.K. Nehru, in 1935 after completing her studies at the London School of Economics.

In the aftermath of the Partition, Fori joined the Emergency Committee for refugees, and started a massive employment campaign for refugee women in 1947, which later evolved into the Cottage Industries Emporium.

During the late 1960s, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi summoned B.K. Nehru, then India’s ambassador to the U.S., to become the governor of Assam. During the 1971 war, it was Fori who travelled along India’s frontiers in Assam, Tripura and Meghalaya to supervise the condition of the refugees driven out by the Pakistan army.

Emergency excesses

Her role in Indira Gandhi’s life has been chronicled by the latter’s biographers. During Indira’s first prime ministerial trip to Washington DC in 1966, Fori, as the wife of the Indian Ambassador , threw a party that would break the ice between the temperamental Prime Minister and President Lyndon Johnson. Among the Nehrus, Fori enjoyed a special rapport with Indira Gandhi.

It is well known that during the Emergency, officials and Congress party members were reluctant to tell the Prime Minister the truth about forced sterilisations and other excesses.

Sensing growing restlessness in the country, however, Fori, in a rare moment of candour, brought Indira face-to-face with the enormous tragedy that the Emergency had unleashed on the people.

Fori was also acutely aware of the need for justice for the Jewish people who suffered under the Holocaust, and has inspired a major work of Jewish history. Letters to Auntie Fori (2002) by British historian and Winston Churchill’s official biographer, Martin Gilbert, is dedicated to her.

Gilbert was a friend of Fori’s son Ashok, and during a trip to India, he learnt that Shobha Nehru, his friend’s mother, was, in fact, Fori Friedman.

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 9:22:04 AM |

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