interview | India@70

Nayantara Sahgal: Nehru’s compound was filled with refugees

Author Nayantara Sahgal   | Photo Credit: Virender Singh Negi

She was a teenager when India became independent. Nayantara Sahgal, the novelist, essayist and chronicler, had a ringside view of those heady days as Motilal Nehru’s grand-daughter and Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s daughter. Excerpts from an interview conducted on the telephone, in which she revisits the past and takes stock of 70 years of freedom:

What did freedom mean to you back in 1947? And what did it bring to you?

I was in college in Wellesley in the U.S. and came home that year, 1947, in October. I was not here in Delhi on the day itself, but you know, it was a mixed feeling of elation and terrible despair at the thought that India might be divided, and of course by the time I came home, Partition had taken place. I returned to a grim and sad Delhi. I came to stay with my uncle (Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru). My mother had gone as Ambassador to Moscow. So she was not there. My father had died following his fourth imprisonment during British rule. So, he was not there. My home was with my uncle. There was no Prime Minister’s House at that time. He was living in 17 York Road (now known as Motilal Nehru Marg) and all I could see was how the huge compound was filled with tents for refugees. It was a very grim situation. My sisters and I grew up in Anand Bhavan (in Allahabad), and we grew up together. He was like my third parent. After my father died, he was there in his place. He was my life-long hero also.

Especially now with some distance, I can feel the horror of millions of people uprooted from their homes on both sides of the border in a partition that need never have taken place if Muhammad Ali Jinnah had not demanded a Muslim country for Muslims. Gandhiji, who had been the leader in the fight for our freedom in which my parents and millions of Indians had taken part, had created and fired this movement which had proved this divide and rule policy of the British wrong. It was an all-India movement which cut across regions, religion, languages and gender based on the fact that we are more than a country. We are a civilisation which is diverse, enriched by several experiences and several sources. So the demand for a country for Muslims was a contradiction in the fundamental belief of inclusiveness. And now, my feelings now…

Could we go back to Nehru whom you had the chance of observing closely, especially in the months following India’s Independence? You were a young woman in a newly independent country.

When you are young, you are getting along with your life, and I was coming home after four years. I was getting used to the changes in my family and in the country. I was with Nehru, living in the same house. I used to take his lunch to his office where the External Affairs Ministry was then. I would stay around like a youngster in the house. My cousin, Indira, was there. Until March 1948, when I joined my mother in Moscow, I stayed with Nehru. And then, Gandhi was murdered. My cousins and I were in the York Road house when we were told that Gandhi had been shot.

There had been attempts on his life earlier. We thought the same thing must have happened. We rushed to Birla House and we were in the room when he breathed his last. And that is one thing that stands out for me in those terrible days post-Independence. I was standing there with tears in my eyes. He had been a member of the family, having known them for decades. I was promising myself that I would never let him die. All my life and work is dedicated and committed to the ideas he stood for and the kind of India he had created with the struggle for freedom.

Politics became the material for all my writing. It was my background and India was the main character of everything I wrote. It inspired me to write about India that had been created post-Independence, by the Nehru government for the first 20 years. Every novel of mine has been about the making of India. My most recent novel, which will be out in September, is about the unmaking of India. The undoing of India. Under Nehru we built in a remarkable fashion on the foundations he and his distinguished colleagues made. But now the RSS government, because it is the RSS which is running the government, is dividing India once again into Hindus and others. We have already seen one disastrous partition. I don’t want to talk about the murders taking place. The RSS wants to make the country a Hindu Rashtra. It is their declared intention. What kind of India is this? I fear for young Indians today.

On the 70th year, are we regressing?

I am not celebrating Independence Day because all the good is being undone. They are fighting and changing history, changing names of roads, saying that Akbar lost the Battle of Haldighati. They are falsifying history. They have no use for science, Nehru’s vision. In his time, the Indian Institutes of Technology were created, founded. All our premier institutes were set up at that time… now taken over and headed by the RSS. We are rapidly marching backwards. It is taking me to a horrifying future. I don’t know what young Indians will have under the RSS. A Hindu country where mythology is taking the place of science. I am not celebrating independence this time.

Nationalism today has become an exercise in branding people.

You cannot put all young people in one block. There are some who have grown up with no knowledge of the humanities because their expertise is in commerce and technology. There are others who are inspired by ideals. Like Kanhaiya Kumar too, there are all kinds of young people. Of course, we are independent, and of course, it is a great event but we are being ruled by the mentality that murdered Gandhi.

Anybody young or old has to watch out and be alert that our freedom of expression stays intact.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 4:41:36 PM |

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