Anthologies of the writings of a single individual of this type are rare; either they are collections of admonitory sayings with a political purpose on a much briefer compass like Mao Tse-tung’s Red Book or varied selections of the utterances of the great man concerned on a particular topic spread over the years, issued as a part of a near industrial enterprise. This is the fate which befalls leaders of nations like Lenin and Gandhi. Dr. Gopal has avoided either of these alternatives and produced an attractive, readable book of excerpts from Nehru’s writings long enough to sustain interest and to develop an argument opposite to the particular moment in recent Indian History when it was written and also varied enough to command the reader’s attention both as individual pieces and as parts of a larger design. That design is something more than Jawaharlal Nehru’s life and work; it is the recent history of India from about the late twenties to the late fifties seen through the eyes of a sensitive participant. It is a highly contemporary document, full of insights, thoughts and second thoughts about an increasingly complex social and political situation both in India and in the world outside—a period of exponential growth in science and technology, and revolution and reaction in political organization
Most of these writings are not really deliberate masterpieces written to order, or manifestations of an angry and compelling creative impulse. They are the relaxed, easy and detached comments of an involved man of action, seeking islands of quitetude and tranquillity amidst the tensions of hectic activity of a political activist and the head of government; brief interludes which are used to record reflections, amused and introspective self-analysis and candid comments on the developments in India and the world outside which concern him, irritate him and continually baffle him in the earlier years, even in the midst of the all-pervasive personal devotion, whenever it concerns Gandhiji’s ideology, strategy and tactical shifts in the national struggle.
The book succeeds, I think, mainly because it is not too ambitious. The large design is only an aggregate of several smaller designs. Nehru was no master political theorist or analyst. He was an intelligent, sensitive and a well-read student of past and current affairs whose intellectual awareness of modern developments was sensitized into something creative by the anger and frustration of life in colonial conditions in India at a time when the achievements of modern science seemed to promise so much for the poor man in India, and this, so it seemed to him in those dear old simple days, was frustrated only because of foreign exploitations. It is the richness of life present in the past of India, in the country’s splendid natural variety, the glory of its literature and its culture rediscovered by every generation and with particular excitement by one who had been conditioned by an alien environment which brings out the aesthetic response in Nehru. Over the years he developed an attractive, individual flexible style for communicating this feeling of exhilaration in India’s great history, the splendid islands of brightness in her present degradation and the possibilities of greatness in the riot so distant future, only if the present generation was prepared to recognize itself as being ‘condemned to hard labour for a life-time’.
There are nineteen sections in this Anthology ranging from the experiences and dilemmas of the national struggle when there were moments of acute differences with Gandhiji to a fairly complete picture of his domestic and external politics as India’s first Prime Minister. There are brief, pleasant sections on science, youth, culture, language, history and nature. There are also charming sections devoted to more personal experiences, personal relationships, their difficulties, dilemmas and evasions, reluctantly accepted by this most generous of men and an incredibly beautiful series of vignettes of nature and life culled from the Prison Diary over the years.
In fact, if one were to choose one section from the nineteen in this longish book, it would be these prison reminiscences to which one would like to return again and again. By themselves they comprehend Nehru’s moral and aesthetic universe in an attractively informal manner. His strengths and weaknesses, his celebrated charm and his not so well known angularities of behaviour with those nearest to him, his occasional lapses into smugness and vanity almost always immediately redeemed by wry self-realization—all are communicated in limped, leisurely prose. The effect is almost that of slow motion camera studying with interest the hectic activity in the world outside from the black box, which is the prison. There is more of Nehru’s genuine involvement, in no way derivatory as some detractors have suggested, with nature in these passages than in the more contrived landscape descriptions which are collected in this Anthology.
To any student of Nehru’s evolution as a political thinker, special interest would be aroused to the various writings reproduced here from various early pieces, written mostly in 1927 and 1928. They, tell us a great deal of the development of his interest in socialism, Marxist theory and practice, ‘Soviet Russia’s’ relevance to a world dominated by imperialism; and the very genuine problem to the aims of the national struggle at that early stage when Gandhiji’s experiment in mass mobilization was only slowly beginning to gather tempo. Some of these writings are for foreign journals and audiences, the most famous being the speech at the International Congress against imperialism in Brussels in February 1927. It is clear from the excerpts printed in this volume that Nehru’s experience at Brussels affected his outlook profoundly and perhaps led to his demand – along with Subhas Chandra Bose—for declaration of complete independence as the national goal at the Madras Congress session at the end of the year.
This was in fact one of the occasions when Nehru and Gandhi took up totally opposing positions. In two letters written on January, 1928 (or parts of the same letter) Nehru writes with anguish and indignation to justify himself against Gandhiji’s negative reaction. There are other equally interesting episodes in the relationship between the two men which are brought out in this collection. There is no meeting of minds at all between the two; on the priority given by Gandhiji to the Harijan question and his decision to go on a fast to express his sense of urgency on this. There was also no pretence at all at endorsement by Nehru of Gandhi’s repeated expressions of faith in Ram Rajya and the evils of industrial society. On one specific tactical question Nehru is frustrated and critical; he does not even begin to understand the rationale behind the detailed legalistic formulations in Gandhi’s correspondence with Linlithgow between August 1942 and February 1943 when Gandhi went on fast.
While these differences were there, the personal relationship continued to be totally unclouded by malice or misunderstanding. In a memorable passage Jawaharlal says that he regards himself as Gandhiji’s child:
There can be no question of our personal relations suffering. But even in the wider sphere am I not your child in politics, though perhaps a truant and errant child?
Of much retrospective ironical interest is the following comment made in 1933 expressing all his accumulated annoyances at this singularly obstinate and forceful leader to whom he had mortgaged his political personality:
I am afraid I am drifting further and further away from him mentally, in spite of my strong emotional attachment to him. His continual references to God irritate me exceedingly. His political actions are often enough guided by an unerring instinct but he does not encourage others to think. And even he, has he thought out what the objective, the ideal, should be very probably not. The next step seems to absorb him. What a tremendous contrast to the dialectics of Lenin & co. More and more I feel drawn to their dialectics, more and more I realize the gulf between Bapu and me, and I begin to doubt if this way of faith is the right way to train a nation. It may pay for a short while, but in the long run?
Twenty-five years later, in two famous utterances written during the plenitude of his power, Nehru said the last nostalgic goodbye to these youthful beliefs in scientific’ socialism. The essay on ‘The Basic Approach’ reprinted from the A.I.I.C.C. Economic Review of August 15, 1958, has this to say about the inadequacy of communist tactics and his preference for the Gandhian approach:
‘I have the greatest admiration for many of the achievements of the Soviet Union. Among these great achievements is the value attached to the child and the common man. Their systems of education and health are probably the best in the world. But it is said, and rightly, that there is suppression of individual freedom there unfortunately, communism became too closely associated with the necessity for violence and thus the idea which it placed before the world became a tainted one. Means distorted ends. We see here the powerful influence of wrong means and methods even if it does not indulge normally in physical violence, its language is of violence, its thought is violent and it does not seek to change by persuasion or peaceful democratic pressures, but by destruction and extermination.
‘This is completely opposed to the peaceful approach which Gandhiji taught us.’
A few months later, in his Azad Memorial Lectures, Nehru explained his picture of limited socialism for India:
We have deliberately laid down as our objective a socialist pattern of society. Personally I think that the acquisitive society, which is the base of capitalism, is no longer suited to the present age. We have accepted socialism as our goal not only because it seems to us right and beneficial but because there is no other way for the solution of our economic problems. It is sometimes said that rapid progress cannot take place by peaceful and democratic methods. I do not accept this proposition. Indeed, in India today any attempt to discard democratic methods would lead to disruption and would thus put an end to any immediate prospect of progress.
It is easy enough to feel superior to Nehru for this discarding of older enthusiasms. One must, however, remember that in 1933 the Stalinist purges were still in the future and the choices appeared to be simple. In 1958, also, Hungary was a recent memory. The surprising thing is not Nehru’s change of views but the tough continuity in his economic and political philosophy; he did not oscillate as so many of his more excitable and angry companions in India did from partisan Marxism to equally partisan anti-Marxism.
The sections on foreign policy are, as could be expected, full of continuing interest. There are several clear expositions of Nehru’s evolving concept of nonalignment, the Asian personality, Afro-Asian solidarity and the inevitable and integral link between these three ideals because of the shared experience of colonial exploitation. Of unusual interest, with a certain period of flavour, is the section on disarmament, reminding us how pre-occupied Nehru was with the risk of thermo-nuclear war during the last years of his life. There is also indirect evidence of a slightly lessening interest in decolonization as such when compared to the disarmament problem. This was, it will be recalled, one of the reasons for the increasing distance between India and shriller voices of the developing world like Sukarno in the early sixties.
In the last analysis the essence of the book’s charm resides in its intensely personal style, its sensitiveness to the beauty and possible reaches of expressiveness of English prose as can be handled by a foreigner. As an essentially decent and straightforward being, Nehru reveals in his letters some less attractive characteristics because of his urge to communicate, his anxiety to reorganize his emotions constructively by analysing them. There are a few letters to women, friends, and relatives, which reveal the difficulties which Nehru faced in establishing communication with people. In a letter to Padmaja Naidu dated August 20, 1937, he says:
Again you are wholly right in saying that I have been a failure in my individual relationships—curiously enough there have been singularly few such relationships in my life. Perhaps I felt my weakness, or was afraid of interfering with my public activities. My most successful relationships are of a casual variety. I suppose the reason for this failure is my incapacity to give. You mention Bapu, but I am quite sure that I have not given him anything that was valuable or worthwhile. I took much from him; what little I gave was not to him as an individual but to him as an abstraction . This is rather vague and yet it has a positive meaning. I have been and am one of those who take from individuals without giving much in return; if I give at all, it is to the group.
This inability to establish or cherish established personal relationships is brought out most poignantly in a letter to his wife written from prison when she was ill in Europe in July 1935. The full text of the letter is available in Volume VII of the Selected Works. It is highly critical of Kamla Nehru’s tentative attempts at activity in Europe by attending conferences and meetings:
You have written that in Vienna some women who were members of some organization whose task it was to advise women came to meet you. You should not act in haste in such matters. You should not undertake any such work throughout this year. Remember one more thing. In such matters you have to proceed very cautiously and after a lot of thinking. You are not conversant with the strallJe conditions that prevail in Europe and taking a wrong step can do more harm than good. It is not so essential to attend conferences nothing is taught or learnt there. It is more important that you try to understand those problems which are troubling Europe and the entire world. And remember that nothing significant can be understood quickly or without effort. One has to search a lot and undertake much trouble in order to know those things which are really worth knowing. And the more a man goes ahead, the longer the road appears to be. The process of learning and understanding can continue throughout one’s life, and should continue: The essential thing is to develop in oneself a thirst for learning l1-nd understanding which may always prod us on. One who has this thirst learns everywhere and in all conditions. One who does not have this can learn only with difficulty. The desire to do something remarkable often comes in the way of learning and understanding. Only learning before doing can enable one to walk along the right path.
It would have been excellent advice to a young student but not to the sick and ailing companion of a lifetime.
The present Anthology reprints parts of this letter which are of perennial psychological interest under the heading ‘He who rides a tiger’. In this truncated form it confuses more than it elucidates.
There is very little which a reader can complain about in respect of the catholicity and wide range of the selection. In this splendid book all the famous passages are there, including the ‘Will and Testament’ and the well-known anonymous 1937 Modern Review article critically appraising himself, ‘The Rashtrapathi’. Reading these old favourites again can bring their own fresh re-discoveries. It is with a sense of startled delight that one read again Nehru’s quotable quote, one among so many from Auden about ‘Private faces in public place’, ‘being better and nicer than ‘Public faces in private places’.
It is also interesting to note that quite a disproportionate part of the ‘Will and Testament’ is devoted to the Ganges. There is something extremely personal and not necessarily rational about Nehru’s insistence on the dominance of the female principle in the personality of India and the great Indian phenomena like the Ganges. I do not know whether he ever commented on the aggressively masculine statue of the Ganges by Bernini in the Piazza Navonna.
As in all of Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings, one of the minor pleasures is the sharing with him of his unaffected and simple good taste in English Poetry. This book contains a gem of a passage from W.B. Yeats. It is set against a background of splendidly eloquent and self-conscious prose:
I have felt sometimes extraordinary exhilarated by the sight of a sunset sky, or the deep blue patch between the monsoon clouds, or even a flower which I had missed and have suddenly seen. For a moment I have felt at one with nature.
Why does one act? Impossible to answer unless one goes down deep into the depths of the unconscious self of man, a journey which is beyond our capacity. We may at best just glimpse into those depths and return mystified. Have you seen those lovely lines by Yeats on an Irish airman?
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balance all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
Nehru was always fascinated by man’s conquest of the air. In one of the passages included here he speaks of man gradually entering the third dimension and trying to control it and utilize it both for good and for evil. It is a major event that the human being crawling about on the surface of the earth, more or less in a two-dimensional way, suddenly leaps up to the third dimension.
A.K. Damodaran is ex-civil servant, presently a Senior Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.