This is a deeply absorbing book, but not perhaps as intended. The correspondence is between two persons both of whom evoke much interest in this country. Attention is sought to be focused on Indira Gandhi, to show the influences which moulded her in her youth and how by the age of 22 she is said to have come into her own. But there is nothing in these letters to hint even faintly at the splitter of Pakistan and the imposer of the Emergency. Indira Gandhi emerges as a lonely girl heavily dependent on her parents, an average student who took little advantage of an education which provided her with the best of all possible worlds, an in-drawn person reticent about her emotions. There is no inkling in her letters of the known tension between her and her father in 1938-39. The only letter written by her in this collection which is of any real significance is that of 29 August 1934 which, for once, pulls aside the curtain of effusive Anglo-Saxon endearments and throws open the window on Kamala Nehru’s unhappiness: in Anand Bhawan during Nehru’s frequent absences.
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‘Do you know anything about what happens at home when you are absent? Do you know that when Mummie was in a very bad condition the house was full of people, but not one of them even went to see her or sit a while with her, that when she was in agony there was no one to help her?… with your release everything was changed— people flocked from all directions, came to ask about her; sat with her. … As soon as Mummie is strong enough she should be removed to any place outside Allahabad and she is sure to improve rapidly.’
These words cast a flood of light on the Nehru menage and Indira’s attitude to her close relatives: The letter as a whole stands out if only because it is the sole one of its kind.
On the other hand, Nehru’s letters, most of them published for the first time because they were located too late for inclusion in the appropriate volumes of the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, add a great deal to our understanding of the mind and character of an already much-studied personality. Nehru regarded letter-writing as a genre in itself and devoted much care and time to it.
‘What indeed are letters? Not surely just budgets of news, although they contain news. ‘Not a record of illness and birth and marriage and death and humdrum domestic happenings such as are most of the letters that people write. They are something far more; they are, or ought to be, bits of the personality of the writer, quivering shadows of the real self. They are also, or they at least endeavour to represent and to mirror, something of the personality of the person written to, for the writer is full of the person writing to.’
Over his letters to his growing daughter, especially after she lost her mother, Nehru took trouble and appears to have enjoyed writing them, as it gave him relief from other care and work. With simplicity and sincerity, he wrote of himself, his problems and his moods, of what he wished for Indira and how he would like her to shape her life but without imposing himself on her in any way. In difficult circumstances, he proved a sensitive father, trying to bring up his only child as neither spoilt nor neglected. The fact that he was perforce away in prison for long periods did not in itself worry him and he hoped that it would help her to be more self-reliant. That the pressures of home life were telling on her in his absence he knew and he gently advised her not to get hot and bothered over minor matters or to create conflict or imagine it where there was none. ‘To mope and nurse a grievance secretly is a sign of weakness and folly. It is most undignified. Discuss the matter, have it out, try to understand the other party’s viewpoint and tell him or her your own.’
Even when Indira was hardly fifteen, Nehru asked her to start thinking as to what she would like to do when she grew up. One could not merely loll through life; if one wanted to do anything it was worth doing it well and for this training was required. Indira had during these adolescent years no clear ideas on this subject; at one time she spoke of wishing to be a teacher, but there was no serious intention. So Nehru thought in terms of an education fitted to no specific purpose but planned for a future full of life and intelligence and activity so that she could distinguish herself in whichever sphere she functioned. Nehru was always careful not to thrust his own ideals on her and insisted that she should decide for herself on what would be her life-philosophy. While she had the advantage of a good hereditary background, the foreground had to be her own creation. But he did advise her that it was not good enough just to earn money, although some money had to be earned; it was far more important to do something that was worthwhile and did good to society. For this the right education was not examinations and the like but an all-round development of the human being, a harmonizing of internal conflicts and a capacity to cooperate with others, the strength to be true to what one considers to be right and the absence of fear.
In the two books of mostly impersonal letters published even at the time Nehru concentrated on the history of man, as he wanted his daughter to have the right perspective of the past and also because this topic was at that time of primary interest to him. But in the letters in this book Nehru draws Indira’s attention to many other topics for he was keen that she should develop into a cultured and interesting person, with some knowledge of the world and its problems and the capacity to fit in with any environment. She should be able to catch the attention of worthwhile people on an equal footing. For all this she should, whatever her particular bent, have some training in science, not only to understand the world she lived in but to secure a scientific outlook and apply the methods of reason and experiment in all her work. He urged her to learn a few languages without dabbling in too many of them. He sent her first to Pune and then to Shantiniketan so that she could get to know the people in various parts of India and thought of sending her thereafter to some universities in Europe, to Oxford, and even for a while to the Soviet Union.
Even so, Nehru did not forget that education was more than intellectual training and reminded Indira that holidays were not meant for hard mental work and physical life was not to be ignored. Nehru’s concern with health becomes more pronounced as Indira became increasingly prone to illness. He believed, on the basis of his own experience, that one could be aggressively fit by following some basic rules— exercise, good sleep, simple food, thereafter one should forget the body. Not to be physically fit was to him a major sin. It was rather silly to fall ill, but it was more likely if one thought too much about it. Illness only came as a rule when invited to do so. Regular mental occupation and companionship, healthy habits and surroundings were more important than doctors and tonics. With a normal, regular life and a proper state of mind, good health would come unasked.
Nehru also set out to encourage in his daughter the reading habit. Apart from his own educative letters, he chose books for her. Shaw’s St. Joan, for example, was sent to her when she was just over fifteen. Worried that she was inclined to read too fast, he suggested that she follow his own practice of summarizing worthwhile books in a note-book and writing whatever might strike or please her. ‘There is a strange magic about good literature which is wonderfully refreshing and soothing. This magic comes to us solely as we make friends with good books, and when we have begun to feel it, we have found the key to the wonder land of books. They never fail us, these friends that neither age nor change. They have been dear companions to me, especially in prison, and I have got more pleasure from books than from almost anything. There is only one other thing which is, in its own way, more magical, more wonderful, and that is music. I have always regretted my ignorance of it. How much I have missed because of this! Literature, art, music, science—all make our life rich and deep and varied. They make us live.’
Even when he had no time to read them, he liked to have books around him, for the mere sight of them gave him pleasure, standing there row after row, with the wisdom of ages locked up in them, serene and untroubled in a changing and distracted world, looking down silently on the mortals that come and go. In pure literature he normally avoided books less than fifty years old, but in other subjects he read whatever was necessary to understand the world. For the purpose of reading was to understand life with its thousand facets and to learn how to live life. Books lift us out of our narrow ruts, bring fresh vistas into view, extend our vision and bring a sense of proportion. He was particularly keen that his daughter should read widely, for he had high hopes for her; and those who cherish the thought of rising above the common head of unthinking humanity and playing a brave part in life’s journey needed the vision and sense of proportion which would keep them on the right path and steady them when storms and heavy winds bore down on them.
To all this advice Nehru expected some response. He urged Indira to write to him from time to time as to what she was thinking. He wanted her to talk to him through her letters as he was doing to her. They should be friends and not just a father and dearly loved daughter. ‘Of course you should write to me, whenever you are troubled about anything. What am I for?’ But gradually he was driven to accept that there was little communication between them even when they were together. ‘For over five months’, he wrote to her in September 1937, ‘we were together—a long enough time —and no doubt we influenced each other as we were bound to do. And yet, is it not curious that during all these months we hardly had a proper conversation, apart from our brief talks about our day-to day activities. I felt the gulf between two generations and I could not bridge it. No doubt you must have felt this way also.’ Clearly this precipitated the melancholy and weariness which peep out of the letters written between 1937 and 1939, ‘One part of me pushes out, the other tries to hide itself from the world. A Jekyll and Hyde existence.’ Public life does not excite him while the idea of sanyasa appeals. He felt that he had lost the vivid desire to live and the keen incentive that drove him to action. ‘Probably I am not a big enough man for the job that fate has thrust on me.’
Despite the one-sidedness of these letters which Nehru found so depressing, and although, unlike the Letters from a Father to his Daughter and those collected in Glimpses of World History, the letters in this volume have an informal intimacy which suggest that they were not intended for publication, it is good to have them. They contain little about politics probably because Nehru knew that they were being read by the censor. There is also curiously nothing about religion, and the omission would seem to be deliberate. Nehru was in these days a determined agnostic but his wife was not; and in the circumstances he let his daughter decide for herself with not a word from him. But otherwise his letters range widely, with many splashes of brilliance, such as the account of his response at his first sight of the Trimurti at Elephanta. These letters of Nehru are of incomparable richness.
- Gopal is Historian, author of Jawaharlal Nehru’s three-volume biography; general editor, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru project, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi.