Growing up with the Nehrus
The sparkling Mrs. Pandit of the United Nations is her mother. The enigmatic Nehru of India is her uncle. And she was close to the saintly Gandhi from her infancy. Now this brilliant young woman tells the fascinating story of how she grew up amid the politics and prison terms that marked the bitter birth of the new India
A NaYANTARA PANDET
A BONUS-LENGTH FEATURE
A ROUT THE A UTHOR
Mrs. Nayantara Pandit Sahgal is one of the three daughters of .Mrs. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, currently President of the General Assembly of the l nited Nations. For several years the Pandits lived with Jawaharlal Nehru, the widowed brother of Mrs. Pandit. and Mrs. Sahgal later became his unofficial hostess. She was with Gandhi when he died. From 1913 to 1917 she attended college in the U. S.
ONE DAY, when I was about three years old, we had chocolate cake for tea at our home in Allahabad. It was a treat, béai cause ordinarily we had bread and butter. It was a rich dark cake, chocolate through and through, with chocolate swirls on top. While we were at tea, a group of policemen arrived at the house. When my older sister Lekha asked why they had come, Mummie explained that they had come to take Papu to prison but that it was nothing to worry about, because he wanted to go. So we kissed our father good-by and watched him leave, talking cheerfulty to the policemen. We ate our chocolate cake and, in our infant minds, prison became in some mysterious way associated with chocolate cake.
It was an apt introduction to the teachings of Gandhi for, according to him, prison should have no unpleasant associations. Arrest for peaceful nonco-operation with the British rulers of India was to be voluntarily courted and imprisonment gladly accepted. As we grew older we saw that jail-going was always treated as a gala occasion, not a sombre one. It was accompanied by a great deal of laughter and congratulation and mutual back-slapping. The jail-goers were no silent sufferers but pilgrims.
Seeing our mother, father and all the family go to jail, Lekha and I and our younger sister Rita longed (o be old enough to go too. Prison life (as Lekha discovered later) was no happy experience, with the political prisoners interned with thieves, murderers, other desperate lawbreakers and even sometimes lepers, but that was all part of the crusade and nobody complained.
With us, political awareness was the most important influence in our lives. We were born and grew up at a time when India had come under the leadership of Gandhi and was maturing to nationhood under his guidance. To us, India’s fight for freedom and all that it symbolized in the way of valor and idealism was represented by our mother’s brother, Jawaharlal Nehru (whom we called Mamu) who had guided the political destiny of our family toward Gandhi. It was Mamu, among the first to respond to Gandhi’s call when he came to India from South Africa in 1916, who influenced our grandfather, Motilal, to join his ranks.
The Indian National Congress, a party which had been started in the late nineteenth century as a “loyal opposition to His Majesty’s Government,” became after the end of World War I a rebel organization having as its ultimate goal the independence of India. Gandhi himself was never a member of it, but it soon became the instrument through which he was to carry on his novel and startling method
After his assassination in 19 18 Gandhi’s body burns on a funeral pyre. A mourner takes souvenir ashes.
of non-violent warfare. When Gandhi inaugurated his first jail-going campaign, calling upon Indians openly to defy certain repressive measures launched in India after the war—and by so doing deliberately to court arrest—it was Mamu who threw in his lot with him, eventually convincing his father to do the same.
Mamu’s example had fired the imagination of the Nehru household, and so it was natural that our father Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, when he married Mummie in 1921, should have been drawn into the same fever. Papu’s father, Sitaram Pandit, had been in many ways Gandhi’s guru—that is, his teacher and guide. So the stream which bore us toward Gandhi came from two sources.
We are truly the children of Gandhi’s India. Our
growing up was India’s growing up into political maturity a different kind of political maturity from any that the world had seen before, based on an ideology inspired by self-sacrifice, compassion and peace. The influence of these strange politics wove into our lives a pattern of unique enchantment. Enchantment? The word may sound incongruous when one recalls that our parents had to spend a great deal of their time away from us, either at work or in prison. But that again was part of Gandhi’s magic. We learned to take pride in our parents’ contribution to the struggle and to feel that it was our own.
I still remember clearly the first time we visited Mummie in prison. : he was in the Lucknow District Jail, and because we were very young children we were allowed to go into her barrack instead of seeing her in the superintendent’s office. The barrack was long and narrow with a row of crude beds. There were a number of women there, all wearing coarse khadi, the homespun cloth sponsored by Gandhi. Mummie emerged from among them, dressed in the same way. The scene left an imprint of ugliness on my mind.
We had always associated our mother with the ordered beauty of home. We were used to seeing her early in the morning on the veranda where she would be down on her knees among freshly cut roses, arranging them with care in the vases arrayed before her. We were used to hearing her silvery laugh float out from the drawing-room on evenings when there were parties in the house. We were used to hearing strangers exclaim, “Is that your mother? Isn’t she lovely!” How unfair, it seemed to us, that she of all people should have to go through this ordeal.
Another memory concerns Lekha, aged seven, being taken by Papú to a boarding school in Poona where she was to stay when he and Mummie went to jail soon afterward. Lekha sat in the train clutching a long pole from which waved the Congress flag.
“Why are you holding that large flag, darling? You’ll get tired,” said M ummie.
Lekha blinked back big tears, and smiled jauntily, “Oh no, Mummie. You see, it’s to frighten the police away with.”
The first time we Pandit girls took an active part in the crusade came in August 1942 when the Congress Party —which had earlier decided on non-cooperation with the British in running the war — now decided to issue its demand that the British quit India. The members of the Congress Working Committee were arrested in Bombay the night before the decision was made public and, with other nationalist leaders, were held without trial, some of them for as long as three years.
Students and citizens organized peaceful processions and public meetings in Allahabad and Lekha, Rita, and I marched in the processions and attended the gatherings.
Mummie sat at home torn with anxiety for our safety, because at times the police fired to disperse the crowds. Mothers of young men and women came to upbraid her for her influence over their children.
“If it hadn’t been for you, my son would not have gone to the meeting yesterday and been arrested,” cried an angry and distraught woman.
“We are all in it together,” said Mummie quietly.
Her moment of supreme courage came when she was given the news that two processions had been fired upon and several people had been injured, including one of her daughters. She left the house to go to one of the processions.
“But, Mataji (mother), you are going the wrong way. Your children are in the other procession,” said the messenger who had brought the news.
“These are my children too,” she replied, and calmly went her way.
it was not until she returned home late that evening, after taking the wounded boys to a hospital and going to their parents’ homes to break the news, that she discovered that we were safe and had not been injured during the firing.
Soon word came that the police were coming to our house to search for “seditious literature.” The literature was labeled seditious because it was written by the Congress Party office. Actually these pamphlets contained urgent appeals to the people not to indulge in violence of any kind. Mummie, one of the few influential people still out of jail, felt responsible for the distribution.
She had hidden the pamphlets under our mattresses, and told us to pretend to be asleep. When the police arrived she met them on the front veranda in lier dressing gown.
The chief was a tall young man whose family Mummie knew well. Embarrassed at his mission he said, “We have received information that you have seditious literature in the house. We would like to search.”
Mummie gave him a charming smile. “Well, I did have some, hut if you mean this,” and she drew a crumpled pamphlet out of her pocket, “I’m afraid you are a little late. The pamphlets were distributed several hours ago.”
It was a gamble, but it worked. “Oh, well, in that case,” the chief muttered, “we won’t waste our time.”
Soon after he left the pamphlets were actually distributed. It was not easy, because in those days the house and garden were guarded day and night by men from the Criminal Investigation Department. Mummie was arrested a few days later and, though we had been expecting her arrest for weeks, never had we imagined that it would take place as it did.
The Urchins Were Whipped
At 2 a.m. one hot August night seven truckloads of armed policemen drove up to our house to take Mummie to prison. Mummie woke us up, and we helped her throw a few belongings into a small suitcase before going out to the front to say good-by to her. It was an incongruous situation. Rows of khakiclad men and seven military lorries waited in grim silence in the dead of night to take away one defenseless woman whose creed was non-violence.
But, in spite of all these measures, once more the air rang with cries of Inqualab Zindabad (Long Live Revolution) as it had done from time to time during the past twenty years. Once more little urchins who waved the orange, white and green tricolor of the Congress were taken to the local police station and whipped. But still little hoys waved paper flags and shouted slogans in their shrill voices, for had they not been bred in defiance? On the very same street outside our house where they shouted, their fathers had been made to crawl on their bellies if a white sahib was passing by.
I remembered Mummie’s eyes sparkling with pride as she told us: “Do you know what the authorities here used to say? They said, ‘These damned Nehrus. If we could break them, it would be easy to deal with the rest.’ ”
Thinking back now, the violent days of protest marches and arrests contrast strangely with the time when Papu was still practicing law, when he anti Mummie lived and entertained like any wealthy young couple.
Their party nights were gala nights for us, for we would creep into the kitchen and demand some of the party food from our inseparable companion, Buddhi, the cook. Hot kebabs of finely ground meat blended with crushed ginger, cardamum, cloves, and red chilies; flaky golden sarnosas, their pastrylike shells stuffed with peas and new potatoes or tender pieces of cauliflower; steaming, fragrant, saffron - flavored rice, each long grain separate from the others, flecked with peeled white almonds; meat tender on its bone, cooked in rich gravy, dripping with spices; a trayful of small round earthenware bowls of kheer, made of rice boiled with sugar in creamy buffalo’s milk and allowed to thicken. The kitchen was redolent with the pungent odors of Kashmiri cooking.
On the kitchen table were laid out the shining trays and bowls of highly polished silver, in which the food was to be served. After dinner pan would be served to the guests, each shiny green heart-shaped leaf of betel smeared with the paste of lime and betel nut, sprinkled with shreds of areka nut and the tiny black seeds of cardamum, and folded into a neat little cone.
Sometimes, though not often, Mamu came to these parties. Once at a breakfast party he mortified Mummie by first calling her chief guest Mrs. Hopeful, and then making matters worse by calling her Mrs. Hopeless, when the woman’s name was Mrs. Hopewell.
When Mummie put her hand to the most ordinary meal, it became a banquet. She continues to be a genius at whipping up miraculous meals out of nothing, at arranging flowers, at interior decoration and all the things that make a house a home. Even now that she’s president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, she continues to be the most feminine woman 1 have ever met, with the time and inclination to look fresh and lovely, no matter how heavy her work.
Since Allahabad was one of the centres of the national movement, it was natural that the Nehru home where we lived should be the hub of political activity. The library was used for political meetings. We children watched people arrive and leave from between the rails of the bannisters. Often the only way we could hear the arguments taking place in the library was by climbing the staircase to the roof, and peering down at the select gathering through one of the blue-glass skylights.
My mother was hostess for her widowed brother and whenever a meeting was in session she would ask the members to stay on for lunch or tea. The reply was always, “No, thank you so much, but we have to leave immediately after the meeting.” Invariably they stayed. Sometimes when five people had been expected for lunch, twenty-five would stroll into the dining room. It would then transpire that three were vegetarians of the egg-eating variety, and two of the non-egg-eating variety. One or two did not touch meat or eggs on Wednesdays, or whichever day of the week it happened to be, and
at least one gentleman was on a purefruit diet. They would sit down, cheerfully unconcerned, protesting that they would not eat anything, sweet-tempered, jovial, hungry. High good humor reigned while hurried last-minute preparations were being made in the pantry. Mummie’s ingenuity never failed to astonish us.
We never saw her use a spoon, or cup, or any other measure. She poured, sprinkled, mixed and tossed, deftly and smoothly, with an Indian woman’s instinctive sense of proportion and disdain for recipes and instructions. Afterward she would wash her hands and calmly join the others in the dining room, to coax more food upon them in the traditional Indian manner.
Occasionally the strain would be too much for Mummie, and she would moan, “If only someone would tell me whether there will be five people or fifty!”
A Note to the Premier
On one particularly harassing day I had gone to Mummie’s room in search of a book. I found her door locked, which was very unusual. I soon saw a small white card pinned to the door, with a message written on it in bold black ink: “This is to inform the public that Mrs. Pandit passed away quietly after tea. No wreaths by request.”
But she could always handle any crisis, whether it was a bitter conflict at the United Nations or such a matter as a serious lack of waste-paper baskets. The latter incident occurred soon after Mummie was appointed a minister of the United Provinces Cabinet in 1937. She had been given the portfolio of health. All over India newspapers and magazines flashed her picture, beautiful and black-haired, the first Indian woman to become a cabinet minister and one of the first women in the world to hold such a position.
On my first visit to the secretariat, exploring a corridor in search of a waste-paper basket in which to throw a chocolate wrapping, I could not find one. I made my way to Mummie’s office and complained about it.
“This is rather a serious matter,” she agreed. “Why don’t you write a note to the Premier about it?”
I penned a hesitant complaint to Premier Pandit Govind Vallabh Pant, requesting that bins be installed in the corridors of the secretariat. J was jubilant when my request was granted.
The name of Vijaya Lakshmi became a legend in the villages of the United Provinces and many babies were named after my mother. She became enormously popular.
Letters poured into her office in their thousands. Sometimes they were pathetically urgent in their need for help, and confusedly began: “Dear Sister:
You are my father and my mother. If you cannot help me, no one can.”
To everyone in the UP it was a matter of personal pride and triumph that Mummie had risen as she had. But to them her achievement was a natural thing, and no more than they expected of the daughter of Motilal Nehru. Yet so new was the concept of a woman minister, a woman touring choleraridden districts and famine areas and doing work that no woman had ever done before, that some were still unconvinced that it was true. During one of her speeches, a grizzled old peasant wagged his head in wonder and remarked to his neighbor, “It is true— she really is a woman!”
My father was a Sanskrit scholar who translated a number of the classics into English, and a gifted linguist who spoke several European and Indian languages. But he was far from having the scholar’s retiring temperament. He loved to swim, ride and shoot, and gardening was one of his favorite occupations. Often when serving prison sentences he planted flowers in the jail courtyard. He was eminently unsuited to a political career, but he felt that he could not with a clear conscience devote himself to an academic life.
He firmly believed that girls should have essentially the same type of upbringing as boys. In a country where the education, opportunities and freedom given to boys is far greater than that allowed to girls, his was a rare attitude.
With his keenly poetic nature, it was he who chose our names. Lekha’s name was really Chandralekha, meaning “the crescent moon.” My name is Nayantara, which means “star of the eyes.” I was named after Papu’s first client, a woman whose case he argued and won. Rita’s name (pronounced “Ritta” with the t’ssoft) means “truth” in Sanskrit.
Rita was dissatisfied because she wanted to have a long name like ours. On a visit to Kashmir when she was four she heard that the Kashmiris call the Jhelum River the Vitasta. “I want Vitasta to be my second name,” she announced.
“That is an excellent idea,” Papu agreed, and ever since then her name has been Rita Vitasta.
At home Papu once read to us from a book called Paul Robeson, Negro, written by his wife. “Why does she call it Paul Robeson, Negro?” I asked. “Everybody knows he’s a Negro.” “Because she is proud of the fact,” said Papu. “There are places in America and South Africa and other parts of the world where a man is looked down on if he has a dark skin. He is made to feel ashamed of it. So Mrs. Robeson wants to emphasize the fact that her husband is a Negro and proud to be one.”
“How silly to hate somebody because he’s dark,” murmured Rita, aged eight, admiring her own pretty complexion in the mirror on the opposite wall. “1 wish my own were darker, then the dirt wouldn’t show on my face, and I wouldn’t have to wash so often.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Papu smiled.
On hearing the news of Papu’s death after a term of imprisonment, Gandhi sent a beautiful message to my mother:
People will come to condole with you, but I shall not sorrow for you. How dare I pity you? One does not sorrow for the daughter of a cour-
ageous father, the sister of a courageous brother, the wife of a courageous husband. You will find your
courage within yourself.
My father’s family, the Pandits, were a respected family in their native Ratnagiri. Our great-grandmother, Gopika, fulfilled the loftiest of blessings showered upon a Hindu bride at her marriage: she was the mother of eight sons and five daughters. She was the last woman in her village to perform Sati and a shrine has since been dedicated to her memory. This was the ancient rite in which a widow burned herself on the funeral pyre of her husband.
Allahabad, our home, has changed now, become shabby and uncared for, but in our childhood it was a serene city of gracious homes and well-kept gardens. Mummie grew up here, in Anand Bhawan (Abode of Happiness), the beautiful home of the Nehrus. She was brought up in the care of an English governess, and educated at home by private tutors.
After my grandfather, Motilal Nehru, whom we called Nanuji, gave up his fabulous law practice to join the national movement, he gave his grand home, as he had already given his time, his fortune and himself, to the nation, and Anand Bhawan was used partly for Congress Party offices and partly as a free medical dispensary; but three quarters of the enormous house lay empty and unused. The indoor swimming pool which had been the first private pool in Allahabad was left to gather dust and cobwebs. Nanuji built a smaller house across the road and this became our home in 1935 when we went to live with our uncle.
The Crowds Loved Him
Not a day went by without crowds of people streaming in at all hours of the day to see the home of the Nehrus, the house that Motilal had built and Jawaharlal lived in, to slide loving hands across the smooth floors and pillars of the veranda and, when Mamu was at home, to shout loyal slogans until he had to come out and, with folded palms, acknowledge their greeting.
The watchman employed to steer the crowds had never been able to devise any argument to convince people that they must confine their sightseeing to the outside of the building. And often when we were eating or sleeping, curious visitors would appear in the rooms.
One afternoon I was lying on a divan in the drawing-room. It was a hot day and the whirring fan had lulled me to sleep. Suddenly a peculiar noise entered my consciousness and by the time I was fully awake its rhythmicbeat had turned to thundering cries of Panditji hi jai! (Victory to Nehru). I got up and peeped out through the window. I saw men, women and children clambering eagerly onto the verandas.
They did not stop roaring till Mamu came downstairs and spoke to them, his usually grave face lit up by his radiant smile, his low voice asking quiet interested questions, making humorous remarks, laughing with them; till, listening behind the window, I had a queer sensation. All at once 1 became one of those anonymous faces outside gazing with complete belief and affection at the man who stood before them. The little girl behind the window was on the wrong side of it. She should have been out in the garden with those others with whom she felt a strange and sudden kinship. It was a miraculous accident that she lived in the house with Jawaharlal, accident that he played with her, and that she called him her uncle. When I was a little girl of ten, Mama made a speech which so impressed me that I learned it by heart:
Wherever in this wide world there goes an Indian, there goes a piece of India with him, and he may not forget this fact or ignore it. It lies within his power, to some extent, to bring credit or discredit to his country. honor or dishonor . . .
He had always been our uncontested hero and we could not tolerate the slightest criticism of him. Time and again I fiercely defended him against my father’s teasing remarks. “Look at your Mamu,” Papu would say. “He chases all over India like a man possessed, telling people to grow more food, but I’m the one who stays home and grows it. That is the difference between the man of words and the man of action.”
Each time Mamu came to visit in those early days he would organize some new game or activity for us. Sometimes we would form a procession, with Rita leading, because she was the youngest, and Lekha, Mamu, and I following in order of our ages. Around the house we would march, waving Congress flags and singing national songs in loud voices.
Often we four conspirators upset the decorum of the drawing-room when there were guests present. “Now we will stand on our heads,” Mamu would announce, and one by one he would tip us upside down.
One rainy night after dinner at Anand Bhawan, Mamu took us up to the library with him and we took from its shelf an enormous dusty book of his Harrow school songs. Together we sang the fag song, Jerry, You Duffer and Dunce, and then, When Grandpapa’s Grandpapa was in the Lower Lower First. There were two large pictures of Mamu there, taken while he was at Harrow, one of them showing a solemn-faced fourteen-year-old boy dressed in the smart outfit of the Harrow Rifle Corps.
Once I twisted my ankle running down the stairs at Anand Bhawan. Mummie was rushing about helplessly with a bandage in one hand and a bottle of ointment in the other, when Mamu arrived on the scene.
“What are you doing?” he enquired coldly.
“Well, she’s twisted her ankle, and something ought to be done about it,” said Mummie vaguely.
Mamu told me to follow him. With me hobbling behind he stalked upstairs to his bathroom. On his shelves stood an impressive array of bottles and jars. He selected a magnificent-looking bottle with a red and black label and the letters P.K.L. written across it.
“What d’you think of that!” he asked triumphantly, showing me the bottle.
“What does it mean?” I asked., impressed by the lovely colors.
Mamu read from the label, “Pain Killing Liniment: Every Drop Kills
He applied some of it to my ankle, and tied an expert bandage. 1 forgot about the pain, and hopped downstairs elatedly to show Rita my beautifully bandaged foot.
When Mamu was in Allahabad the row of cane chairs on the semicircular veranda in front of the house was occupied all day long by visitors waiting to interview him. Yet he still found snatches of time to play with us and answer our many questions.
On waking in the morning we would sometimes join Mamu in his room to watch him do his yogi exercises, and often to learn to do them with him. Standing on his head was a regular
favorite with him and he felt that, apart from being a healthy exercise, the topsy-turvy position was a good way of viewing the world bright and early in the day. His breakfast was a hearty one of eggs and toast and coffee—hearty, that is, in a family where fruit and tea was the normal breakfast.
“What is all this ‘cup of tea’ nonsense?” he would scold my mother. “How can you do a day’s work on a cup of tea?”
Sometimes, especially during the monsoon when the steady downpour
of rain prevented us from going outof-doors, Mamu would come upon us in the library. He would want to know what we were reading and why.
“What’s that you’re reading?” he asked me once.
I showed him Andre Maurois’ Byron.
“1 have a link with Byron,” said Mamu. “We went to the same school and college, Harrow and Trinity College, Cambridge.”
“He must have been a wonderful man,” I marveled. “1 would love to have known him, wouldn’t you?”
“No,” replied Mamu emphat ically, “ 1
don’t think so. I find it difficult to like him. He was so amazingly selfish and self-centred. If you like Maurois, you ought to read his Ariel. It is a much bet ter book and Shelley is, I think, a far more lovable and admirable character than Byron. ’ He found Ariel on the bookshelves and brought it to me.
“Mamu, don’t you get sick and tired of traveling around t he country?” enquired Rita solicitously.
Mamu joined us on the floor. “Tired, but not sick,” he corrected with his usual insistence on accuracy. “Yes, 1 do get tired sometimes.”
‘T wonder if life will ever he normal,” Lekha sighed, “and you and Mummie and Papu and all of us will he able to live like other people.”
“Normal?” Mamu repeated, savoring the word as though it were as foreign to his vocabulary as it was to his life. “The fact is that we live in an upside-down world, darling, and it’s no use expecting life to be easy. It is not a simple matter adjusting to such a world, especially for those who are sensitive. It is not normal for most of us to spend our lives in prison cut off from our families and dear ones. It certainly should not be normal for intelligent human beings to spend all their time and energy killing each other off, as they are doing all over the world. It isn’t normal either for some people to starve and others to get indigestion through over-eating. All this is very abnormal and wrong but it is happening.”
“That’s just what is so discouraging,” said Lekha.
“But there is an advantage to living in abnormal times,” Mamu went on. “Such times open up all sorts of new avenues to a human being. There is adventure in living in abnormal times, so you must treat circumstances as an invitation to action.”
“I wish we could do something really important to help you, Mamu,” said Bita earnestly. “All we do is go to school and have lessons and horrid things like that.”
Mamu laughed. “Those are just the things which will fit you for the future,” he said. “They will give you a body that is strong, a mind that is as keen as the edge of a sword, and a character that is firm and steadfast and dedicated to high ideals. These are all things I want you to have. ’There is so much work to be done, and before you know it it will be your turn to shoulder the burden.”
“Do you believe in God, Mamu?” I asked.
Open the Mind’s Windows
“Now that is a very difficult question to answer,” he said thoughtfully. “It all depends on what you mean by God. Words are tricky things and people use them in different senses. Then they argue quite needlessly and get hot and bothered. I could write a book on my own views on the subject of God, but if you are interested in my opinion why don’t you read the chapter on religion in my book, Glimpses of World History. It doesn’t say much, but it will give you an idea.”
“One should believe in something shouldn’t one?” suggested Lekha vaguely. “1 mean, one should not go through life feeling that nothing matters except oneself.”
“That is very true,” Mamu agreed, “and it is important to know what to believe and what not to believe. But it is always better to think out things for oneself and arrive at one’s own conclusions than to keep a closed mind and accept blindly what other people say. We should take the help of others, but unless we find our own way we can’t go very far. The main thing is to keep all the windows of our minds open. The mind, you know, is the greatest thing man possesses. People who don’t use their minds hardly deserve the name of human beings. Of course, our minds cannot solve all our problems, but they can help us toward a solution.”
“It’s very hard,” I commented, “to decide on one’s own what is right and wrong, and what to believe. One could just go on thinking about it, and never settle down to doing anything.”
“Yes, it is hard, and decision is a
serious responsibility, but in thinking about all these problems one should not get lost in speculation. That would serve no purpose at all. There is a big enough job to do in this world to understand our fellow creatures and work for their betterment. One should never lose sight of this. And now, isn’t it teatime for my philosophers?”
As though in response to a cue a servant shuffled into the room cackling gleefully that tea was ready downstairs.
There was a. continual stream of celebrities from abroad staying with us, and my sisters and I particularly remember two of them. One was Mrs. Margaret Sanger, who had corre to India in connection with her “family limitation” program. During the snatches of conversation we heard now and then, Bita must have pieced together several bits of information. When we came to say good night to Mrs. Sanger one evening, Rita piped, “Don’t you think we’re an awfully well-spaced family?” Mrs. Sanger was highly amused.
Sir Stafford Cripps, who had stayed with us before, came to India again in 1942. Politically, the house was buzzing with speculation on the outcome of his mission. Domestically it was astir with preparations for our cousin Indira’s marriage. ’There could have been no more strange combination. Indira, with the wedding on her mind, offered Sir Stafford “potato cripps” at dinner instead of potato chips!
My sisters and I, like our parents, wore clothes made of khadi—Ehe homespun badge of every patriotic Indian. In the evenings when we went out for walks we also wore little Gandhi caps. Naturally we looked conspicuously different from the children we met and played with in the park, and Lekha did not like it. One day she came home crying saying she would never wear a Gandhi cap again because some English children had laughed at her.
“Why can’t l wear hats like they do?” she demanded tearfully.
Mummie tried to explain the significance of the Gandhi cap, telling her t hat she should be proud to wear it.
“But you need not wear it if you don’t want to,” she ended. “What do you think about it?” she asked, turning to me.
“Let them laugh,” I scowled, my five-year-old temper rising. “I’m not going to take mine off. If Mamu can go to jail because of it, 1 can keep mine on my head.”
Mummie looked a little startled at my vehemence, but it convinced Lekha, and she decided she would continue to wear hers, too.
For a family like the Nehrus, accustomed to extravagant living, the sudden switch to support of Gandhi’s homespun campaign meant a complete revolution not only in dress, but in living and thinking habits. My grandfather Motilal frequently bought his children’s clothes in the most fashionable shops in London and Paris. His own clothes, too, were in elegant and impeccable taste, giving rise to the legend that he had his clothes laundered in Paris. This was, of course, untrue, but it was in keeping with the magnificent scale on which he lived.
When he joined Gandhi he made a huge bonfire of all his family’s foreign apparel, pledging himself to wear only
homespun and to use only Indian-made articles in his home from that day. The Nehru household had always maintained both a European and an Indian cuisine and a cellar of distinction. With the onset of the non-co-operation movement, the two cuisines were reduced to one and the cellar abolished altogether, for teetotal ism was another of Gandhi’s tenets. The vast retinue of servants was cut down, and my grandfather sold his horses and much of his treasured china and crystal.
To understand how it happened that a man with an epicure’s enjoyment of
life could at sixty give up overnight the luxury in which he had always indulged and, following his son, could undergo a complete conversion of his entire mode of living, is to understand a fraction of the mind of a nation bewitched by Gandhi.
I did not like Gandhi when I first met him. I was four years old when he was in Allahabad staying at my uncle’s home. I remember toiling up the stairs to the open veranda where his prayer meetings were held. In one perspiring fist I clutched a bouquet of red roses.
“Now remember to give the flowers to Bapu,” my mother coached me, using the name by which Gandhiji was known to his followers—in India it is a mark of respect to add “ji” to a man’s name.
I thought she meant Papú, my father, and ran up to him with the bouquet. Mummie pulled me toward the little man sitting on the floor, leaning against a white bolster.
“But he’s ugly,” I objected loudly, “I don’t want to give them to him.”
I stubbornly clutched my roses and scowled at him. Bapu gave his gleeful laugh and lightly slapped my cheek, which was his way of showing affection, and remarked that he hoped I would always be as honest. I backed away from him, and went to sit near my father. I did not enjoy that prayer meeting. My foot went to sleep and I fidgeted endlessly.
“Why does Bapu wear so few clothes?” I once asked my father.
“Because most people in India have very little to wear and he feels that by living and dressing as they do he will be nearer to them and understand them better.”
“But he didn’t always dress this way, did he?”
“Certainly not,” laughed Papu. “When I was a little boy I remember Bapu coming to my father’s house in Rajkot in a frock coat and a top hat. He had a mustache too in those days.”
I could not picture the slight bony Bapu of the loin cloth, whom I knew, as the dapper young lawyer, Mr. Gandhi.
Snooty About Garlic
Each visit of Gandhiji’s was a novel and indescribable experience. However often one saw him, or watched the crowds react to him, one could not believe that such a phenomenon was possible. Whenever he was a paasenger on a train it was stopped before it reached the station platform. This was done to prevent the waiting crowds from besieging his compartment. But it never succeeded. An eager mob always managed to reach him, stampeding across the railway lines.
His diet was very simple and garlic was an essential part of it. Once 1 took some garlic up to his room in a saucer held at arm’s length in an effort not to smell it.
Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, one of Gandhi’s earliest disciples, saw me and chuckled, “Don’t be so snooty, young lady. You should eat some of that yourself, if you want to have a gorgeous complexion like the old man has when you’re his age.”
Gandhi may have been a saint and a Mahatma to his countless adorers, but to Mrs. Naidu he was “the old man” and “the chocolate-colored Mickey Mouse.” It was a refreshingly sane attitude in an environment often pervaded by sentimentality and cloying devotion.
Prayer meetings were a regular feature of Gandhi’s day. The outstanding fact about them was their universal character. At each meeting, besides readings from the Bhagavad-Gita and the singing of Hindu hymns, excerpts were also read from the Koran, the Santsahitya (the holy book of the Sikhs), and the Bible. Among his favorite Christian hymns was Lead Kindly Light. People of all faiths attended his gatherings making them the nucleus of a universal brotherhood.
When Bapu came to Allahabad in 1941 his evening prayers were held on the front lawn at Anand Bhawan beside the fountain on which a circle of white marble fish spouted jets of water into the air.
Reading from the Gita began, and those who had brought their Gitas with them opened to the selected passage.
I listened absorbed for, though the words were Sanskrit, the verses were well-known. They were the essence of the Gita’s teaching, and the part of it which best applied to Bapu’s own life:
Thy business is with the action only, never with its fruits; so let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor be thou to inaction attached.
Perform action . . . dwelling in union with the divine, renouncing attachments and balanced evenly in success and failure . . .
1 sat cross-legged on the carpet holding a tanpura—a kind of cello —against me, listening to the strains of Abide With Me float through the garden, waiting for my turn to sing. The lawn had become a blur of brown and white, the brown faces of men and women dark against the white of their clothes.
It was my turn and 1 was so nervous that my fingers trembled as 1 plucked the strings, but Bapu’s kind eyes looked reassuringly at me as 1 started to sing. My hymn resembled a psalm of the Old Testament: “Lord, without thy
help how will my boat cross this stream? . . .”
I am often asked: “What was so
wonderful about Gandhi, anyway? How has he influenced your country and your family?”
It’s like being asked, “Tell us how you’ve felt about everything since you were born.” For since we were born Gandhi’s influence has been there, affecting our parents’ lives and, through them, our lives. Rveryone who came | under the spell of Gandhi was overj come by him and drawn into his way of thinking.
He did not change the face of India but in her sleeping heart he stirred a strange longing. The humble people with whom Gandhi came into contact every day felt it, for they turned to him more and more in their troubles. To them he was no imposing leader, but a loved brother, one of themselves.
People in every section of society felt the stir. Some made fun of him and treated him as a joke. Some spoke of him with respect, but with a feeling of relief that they themselves were “well out of it, thank God. Still others spoke of him with a faint uneasiness, their consciences urging (hem to throw in their lot with him, their common sense holding them back.
When my grandfather was reflecting whether he should give up his practice at the bar in order to join Gandhi, his common sense dictated that he adhere to it. “Your movement needs money,” he counseled Gandhi, “Let me continue my practice, and help you financially.”
“It’s you I want,” said Gandhi, “not your money.”
A new outlook arose, an outlook indifferent to material welfare, proud of its austerity and asceticism. Those among our acquaintances who did not subscribe to this outlook could not cease to be* amazed by it. l’hey felt that by harboring such an attitude our parents had jeopardized our entire future.
“It would be different if you had sons,” said a worried relative to my father. “Sons could go their own way and earn their own living. But you liave daughters, each one of whom has to be married. What will you give them when they marry? What will you give their husbands?”
“Give them?” Papu repeated. “I have, I hope, given my daughters an imperishable set of values which will last them all their lives. As for their Husbands, if there are any men good enough for them they can be thankful
that they will marry my daughters. 1 have nothing more precious to give.” A few months before Gandhi was assassinated I accompanied Jawaharlal Nehru on his daily visit to Birla House in Delhi where Gandhi was staying. 1 had not seen Bapu for several years. We went to a room at the end of a corridor where he was seated on a mat on the floor with a number of people around him. 1 took my shoes off at the door and on entering touched Bapu’s feet. 1 felt a smart slap on my cheek as he pulled me down beside him and I heard his chuckle of laugh-
ter, so infectious that it brought smiles to the faces of the others in the room.
“So!” he said in Hindi, his eyes twinkling. “What are you going to do now? Not too grown up to talk to me about it, 1 hope?”
“1 want to talk to you, Bapu,” 1 said earnestly, “when you are not too busy.”
“Busy? I am never too busy. Let me know when you are coming.”
In the clamor that was Delhi in 1947 Bapu remained a sanctuary of calm thought. During riots which had broken out in some parts of India
both before and after the Partition, he had, whenever he could, gone fearlessly among the rioters exhorting them to give up their madness. Now he was back in Delhi holding prayer meetings in the garden of Birla House every evening.
To those who listened they were unlike any talks they had heard before, for Bapu thought out loud rather than spoke. He was not a politician. He was not afraid to change his mind or to contradict himself if he believed he had made a mistake. And, as always, his concern was with the suffering of his fellow men and how he could best alleviate it.
My own reaction was awe mingled with reverence. Could it be true that a man could talk of love and truth and goodness and apply those religious terms to politics and not be laughed at? Could it be true that such sentiments could actually guide a nation’s policy? Yet in India all these things were true. I felt wonderfully elated thatI was an Indian in Gandhi’s India.
The bist lime 1 spoke to Gandhiji was on a lovely January afternoon in 1948. With two of my cousins and
two other friends we went to call on Bapu in his garden in Delhi. We found him enjoying a sunbath. He was in a carefree mood and we spent a happy hour with him, teasing him for taking such excellent care of himself and availing himself of Vitamin D whenever he had the chance.
As we were leaving him he remarked, “It is good you came to see me today, because the next time you see me will be in a crowd.”
Wasn’t Bapu always in a crowd? This casual remark gave us no premonition that we would never again
see him alive. We never did.
Will anyone ever understand the reason why Gandhi was shot? Who stood to gain by his death? Not the assassin, because he was caught, tried and eventually hanged. Not the enemies of Gandhi’s teachings because his death threw the searchlight on his message more powerfully than ever before. In his lifetime he had been called a saint. His martyrdom crowned him with an even more glorious immortality.
My cousin Indira and I were having tea at home on the evening of Jan. 30,
1948, when we were summoned to Birla House by an urgent telephone call which said that Gandhi had been shot on his way to a prayer meeting. Shock numbed us as we got into the car and hurried to him; the others, his relatives and followers gathered around his body in his room at Birla House seemed to be affected the same way. There was silence in the room as Gandhi breathed his last.
Mamu received the news at a meeting and arrived at the scene soon after us. I do not think he realized that Gandhi had passed away as he strode into the room tense with anxiety. I do not think he believed that Gandhi could die so suddenly, so wordlessly, leaving him alone at the time when he needed his advice and help more than ever before. The group of people in the room who had stood aside to let Mamu stride in, watched without a sound as he knelt beside the beloved body and forgot himself in his grief for a brief moment.
But what had happened was too colossal to permit the luxury of grief. When Mamu rose to his feet he had regained complete self-control, and through the ordeal of loneliness and personal loss which was to follow in the days to come he was never again to show a vestige of it.
Mrs. Naidu arrived the next morning from the United Provinces where she was now Governor. Her face was haggard and her eyes glassy with unshed tears, but her spirit was as indomitable as ever.
“What is all the snivelling about?” she demanded harshly “Would you rather he had died of decrepit old age or indigestion? This was the only death great enough for him.”
A Prime Minister’s Home
Gandhi’s funeral took place the day after his death and hours in advance thousands upon thousands of people lined the route. The procession left Birla House in the morning. It was evening when it reached the cremation ground, a distance of about three miles.
As the flames of the funeral pyre consumed Bapu’s body we sat around it at some distance on the ground. Members of the diplomatic corps were there, and in front of them all the Earl and Countess Mounthatten, seated cross-legged on the ground like the rest of us. Gandhi had inspired heartfelt homage from the people whose government had so often made a prisoner of him.
After the ashes were immersed in the Ganges at Allahabad it seemed to me that Mamu’s devotion to his work was almost religious in nature, though he did not like the word religion and did not consider that it could ever apply to him. His face took on a spiritual transparency, like that of a monk’s.
With Mummie in New York as India’s permanent delegate to the UN, I was again living with Mamu, the fun-loving Mamu who had once delighted in standing us on our heads in the drawing-room. But now he was Prime Minister of India, and I was a woman of twenty. I slipped into the job of trying to make Mamu’s house a home for him.
The day was dominated by Mamu’s program. In the morning crowds of homeless refugees, the legacy of the Partition, swarmed around the house seeking to voice their complaints to him. Listening to them was the first item on Mamu’s schedule. Lunch was usually a late and hurried meal. There were frequently people waiting to see Mamu even during that short interval and quite often they stayed on to eat. This, at least, was not very different from the old days. One memorable evening I went with Mamu and my cousin Indira to dine at Government House. During the first year of freedom, the Government of India was headed by a governorgeneral who, though British, worked in co-operation with an Indian prime minister and his cabinet.
We were the only guests to dinner and as we waited in one of the huge drawing-rooms I wondered at all the magnificence which the British rulers of India had carved out for themselves. Bui before I had had time to dwell on it, a trim aide-de-camp announced the Earl and Countess Mountbatten. -1 saw two tall attractive people enter the room and my first impression was what a regal-looking pair they made and how well the splendor of the room became them.
No sooner were they beside us, however, than a subtle transformation took place. They were no longer the Governor-General and his Lady, the last of a haughty procession of viceroys and vicereines who had governed India j for two hundred years. They were a host and hostess of infinite charm.
I recalled Mummies remark that the Mountbattens were unlike any former ' occupants of Government House. They ¡ had dropped in to see Mamu informally one evening and had eaten strawberry ice cream out on the lawn. They had inaugurated the custom of throwing open the grounds of Government House once a week to the general public.
Charm is a byword among the Nehrus. Yet here was charm to match theirs. It wove through the Mountbattens’ conversation a quality of warmth and sympathy, making them instantly likable.
At dinner I was so engrossed in the conversation I did not realize that dessert had been placed before us and that our host and hostess, Mamu and Indira had risen to their feet to toast the King. Never before having dined at Government House, I had no idea that this was customary procedure. Hurriedly I groped for my shoes under the table and not finding them quickly enough I sprang up in my bare feet feeling very foolish.
Lady Mountbatten remarked casually when we were seated, “I always have to remember to slip on my shoes in time for the toast. I have a dreadful habit of taking them off when I sit down at table.”
Inwardly I thanked her for her tact, hut when I went to bed that night it was with the uncomfortable feeling that I had not distinguished myself in the social graces.
I did my best, as Mamu’s unofficial hostess, to keep track of his bewildering schedule of speeches, meetings and conferences. I tried vainly to get him to go to bed earlier, but night after night the light shone in his office till long past midnight, while more files and papers awaited him on his bedside table.
One night I was reading in bed and, seeing my lamp on when he left his office, Mamu came into my room.
“Here we are in the same house, and yet I hardly see you,” he spoke tiredly, and his face was drawn. “There are so many things I want to talk to you about, darling—but when? Personal matters have to wait. There is so much work to do and so little time.”
I thought back to the day when Lekha, Rita and I had asked Mamu in the library at Allahabad, “When will things be normal?” I knew now that “normal living” was no nearer to us.
In expanded form these reminiscences will appear in a hook, Prison and Chocolate Cake, to be published later by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.