Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, died on 27 May 1964. Memories on his death anniversary.
(First published 2003)
“ Last month I went back to Kashmir after an absence of twenty-three years. I was only there for twelve days, but those days were filled with beauty, and I drank in the loveliness of that land of enchantment. I wandered about the Valley and climbed a glacier, and felt that life was worthwhile.”
These words were written by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1940, in the midst of political struggles and prison sentences. Today we tend to forget that Nehru was not merely a leader of the fredom movement and India’s first prime minister, but also an accomplished writer. His books include Glimpses of World History, Discovery of India, and An Autobiography, as well as collections of essays, and of thousands of his letters and speeches.
During the course of the freedom struggle, Nehru was imprisoned by the British authorities for a total of more than nine years. In this enforced isolation from political activity, he found time to think, reflect, and write.
Glimpses of World History offers a panoramic sweep of the history of the world, and was written mainly between 1930 and 1933, in the form of letters to his young daughter, Indira. He writes about the Greeks, about Asia and Europe, Africa and America, about Mohenjodaro which has just been discovered, and intersperses his account with advice to Indira, and comments on life in jail.
Discovery of India was written in Ahmadnagar Fort, where he was imprisoned from 9 August 1942, the start of the Quit India Movement, to 28 March 1945. Though he begins with ancient India, the best sections are of the India in which he lives, the India that is struggling for independence. His style is graphic, fluent and compelling. Thus on the Bengal famine of 1943, he writes “ Famine came, ghastly, staggering, horrible beyond words. In Malabar, in Bijapur, in Orissa and, above all in the rich and fertile province of Bengal, men and women and little children died in thousands daily, for lack of food.” Adding his personal comments, as he usually does in most of his writing, he says, “Death was common enough everywhere. But here death had no purpose, no logic, no necessity; it was the result of man’s incompetence and callousness, man-made, a slow creeping thing of horror, with nothing to redeem it”.
He writes also about the personalities which shaped India, and tries to understand the growth of communalism, the strange idea of partition. Jinnah puzzles him. He was head and shoulders above other members of the Muslim League, he says and that is how he became their leader. Once Jinnah was considered the apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity, but now, “ Some destiny or course of events had thrown him among the very people for whom he had no respect.” This book thus looks at history from within, through the eyes of a man who participated in and created history, and should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to understand the tumultous years befor independence.
His Autobiography, the most introspective of his books, was written mainly in Dehra Dun jail between 1934 and 1935. Here he writes not only of his life and the ongoing political struggle, but of his jail companions – hordes of wasps, bats, a puppy he nursed through a serious illness, a kitten he made friends with; he describes the weather, the incessant rain, and the glorious view on a freezing cold day, of the mountains, covered with snow.
All these books were written before independence. After 1947, he continued to write thousands of letters. His Speeches have been collected in five volumes, and reflect India’s growth and problems in the early years of independence.
Nehru’s historical perspective, wide knowledge, philosophical approach and subtle wit, make whatever he has written worth reading even today.