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Mainstream, VOL L, No 23, May 26, 2012

Nehru Observed

Monday 28 May 2012, by H Y Sharada Prasad


Is their long history, the Indian people have had two great love affairs. One was with Krishna of legend. The other was with a flesh-and-blood man of our own times, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru knew how much he had received. He wrote about it in his will and testament. To deserve what he got, he gave abundantly. He wanted to be remembered as a “man who with all his mind and heart, loved India and the Indian people”.

Half of the people of India today have no personal experience of this infatuation. They were either born after Nehru’s death or were too young while he lived. Among those who lived through the Nehru years, many resisted his charm and rejected his philosophy. The present-day representation of this group trace our current ills to him. He is faulted for not being another Gandhi or Lenin or Mao. He is accused of not knowing enough science and economics and statecraft, of being too pro-British (‘the last Viceroy’), too pro-Soviet, too anti-American; not being Hindu enough, not understanding secularism clearly enough (this last is from some known Nehruites), most of all, of not being ruthless enough. The controversies will continue. But even the critics acknowledge his style and miss his gift of raising whatever he touched to a higher level.

Two recent books will help the old to relive, and the young to have a feel of, the ethos of the Nehru years. They are a photographic album published by the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund and Don’t Spare Me, Shankar, a collection of cartoons.

The album is not an ornate coffee-table book but a modest, functional chronicle which lets the man take over. (As one of its editors I know how careful we were not to intrude.) Jawaharlal Nehru was a man born to be photographed. His mobile face, his eyes, his brow, his nostrils, his lips expressed a myriad moods and nuances. Dorothy Norman, herself so knowledgeable about photography as an art form, recently described him as the most beautiful man she had met. It was a handsomeness that mirrored the inner richness and integrity. How one wishes television had come of age in our country when he was around.

Every discussion of Nehru in some way leads to Gandhi. It is interesting to compare the Nehru album with the Gandhi album that the government brought out in the fifties. The Nehru album, for all the magnetism of the individual, makes us think of the times, whereas the Gandhi album makes as think of the man. This is equally true of Nehru’s autobiography, which is a record of the ideas and movements and problems of India and world of his day, seen through the crystal of his personality, while Gandhi’s is essentially a chronicle of his own amazing growth to greatness. Both Gandhi and Nehru were part of all they met. Both were concerned intensely with Man in the abstract and with men. But in different ways. Nehru grappled with institutional realities and possibilities; Gandhi with eternal verities and the individual’s potential.

The camera is said to be the pen of our age. But the lens has limitations. It can only take in the three dimensions. It cannot internalise the external. It can answer the what, sometimes even the how, but not the shy. A Karsh or a Swirdloff can emulate the painters and lead us from the face into the soul. But most photo-graphers give us the arrested moment, the fixed fact. We are told that a picture is more eloquent than a thousand words, but there is something the word can do which is beyond most pictures. As one of our languages has it, “The Kavi, the poet, can see what Ravi, the sun, cannot.”

WE should admit that Nehru’s words provide a fuller account of his passions and anxieties than pictures of him do. Three generations were affected and shaped by his words—not only the young but his peers and even his elders. Didn’t Gandhi call him his mentor in foreign affairs? A relentless drive to persuade made Gandhi and Nehru speak and write so copiously. Yet neither was an orator of the classical type. Their styles differed vastly but resembled each other in their aim. The aim was to share thoughts with the people and admit them to the chamber of their mind and heart to see what went on. It is thus that they convinced people of the rightness of the causes of action they propounded.

A young editor, who admits that the Nehru album gave him a lump in the throat, has still chosen to call Nehru a bit of windbag who lacked the gift of brevity. A person who could say: “We must have an open mind, true, but it has to be closed some time”, or advise Mridula Sarabhai, who pestered him for advice on what to wear for a fancy dress party: “Go dressed as a woman for a change”, knew the secret of the neat thrust and epigram. But it is not the art of brevity alone which embodies the profound and the beautiful. Voluble people also make it to the anthologies of the world’s wisdom. A mere windbag could not have achieved the luminousness of the homage to Gandhi. There was a historical role that Jawaharlal Nehru had to perform—to meet and talk to as large a number of people as possible and convert them to his way of thining. His khayals had to be sung to many audiences and he sang them with aplomb. His style had the repetitiveness of the classical master. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. Yes, Vinod, Nehru did speak too much. Didn’t Shankar in a famous cartoon draw him as competing with the Niagara?

And now to Shankar’s book. Who would have imagined in the fifties that this merciless arraigner of adult follies would one day be transformed into a merry teller of children’s tales and withdraw from the political circuit? In his heyday, Shankar up-ended the world of Indian politics, and was much feared by his victims. But even Shankar had a hero, one whom he nudged and jabbed and took liberties with, who in fact told him not to spare him. Between May 1948 and May 1964, Nehru was the centre of a thousand five hundred Shankar cartoons. Four hundred of them were picked by the late Chalapathi Rau for this book. They portray an impulsive, impetuous Nehru held back by a reflective second Nehru. Responsibility is energy controlled by the calculus of the larger good. The people of India knew that this man would render full account to them. That is why they accepted him so enthusiastically.

(Mainstream, Nehru Special Number, May 26, 1984)

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