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

Maker of Our History

Monday 28 May 2012, by Hiren Mukerjee

It is an apparently cruel but basically comforting thought that in this world of ours nobody, howsoever cherished, continues to be missed, and life flows on with a resilience all its own, not even needing to mock at death which hurts sorely, but time heals the damage. There are however some hurts perhaps which remain congealed in the heart’s interstices. Souffrir passé; avoir souffert ne passé jamais.
Jawaharlal Nehru died twelve years ago. The news came life a bolt from the blue, for though he was not keeping well for some time, nobody thought the end was so near. One would worry but it was difficult to conceive that the lamp of that life would soon be put out. Perhaps it was good, not only for him but for all others, that it happened suddenly. And for a while it seemed to his stricken people as if on that blazing May day the sun hardly shone.

In the flow of life, however nobody is missed—neither Gandhi nor Tagore nor Jawaharlal Nehru nor Subhas Chandra Bose—the sun shines, the stream glides, the smile spreads on children’s faces, and the myriad tasks of the world go on. Nobody is indispensable, nobody can be in creation which itself is ever in flux, and it is only normal that even the very great among our forbears can be thought of as no longer very relevant.

Jawaharlal, however, has been too near us to cease to be relevant. He looked into the future, for, from unlikely beginnings his life got transmuted and he developed a sense of history, and even as one who had felt himself in his own country “out of place everywhere, at home nowhere”, he grew to discover his own people and the commonality of mankind. His life and work remains, therefore, not only of interest but of importance to his people today. May there be some serious effort—not to lionise or to belittle him, but to understand this sensitive and powerful man and his response to la condition humaine in this country!

His successors often seem allergic to ideology, but Jawaharlal always found it fascinating. Having something of the eighteenth-century “encyclopaedists” in his make-up—he was once twitted in Parliament for “specialising in omniscience”—he never liked to have a label attached to himself and he would, very correctly, never call himself a Marxist. But Marx himself would have rejoiced to hear what he told a few young people at Anand Bhavan, Allahabad, in October 1936, about the connection between national liberation and socialism. He said then, with a smile on his face, that we were fighting for independence and at the same time for socialism, for they were not like two laddoos to be grabbed one after the other—ours was a twin objective, since socialism was the fulfilment of freedom. Thus from the early and middle ‘thirties he was our prime proponent of socialism, always steering himself clear of what he thought dogma but unceasingly relying on the basic aspects of social study.

A couple of foreign publicists, avidly intent on shifting language from the sphere of thought to that of sensation, have recently in their much tom-tommed Freedom at Midnight, portrayed Jawaharlal as a charming person and in some ways remarkable but like the proverbial ‘native’, bereft of the reserves of character which enable a political leader to face a real crisis. Thus, on the basis of no evidence other than Mount-batten’s anecdotage, Jawaharlal is shown as whining helplessly before the British Viceroy and imploring him to check a menacing situation that he found was beyond his strength.

How laughable, indeed, is this reflection on Jawaharlal’s courage, in personal and in public life, of which there are unending instances! How often that courage shone out in days of the utterest gloom, especially when the partition of India and its concomitant ill-effects had to be taken care of! Who will forget the way he overcame the shock that in 1959-62 China chose to hurl at this country, a shock he absorbed unflinchingly, and except for a short interlude when he leant his ear to the United States’ siren overtures, he recovered his stance which was that of the unfailing self-respect and dignity of his India? It was a shock that perhaps made the largest contribution to the hastening of his death, but the thing to remember is the courage with which he acted at the time.

Now that things are different though by no means entirely dispiriting, it seems nearly strange to recall how in Parliament, where he delighted, one could cross swords with him on equal terms in spite of being very far from equal with the great man that Jawaharlal had been to our generation. Will it be believed that one could, in debate, mock at him as a minor poet who had missed his vocation? Which what grace he would parry, in the First Parliament days, a rather adolescent attack on him as one who had lost his place in history for the sake of a portfolio [this, by the way, was a Trotsky quotation which Devkanta Borooah, presently Congress President and then (1952) a young Congress whip, almost instantly identified, being the bibliophile he happens to be]!

Once the initial hurdles were crossed, one could get near this man who was, on any computation, a maker of our recent history, and even be admitted to his affection. The doors of his heart were open to children—with bunches of whom he would dart off to play a short and sudden game—children for whom he said he always had time but not for adults.

One thinks of his feeling for flowers and for the many faces and moods of Mother Nature, but even more the ache he carried in his heart for all humanity. In his Autobiography, there is a passage, which some may recall where he wrote that in Ceylon, during the ‘thirties, he saw a lovely seaside place and thought how his father Motilal would love to be there and so wanted at once to wire him to come along, realising the next moment that Motilal was dead.

It is a beautiful and moving little passage, but once it was cited before him, in private, just quietly to point out that he had had, comparatively, a sheltered life and could automatically think of his father expensively travelling long distances to a watering place he fancied, while most of us, unable to treat our mothers to a Varanasi trip, would never even have such thoughts. His answer to this by no means disrespectful pointer was not in words but an expression on his face that mirrored, as it were, all the compassion that there is in man’s history.

To this man, adored by his people in his time, one could unburden one’s heart and not risk being misunderstood. He could be told, for instance, that one was getting to be deaf and wished also to be dumb, for that would mean beatitude! It is not strange that even as his people gave him a giant’s strength he could never persuade himself to use it as a giant. On any reckoning Jawaharlal was a tremendous yet always loveable man who shall ever be in the hearts of those who had known him.

(Mainstream, May 29, 1976)

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