Michael Foot

Prison Does Concentrate the Mind Wonderfully

Two Alone, Two Together: Letters Between Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, 1940-1964

By

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‘What do you do for books?’ This is almost the first anguished cry from father to daughter recorded in these pages, and soon she was putting the same question to him. The persistence of the inquiry shows that there was no affectation between them on this supreme subject. How different from the home life of our own dear ex-Prime Minister where, it might reasonably be imagined, mother talks and money talks, and nobody and nothing else gets a word in.

The pre-eminence given to books within Jawaharlal Nehru’s household may be partly attributed to the huge long periods he spent in prison. If reading and writing are permitted by the authorities, incarceration itself becomes a different matter entirely. It may be the making of the man, as with John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. A substantial majority of the letters published here in this mammoth and magnificent volume were written in prison, either by Jawaharlal himself or by his daughter, Indira, even though other of their prison letters or writings have been published before and even though the last letters included here are those exchanged between them just before his death in 1964.

It is still the prison letters which can move us most deeply, as they were designed to shape the mind and heart of his beloved daughter. Some may recall how in a previous period of imprisonment – in the early 1930s – he had started to write, for the benefit of his twelve-year-old Indira, his thousand-page-long Glimpses of World History. For many of my generation, this was probably our first introduction to Nehru and certainly our first introduction to Indira.

Indira’s reaction to the reception of that volume is recorded here, not exactly on her thirteenth birthday but not so long after. He was, of course, not only a loving father but an inspired teacher, and a master of English prose. He gives some hints here about how he achieved that feat, and the claim is made without any strain or boasting. He wanted Indira especially, but everyone else too, to understand what he was writing, and the requirement was all the greater when he saw how Indians had never been given the chance to tell the story of India. If he had not become India’s first free Prime Minister he would happily have been India’s first free historian.

However, he remained always, in the teeth of every temptation, a citizen of the world, and one who saw more persistently than any other leading statesman of the century that freedom must find expression in a universal language. He would often remark how, for his prison reading, he would be driven back to the classics. Often it was one of these in the famous Everyman edition which he would send on to Indira in what she disgustedly called her ‘Female Ward’. She became as addicted as himself, adding to the dish her own taste for modern poets.

It is a delicious irony to be reminded what the Everyman edition of the English classics – now celebrating their rejuvenation – did for the British Empire. Just at the period when our old imperial masters such as Chamberlain, Baldwin, yes and Churchill too, were supposing they could keep the old world order by locking up Nehru and Gandhi & Co in prison, Everyman were quickly supplying the inmates with their revolutionary Bibles – Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Charles XII, Franklin’s Autobiography, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Plato’s Republic. But don’t be confused or confined by this list.

The richness of Nehru’s reading overflowed its banks like the Ganges.

lndira was born with a frail body, and this was one reason for her long separation from the father she adored. Keeping her in touch with India was one of his constant themes – ‘Apart from Urdu and Hindi, it might be worthwhile for you to start on a voyage of discovery of India.’ Indira needed little incitement. She longed to be at his side, and to translate her own ambitions and understandings into Indian realities. She turned that frail frame into an unbeatable will; indeed, when she got the chance she broke more decisively with the old British connection than ever he was able to do, and he would not have complained. He longed to express his kinship with the Indian masses; she performed that role better.

Jawaharlal Nehru was supposed to be the foremost exponent of democratic statesmanship in this century, one who served his people with no thought of self and fulfilled his words in action, whereas Indira Gandhi is charged with faltering at the supreme moment of crisis, allowing personal emotion to sway her judgement.

In my estimate, it was not quite like that. The political temperaments of the two of them were not so dissimilar and, as we may learn afresh from these pages, they had both been taught in the same good school – with its excellent Everyman library around the corner. But Nehru never lost his streak of aristocratic scorn, sometimes a deficiency, sometimes an asset – for example, when forced to deal with English aristocratic nincompoops and there were always plenty of them around.

Indira Gandhi was the least egotistical great statesman I ever met. She hardly ever talked about herself; she could reduce all personal questions to a proper perspective. She was much more interested in the great political questions: the way the world was going, how the unity of her beloved India could be preserved, how the poverty of her people could be broken, how nuclear annihilation could be averted. All these interests and allegiances she acquired when these letters, so admirably presented by Sonia Gandhi, were being written. Together they fashioned her unique character, and so I found this book the most faithful portrait of her ever painted.

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