Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilising a Savage World by Nayantara Sahgal (Penguin/Viking, 167 pages, Rs 350)
Books on Jawaharlal Nehru written in the past two decades have cluttered our bookshelves to the point of exasperation—and a few more are on the way. The only reasons why Nayantara Sahgal's slim volume may possibly excite any fresh interest are its deliciously provocative title and the fact that that it is written by the former prime minister's niece, one who regarded Teen Murti House her "home in Delhi".
Tragically, I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Sahgal's otherwise elegantly written essay. There are occasional snippets of information about Nehru the man and his relationship with his wider family but they are just too occasional and, at times, too guarded.
Take, for example, Sahgal's perfunctory account of Nehru's relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, a subject that must have been discussed within the family. She admits to "an immediate attraction that drew two strangers of widely different backgrounds and life experiences together in a relationship", but shies away from elaboration. "The situation", she writes, "made for an unusual bond and a mutual enchantment that must be one of life's most magical gifts to its elect."
It would be understandable if Sahgal's discretion stemmed from a desire to let matters of the heart remain strictly within the family. But she can either be a faithful family loyalist or a writer who couples archival information with insider knowledge. She whets the reader's appetite with titbits about her dear "Mamu" and then proceeds to give absolutely nothing away.
I was particularly struck by her total silence on Nehru's relations with his daughter. The personality clash involving Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Indira Gandhi which surfaced after Nehru's death was the subject of Delhi drawing room gossip. Sahgal too had public spats with her cousin, particularly after the declaration of Emergency. The reader would have loved insights into these complicated human relationships, particularly in the context of a larger question that keeps cropping up: did Nehru actively promote the political career of his daughter? Sahgal gives the whole issue a deft miss.
What she does address is Nehru's relationship with both the Western and Eastern blocs during the Cold War. These are mainly viewed through the prism of her mother's experiences as India's Ambassador to the USSR and USA and President of the UN General Assembly. There are some nice anecdotes involving Gromyko, Vyshinsky, Robert Oppenheimer, Winston Churchill and Soekarno. But Sahgal spoils the reminiscences by quoting needless chunks from contemporary press reports of Nehru's greatness.
As a volume of reminiscences and assessments based on them, the book is far too inhibited and circumspect; as a history, it is too gush-gush in its praise of almost everything Nehru did. In trying to bolster Nehru's place in contemporary India, Sahgal has done her own reputation no good.
Tehelka, Volume 7, issue 47, November 21-27, 2010, page 60