Recently I became interested in knowing more about Nehru, whose 57th death anniversary will be observed on May 27. My interest in Nehru’s life stems primarily from three reasons. First, my knowledge of Nehru is rather limited. Second, the fact that Nehru has become the bête noire of the Hindu right whetted my curiosity to know about him. Third, there’s a general agreement among many historians that Nehru remains an enigma. It’s against this context that I decided to read Nehru’s Autobiography, because the book traces Nehru’s mental development in his own words.
It’s not just Nehru’s elegant prose which makes Autobiography an extraordinarily interesting book. Nehru’s Autobiography is a tour de force because he writes with such candour about his limitations and he is also brutally honest in sharing his opinion about other Indian political figures, including Gandhi. What is singularly powerful about this book is his ability to engage in self-scrutiny and self-criticism without any self-pity. Being a man of a private nature, Nehru is reticent about personal and emotional issues.
Although Nehru builds a wall of privacy as he pens his narrative, there are fissures from where one can take a peek into his complex persona. Given the limited space of this op-ed, I am writing this piece as a quick snapshot that selectively presents some aspects of Nehru’s life that stood out to me. The first thing that struck me in the book was the radical differences between Nehru’s parent’s personalities. Nehru’s father, Motilal Nehru, was a rich, highly successful lawyer with lavish tastes. He was the family’s patriarch, making all the decisions.
Although Motilal displayed good humor and bonhomie, he had a choleric temper, which his servants often had to deal with. Regarding Motilal’s vile temper, Nehru wrote the following: “But much as I admired him and loved him I feared him also. I had seen him lose his temper at servants and others; he seemed to me terrible then, and I shivered with fright, mixed sometimes with resentment, at the treatment of a servant. His temper was indeed an awful thing, and even in after years I do not think I ever came across anything to match it in its own line.”
Nehru deeply loved and admired Motilal, but he was always terrified of his temper. Nehru recalled an incident when he had taken one of the two pens Motilal always kept on the desk without his father’s permission. When the purloined pen was found in Nehru’s possession after a thorough search, Nehru received a terrible thrashing from Motilal. The beating was so severe that various kinds of creams and ointments had to be applied to his badly bruised body for days. Unlike Motilal, Nehru’s mother, Swarup Rani, was a quiet woman of sweet disposition. She doted on Nehru, smothering him with her love and affection.
Nehru knew that his mother would condone everything he did due to her “excessive and indiscriminating love” for him. The following brief quote describes Nehru’s relationship with his mother: “I saw much more of her than I did of father, and she seemed nearer to me, so I would confide in her when I would not dream of doing so to father.” Nehru’s childhood, as he described in his Autobiography, was quintessentially lonely. There was no dearth of company in the huge house that Motilal had built for the family because it was always filled with Motilal’s friends; their talk and laughter reverberated throughout the house, but, for Nehru, there were only adults to talk with.
Nehru was lonely because his two younger sisters were much younger than him, and he also didn’t have any opportunity to play with children of his age: “My two sisters are very much younger than I am, and between each pair of us there is a long stretch of years. And so I grew up and spent my early years as a somewhat lonely child with no companion my age. I did not even have the companionship of children at school, for I was not sent to any kindergarten or primary school … And so in the midst of that big family I felt rather lonely and was left a great deal to my own fancies and solitary games.”
When Nehru turned 11, Motilal appointed a resident tutor, Ferdinand T. Brooks, a theosophist, who helped widen Nehru’s intellectual and moral horizons. Brooks not only helped develop in Nehru a taste for literature and science, but he also exposed him to the works of important Western philosophers and mystics and to Dhammapada, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Being only 11, Nehru could not fully comprehend these books, but he found them fascinating. At the tender age of 13, he was accepted as a member of the Theosophical Society, where he performed all the ceremonies of initiation under the supervision of Annie Besant.
Nehru’s interest in theosophy waned when Brooks left his teaching job. Although Nehru lost interest in theosophy, some of its basic tenets like monism, reverence for all religions, and spiritual emancipation remained with him. At the age of 15, Nehru was sent to Harrow in England for schooling, where he was lonely, homesick, and felt quite out of place. He wrote in his Autobiography: “Never before had I been left among strangers all by myself, and I felt lonely and homesick … I was never an exact fit. Always I had a feeling that I was not one of them, and the others must have felt same way about me.”
Given the fact that Nehru has devoted only a couple of pages in his Autobiography to write about his experience at Harrow, it is safe to assume that his time at Harrow was rather uneventful. After graduating from Harrow, Nehru attended Trinity College in Cambridge for three years. At Cambridge, despite his conviviality, he once again felt a deep sense of loneliness at being “almost overpowered by the sense of my solitary condition.”
Although Nehru’s life at Cambridge was quite sedate and uneventful, the intellectual environment of the university stimulated his mind. Nehru was exposed to the Fabian socialism of Bernard Shaw and the ideas of Karl Marx, both of whom influenced him profoundly in forming his political views. He considered Marx’s analysis to have an “extraordinary degree of insight into social phenomena” due to the scientific method that Marx adopted in his analysis.
According to Nehru, the real value of Marxism lies in its “absence of dogmatism, in its stress on a certain outlook and mode of approach, and in its attitude to action. That outlook helps us in understanding the social phenomena of our new times, and points out the way of action and escape.” At Cambridge, Nehru studied chemistry, geology and botany, which helped him develop a scientific mind. He enjoyed the systematic approach of science based on hard facts, logical reasoning, intellectual openness to possibilities of change, and respect for evidence for rational thought and debate. It was his scientific bent of mind that influenced Nehru to become an agnostic.
Regarding religion, Nehru wrote: “Religion, as I saw it practiced, and accepted even by thinking minds, Whether it was Hinduism or Islam or Buddhism or Christianity, did not attract me. IT seemed to be closely associated with superstitious practices and dogmatic beliefs, and behind it lay a method of approach to life’s problems which was certainly not that of science… Essentially I’m interested in this world, in this life, not in some other world or a future life.” Given Nehru’s Western liberal education, it is no surprise that nationalism was anathema to him.
He found it to be belligerent and xenophobic. He stated in his Autobiography: “Nationalism is essentially an anti-feeling, and it feeds and fattens on hatred and anger against other national groups … ” After graduating from Cambridge, Nehru studied law at the Inner Temple from 1910-1912, passing the bar examination with “neither glory nor ignominy.” During this period, he enjoyed a high life with former friends from Harrow. He commented in his Autobiography that this had been a “soft and pointless existence” when he tried aping the English “man about town.”
The maintenance money which Nehru received from his father was never enough to support his lavish lifestyle; he quickly found himself in debt which infuriated Motilal to no end. Being bored and listless and never feeling quite at home in England, Nehru decided to return to India in August 1912. In his Autobiography Nehru described himself at that time, a young man of 23, as “a bit of prig with little to commend me.” It was a modest self-judgment.
(To be Concluded)
(The writer is professor emeritus in Communication Studies Department at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles)