Nehru's Letters to his Sister Before Freedom
N. Manoharan ·
Jawaharlal Nehru was a man of letters, both literally and figuratively. His letters, apart from serving the purpose of communication, bear immense literary value. Nayantara Sahgal's compilation of Nehru's letters to his sister, Sarup Kumari Nehru (aka '
Nan'), popularly known as Vijayalakshmi Pandit, have been written over a period of 35 years. Like his earlier compilations-Two Alone, Two together: Letters between Indira Gandhi & Jawaharlal Nehru (1922-1964) and Letters from a Father to His Daughter, the present volume is a fruitful exercise. But the present compilation differs from the others in three ways. First, these were the letters that plied not only between a brother and a sister having 11 years of age difference, but also between two mature minds; second, this is the only compilation of letters providing a comprehensive picture of Nehru since he was in his twenties. Finally, these letters were put together by none other than Nayantara, daughter of Vijayalakshmi.
Providing raw materials for three books goes on to show that Nehru had a penchant for writing letters and was never tired of them. In fact, he regretted that the number of letters that he could write and receive were restricted during his imprisonment by the British. He would be upset if the person to whom he wrote to did not respond. When Indira did not acknowledge his letters for some time he wrote thus to
Nan from Dehra Dun Jail in 1933: "Indu, I feel, is extraordinarily imaginative and self-centred or subjective. Indeed I would say that, quite unconsciously, she has grown remarkably selfish."
The fact that
Nan preserved these letters displays their value for her. Nehru was a "friend, philosopher and guide.... and big brother all rolled into one" to
Nan. On his part, Jawahar was most affectionate to his sister and trusted her on both family and official matters. No matter whichever part of the world Nehru stayed he made sure that he wrote letters to
Nan. The letters portray
Nan as the most responsible person Nehru trusted. "....I write to you because you are very dear to me. There are very few persons who really count in my life and you are one of them, and you have brought great comfort to me in moments of trial," admitted Nehru in one of his letters.
Since 1909, when
Nan was just nine years old, one could observe that Nehru's maturity of writing letters improved over the years. The letters clearly depict Nehru's keen affection for his sister; his liking for Gothic literature and skating; his firm moral authority on the family; his meticulousness; his value for time and its effective management; and his vast expanse of knowledge in almost every field. He was most frank and objective in his views on matters even personal to him. He gave importance to minute details. For instance, when he was in jail and had many things to worry about, he saw to it that his servants at home were taken care of properly. His liberal outlook is revealed distinctly when he insists either his sisters-Betty or
Nan-or his daughter Indu or
Nan's daughters-Chand, Tara and Ritu-should have a say in their respective lives. His down-to-earth attitude is obvious by his opinion expressed in one of his letters on leaky barrack of Ahmadnagar Fort: "Having survived two rainy seasons here I suppose we could have managed to put up with another season or two, in spite of many leakages. A little rain coming through the roof doesn't do much harm if you are smart enough to shift your goods and chattels from place to place."
The letters reveal the value Nehru attached to the correct usage of words. No wonder, Tom Wrightington rightly observed in a review of The Glimpses of World History that Indians should learn English not from Macaulay or Edward Gibbon, but from Nehru. Nehru's letters were philosophically oriented. In contrast to his letter dated 14 January 1944, written soon after the death of
Nan's husband Ranjit, which was most "poignant" of all, his letter of 22 May 1944 was deeply philosophical. Prolific use of Chinese proverbs and anecdotes in his letters proves distinct Chinese influence on him.
Introduction by the editor to every section is perceptive providing additional information. It would have been an interesting narrative had
Nan's responses were included to every letter of Nehru. Exclusive photographs are fascinating giving a sense of being with the characters. One wonders why there are gaps in letters-from 1913 to 1925, 1928-30, January-October 1941 and December 1944. Whether Nehru abstained from writing letters during those periods or are there no records of them? Some footnote numberings without corresponding notes on the footer (page 129 note 29; page 139 note 35; page 151 note 36) are conspicuous.
Reading a primary source was indeed a joy, but a sense of guilt, that I was reading someone's personal letters, pervaded all throughout. There was, however, an urge when I reached page 400 to read the book all over again.