May a good source be with you.

Looking At Nehru Read & Write In Prison

Trying to understand Nehru on the occasion of his death anniversary.

You mention the peepul tree in your yard. We have only one tree here- a neem, but little shoots of the peepul are continuously coming out at odd places- how irresistible they are! I have watched the unfolding of a new peepul leaf and am charmed and fascinated by it. The peepul, I suppose, might well be considered the typical tree of India. Of course, there is chenar in all its magnificence, but it is of Kashmir only; and the deodar in all its stately glory, but it is again confined to the mountains, and the neem, and the lovely areca, and so on. But the peepul is the tree of India- and it is fixed so far ever by the Buddha legend.”

This is Nehru, the Jawahar of Hind, as his mentor, friend and leader Gandhi wished him to remain forever. He is writing to his daughter from Ahmednagar Fort jail who is in another jail: the Naini prison. They do not crib about their confined lives in the jail. The daughter informs him that being prisoners of class one they have been allowed to be out in the open for some time but it looks frightful to be in the open when you have hundreds of co-prisoners who are fated to remain locked in the barracks!

This is the sense of fairness and justice which is entwined with the aesthetics that Nehru proposes for India. The ability of the peepul to strike root in the unlikeliest places, its grand spread alone does not earn for it the status of the national tree. Its association with the Buddha legend gives it that right!

Nehru was a product of the struggles and battles he fought along with his comrades in the fields and streets of India but at times it seems his mind was shaped more by the long spells he spent in the British jails. While father Nehru is in Ahmednagar jail, daughter Indira is in Naini jail. She  talks about loneliness:

   Alone…The world is life endured and known.

   It is the stillness where our spirits walk

   And all but inmost faith overthrown. 

Father responds from the other jail,“ Reading your letter again I realise what a powerful effect jail has on our mental make-ups. It makes us grow up mentally and gives us a different, and perhaps a truer, perspective on life and the world…. it is curious that jail life, which is a terrible narrowing of the world of experience and sensation, often gives us deeper experiences and sensations.” He seems to agree with his daughter when he writes, “Prison is the true home of that dreadful thing called ennui, and yet, oddly enough, it teaches to triumph over it.”

Nehru was a man of masses but preferred solitude.  Jails were a place where you were totally cut off from the world of active politics. It is interesting to see Nehru welcoming such breaks. These were occasions to go back to rediscover oneself. But then there were times when comrades in the struggle were put together. Ahmednagar fort jail stint was one such occasion. Nehru writes about the advantage this company brings with it, “You may be surprised to learn how many languages are represented in our group, nearly all of them in a scholarly way. Of classical languages: Sanskrit, Pali, Arabic and Persian. Of modern Indian languages: Hindi and Urdu, Gujarati and Marathi, Bengali and Oriya, Tamil and Telugu, and Sindhi –also a little Punjabi. Then, of course, English, and a smattering of French and German.”

Nehru informs Indira that he intends to read Shakuntala with the help of Narendra Dev and modern Persian with Maulana Azad.  Azad, he says, is an ideal teacher, but too erudite!

Nehru has only high praise for the Maulana, “ …How full of wise in counsel…. a very brave and gallant gentleman, a finished product and gallant gentleman, a finished product of the culture that, in these disturbed days, unhappily pertains to few...” 

This description applies equally to the Nehru. Pettiness was alien to them and they were not given to jealousy. Together this tribe of Gandhi grew. Differ they did with each other and never escaped from arguments or debate but there is seldom a strong word used during this discourse. One has only to go the debate between Subhash Bose and Nehru or Gandhi and Nehru and see the kind of respect they have for each other without hiding their disagreements.

One of the great achievements of the Indian freedom struggle was civility in public life. Also, one is struck by the care with which they treat and use language. They are attentive to diverse ways of looking at the world and cosmos: Nehru sends a pocket diary for 1943 to Indira and along with it a Saur Roznamcha or Hindi dairy for Samvat 2000.

It is not difficult to see why Nehru does not find favour with the selfie smitten, gadget-wielding, upward mobile aspirational class and their spokespersons. He tells them that there is a life of the mind. It is important to cultivate this life. But it would require one to look beyond the acquisition of commodities. To believe in one’s individuality. It was typical of Nehru to see India as 35 crore individuals. He was instrumental in creating the nation we know as India but Indians as different individuals attracted him and he did not want to box them into a single identity. He never asked them to sacrifice their selves at the altar of the nation.

Why is it important to read Nehru or the exchange between the jailed duo of father and daughter? To see, how both of them do not discuss the world out there but only books they arrange for each other and which their dear ones send to them. Both of them engage with language in its fullness. 

Nehru is reading the collected works of Lewis Carroll: “It had a lovely cover but that, alas, is no more. Poor Alice had a new adventure when she travelled to this unknown part of the world. She came with a mixed retinue of books, clothes, cigarettes and oddments, including bottles of delicious honey … When the case was opened I saw a ghastly sight- the very horror of it fascinated it, there was honey, honey, everywhere, flowing, sticking, oozing out all over the place. Alice was swimming in it. Well, having survived the first shock, we began the work of salvage. But Alice bears traces for it to this day, and the cover is no more, and in spite of all the wiping and drying and sunning, ants smell their way to her.

Nehru has been denounced as a man driven by reason, for being a modernist. And yet, he is ambivalent about the power of reason, “Why does one do anything? Hardly because of reasoned thinking… . Our moods depend even less on reason and the smallest things affect them, exalting them or depressing them…

“Why does one act? Impossible to answer unless one goes deep into the depths of the unconscious self of man, a journey which is beyond our capacity. We may at best just glimpse into those depths and return mystified.

On Nehru’s death anniversary, let us hear him quoting Yeats. Is he talking about himself?

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Not public men, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse  of delight 

Drove me to this tumult in the clouds.

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breaths the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.” 

  A nation, a society, a human being is known by the measure she chooses to judge herself. The measure can make you feel wanting but it also gives you pleasure, a certain sense of satisfaction that you have set yourself against greatness.

Apoorvanand is a professor at the Hindi Department of University of Delhi.

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