Then there was Pandit Nehru’s first visit to England as Prime Minister to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference. We had decided to bring out a weekly tabloid, India News, to mark the occasion. Jamal Kidwai and I had been to the press many times to finalise the layout, select typefaces and provide the news we were to carry in our first issue. The front page was to be devoted entirely to Panditji’s visit and the importance of the Commonwealth Conference. We sent material for the first page a couple of days ahead of his arrival to the printers. The banner headline read ‘Pandit Nehru in London’. When the proofs came for correction, the letter ‘P’ had been substituted by ‘B’— ‘Bandit Nehru in London’. Was this some kind of joke? I rang up the manager of the press and ticked him off roundly. He was profuse in his apologies. His typesetter had never heard of the word Pandit and thought we meant Bandit. The second set of proofs had the word right. The evening before the great man’s arrival, another setter was on the job and likewise ignorant of the existence of the word ‘pandit’. Once again ‘pandit’ was changed to ‘bandit’. We had to scrap the whole issue and sent a member of the staff to see that the word was printed right.
Mutual adoration: Edwina Mountbatten with Nehru at the Kensington Palace Gardens in London in 1955. Keystone/Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Senior members of the staff were ordered to be present at Heathrow airport to receive the Prime Minister. It was a cold winter night when the plane touched down. “What are all of you doing here at this unearthly hour?” he demanded, obviously expecting us to be present and pleased to note that we were discharging our duties. Menon asked me to introduce myself to the PM and ask him if he desired me to do anything. I did so only to be snubbed. “What would I want of you at this hour? Go home and get some sleep.”
The next morning when I reached the office I saw a note from Menon lying on my table asking me to see him immediately. I took a quick glance at the headlines of the papers to see if anything had gone wrong. The Daily Herald carried a large photograph of Nehru with Lady Mountbatten in her négligee opening the door for him. The caption read ‘Lady Mountbatten’s Midnight Visitor’. It also informed its readers that Lord Mountbatten was not in London. Our P.M.’s liaison with Lady Edwina had assumed scandalous proportions. The Herald’s photographer had taken the chance of catching them, if not in flagrante delicto, at least in preparation for it. He had got his scoop. When I went up to see Menon he barked at me, ”Have you seen The Herald? The Prime Minister is furious with you.”
“I had nothing to do with it,” I pleaded. “How was I to know that instead of going to his hotel Panditji would go to the Mountbattens’ home?”
Excerpted with the permission of Penguin Books India from Truth, Love and a Little Malice by Khushwant Singh, Penguin, Rs399.
“Anyway, he is very angry. You better keep out of his way for a day or two.”
I did not have to do much dodging as Nehru got involved in the conference. The only function we had organised for him was a meeting with the international press and a luncheon with editors of the top English papers in his hotel suite. Details of both were given to his secretary, M.O. Matthai. The press conference drew a large crowd, including Pakistani journalists. Their main interest was Kashmir: the Western press was generally inclined towards the Pakistani point of view. People were eager to hear what the Prime Minister of India had to say in his defence.
The conference was scheduled for 10.30am. Till 10.45 there was no sign of Panditji. I rang up Matthai to tell him that the press people were getting restive. Fifteen minutes later the Prime Minister arrived looking very agitated. Menon and I escorted him to the dais. “What’s all this? Why didn’t anyone tell me I had to meet the press?” he hissed loudly enough for the microphones to carry his voice to every corner of the room. Then he switched on his beaming smile for cameramen and asked, ”Yes, gentlemen, what can I do for you?”
The Pakistani pressmen sprang to their feet and asked him to explain India’s position on Kashmir. He did so very lucidly. It was evident that he had prepared himself but wanted to create the impression that he was speaking extempore. The conference was a great success. Afterwards, when I tried to show him his printed programme mentioning the conference, he brushed me aside. He had made his point at my expense.
Matthai also warned me that no photographs of the Prime Minister were to be issued to the press without first being cleared by the Prime Minister. He was a vain man who did not want to be caught picking his nose or yawning.
The luncheon for the editors was an unmitigated disaster. The menu had been prepared by Kamla Jaspal and provided for clear vegetable soup for Menon, followed by relays of cups of tea. The editors of The Times, Telegraph, Manchester Guardian, Observer and New Statesman and Nation were present. We started with sherry before we sat down at the table. Soup and the first course with chilled white wine were then served; Panditji had no food or drink fads and quite enjoyed dry sherry and wine. He lit his cigarette to indicate that informal dialogue could begin. He asked why the conservative press was generally hostile to India. The editors answered in turns protesting that it was not so, but that they were constrained to carry dispatches sent to them by their correspondents in India whom they trusted to be impartial. If there were any factual errors they would be willing to carry any corrections sent by India House. Everyone turned to Menon. His head was sunk low over his chest and he was nodding sleepily. Panditji whispered angrily to me, “Can’t you see your High Commissioner is unwell? You must not expose him to outsiders like this.” Then Panditji himself lost interest. When an editor asked him a question, he stared vacantly into space. The question hung in the air without getting an answer. I tried my best to fill in the gaps of silence. Before the dessert was served, Panditji was also nodding with his head sunk on his chest. The editors left without waiting for coffee to be served.
There was more in store for me. After the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference was over, Panditji had a couple of days free to indulge in his favourite hobbies, buying books and seeing Lady Mountbatten. An afternoon was reserved for book buying. Menon deputed me to escort the Prime Minister and sign for any books he got. He also instructed me to tell the PM what a good job he was doing as High Commissioner and that there was no truth in adverse reports Indian journalists had been sending to their papers. I picked Nehru up from his hotel and asked: “Sir, what sort of books would you like to see?” He snapped back, “Books to read, what else!” I tried to explain that several bookstores specialised on different topics—rare books, the Orient, religion, philosophy, travel, etc. He brushed aside my queries and ordered the chauffeur to drive to a well-known bookstore on Oxford Street. We arrived at our destination. He was recognised and the sales assistants fawned on him. He browsed over a few titles. When one of the assistants asked him if there was anything special he was looking for, he replied, “Bernard Shaw.” Shaw had died a few weeks earlier and there was a revival of interest in his books. The works of Shaw were put together and I signed for them. Some people came to ask Nehru for his autograph and he happily signed for them. I bought a book of poems and had him inscribe it for me. The shopping expedition was over. On the way back to the hotel I asked if he got much time to read books. “Of course not,” he snapped.
Two evenings before Nehru was due to leave he invited Lady Mountbatten to a quiet dinner for two at a Greek restaurant in Soho. The restaurant owner recognised them and rang up the press to get publicity for his joint. The next morning’s papers carried photographs of the two sitting close to each other. I knew I was in trouble again. I arrived at the office to find a note from Menon on my table saying that the Prime Minister wished to see me immediately. I rushed to Claridges Hotel and reported myself to Matthai. “Go in,” he said mechanically. “Have you any idea what he wants to see me about?” I asked nervously. “None! He’ll tell you.”
I gently knocked on the Prime Minister’s door and went in. He was busy going through some files. “Yes?” he asked raising his head.
“Sir, you sent for me.”
“I sent for you? Who are you?”
“Sir, I am your PRO in London.”
He looked me up and down and said, “You have strange notions of publicity!”