“I am not a man of letters,” wrote Jawaharlal Nehru in one of his fond missives from jail to his daughter Indira, but, of course, he was. All through his lifetime, Nehru lost no opportunity to write. His words took the form of drafts and resolutions for the Congress party, essays on the great issues of the day for newspapers and journals, and letters to friends, family and colleagues in the independence movement. When he became Prime Minister, Nehru wrote a long letter addressed jointly to his chief ministers every fortnight, containing his deliberations on “the internal and international situation”. For Nehru, words put down on paper were a way of making sense of the chaos and unruliness of the world.
But he was also a man of letters in a more abiding sense, as readers of any of his major works (his autobiography, Glimpses of World History, and The Discovery of India) know, and as The Oxford India Nehru, a selection of his most representative speeches and writings edited by Uma Iyengar, once again proves. That is to say, we can read Nehru not just for his ideas and for glimpses of his own personality, but also for the way in which he expressed himself. “At its best,” wrote one of Nehru’s best biographers, the editor Frank Moraes, “Nehru’s style shows a vigour and clarity as pleasing and compelling to the ear as to the mind.” Although he sometimes chose a romantic and elevated tone that could grow monotonous, there is never, in Nehru’s work, that tendency towards vagueness and bombast that disfigures so much Indian prose in English. Indeed, Nehru deserves to be seen, independently of the political man, as one of the best Indian prose writers of the 20th century.
Iyengar’s selection of extracts for The Oxford India Nehru organizes Nehru’s work by theme rather than by chronology, grouping together his thoughts on Indian history and culture, on Gandhi, on India before and after independence, on the changing world situation, and so on. The great preoccupations and leanings of Nehru’s work quickly emerge: his rationalism, his natural egalitarianism and his commitment to democratic institutions and practice, his impatience with religion, his espousal of socialism, his sometimes qualified admiration for, and complicated relationship with, Gandhi, and his sense of India as one indivisible composite culture.
Many of these thoughts are still relevant—in fact, sometimes Nehru seems to be commenting more on our times than his own. Attacking the demands made by various communal organizations in 1934, he writes that communalism is “another name for social and political reaction”, and that “it has often sailed under false colours and taken in many an unwary person”. Writing in 1953, he remarks that although nationalism can be a rousing and unifying force, one of the problems with it is “the narrowness of mind that it develops within a country, when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority, actually separates them even more”. Objecting to the very name of the Backward Classes Commission, he writes: “It is as if we are first branding them and then, from our superior position, we shall try and uplift them.”
Nehru had a naturally metaphorical cast of mind. He is often found on these pages comparing history to a great river. Indeed, he thought a lot about history, and felt keenly the pressure of history. In a speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1947, he imagines himself “standing on the sword’s edge of the present between the mighty past and the mightier future”. Elsewhere, he likens the taking of risks to the exhilaration of climbing mountains, while those who hold back, desiring safety and security, are seen as living in the valley, “with their unhealthy mists and fogs” (this metaphor shows, among other things, Nehru’s love of mountains).
Nehru’s long multi-claused sentences, with their syntactical balance and sparse and attentive punctuation, made for a distinctive and vigorous style. Like many writers whose allegiance is not primarily to language and who pronounce on a variety of subjects, he writes most interestingly either when riled, when he could be highly sarcastic, or deeply moved, as in his speech to the constituent assembly on the eve of India’s independence. “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Nehru never wrote a better or more stirring sentence.
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