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Madame Pandit's Contemporaries Included Lord Mountbatten : At 85, Nehru's Sister Recalls High Moments of a Long Life

January 02, 1988|ELISABETH BUMILLER | The Washington Post

DEHRA DUN, India — There aren't many people still alive in this country who remember Lord Louis Mountbatten as "Dickie," a contemporary and a friend.

But Madame Pandit, the 85-year-old sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister, can tell grand tales of the last British viceroy, who in changing the life of her country inevitably changed her own.

"He did a lot of harm to India because of the policies he had to carry out so swiftly," she says, referring to the hasty decision to divide the colony into India and Pakistan, leading to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims.

"But personally, he was a charming man. I was in love with him from the moment I saw him until the day he died. As were most people."

Madame Pandit is relaxing under a sun umbrella in her garden, which looks out toward the tree-covered hills that announce the beginning of the Himalayas.

Like Mountbatten, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit is one of the great figures of modern Indian history. She was her brother's ambassador to Moscow, London and Washington, the first woman president of the U.N. General Assembly, a leading freedom fighter who was jailed three times during the Indian independence movement and a bitter and outspoken critic of the politics of her niece, Indira Gandhi.

Now she is a big fan of the grandnephew who she says has finally welcomed her back into the family, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of the assassinated prime minister.

A Trip Back in Time

Spending a few hours with Madame Pandit is to take a trip back four decades and see Mountbatten as a member of one royal family, as viewed by a member of another.

The Nehrus are the first political dynasty of modern India, raised by British nannies and schooled in England, so the Nehru and Mountbatten families seemed destined to become friends. "When I talk about him," Madame Pandit says of Mountbatten, "I sometimes forget who he was."

She has the deep-set eyes and wide mouth of her brother. Sometimes it is startling to see so much of his face in hers. When she was younger, she had the handsome looks of a forceful, charismatic woman, but now there is a softness and sweetness about her.

This is not to say that she has lost her sense of humor and tendency to say whatever she pleases. On this morning, for instance, she casually refers to Queen Elizabeth II, another old friend, as "not a great intellect, of course, but a warm person of many interests."

Madame Pandit, who is still referred to as "Madame" from her days at the United Nations, also says she will never know the exact nature of the unusual friendship that developed between Mountbatten's dazzling and difficult wife, Edwina, and Nehru, a romantic and impassioned man who was widowed at the time.

Paired by Forces of History

It is something that has fascinated the Indians for years. There were Nehru and Mountbatten attempting to bring about the birth of modern India, thrown into a relationship by the forces of history. People have always known that Edwina was an important part of the chemistry that made it work, particularly because she was able to charm and provide solace for the moody Nehru when things seemed to be at their worst.

Last year the especially juicy parts of "Mountbatten," the well-received official biography by Philip Ziegler, were serialized in Indian newspapers, creating a brief flurry of fresh gossip about the threesome.

But Ziegler in the end described the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and her brother as "intensely loving, romantic, trusting, generous, idealistic, even spiritual," adding that "if there was any physical element, it can only have been of minor importance to either party."

Madame Pandit, too, can only speculate. "Edwina was a great friend of my brother's," she says. "A man and a woman can be great friends. I've had many good men friends, but I haven't been to bed with them.

"I think Edwina was an extremely fine woman who was drawn on many levels to my brother. I pity a woman who wouldn't have been. And he found in her a woman with whom he could exchange many thoughts."

If the relationship did become intimate, she adds, "I'm glad. What can I say? I've seen many of the letters, and I've found they are some of the best literature I've read. But that's my brother. They're so beautiful, I think they should be published."

Few Letters Made Public

Madame Pandit says the Nehru family has possession of Edwina's letters to Nehru, and that the Mountbatten family has possession of Nehru's letters to Edwina.

A few letters have been made public, such as one included in Ziegler's biography. It is from Nehru to Edwina, written 10 years after he accompanied the Mountbattens on a 1948 holiday to the mountains near Simla, the old British summer capital.

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