When I first visited India, in 1976, political conversation was full of the linguistic conventions of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had died 12 years earlier. One bowed in ritual regard before "the steel frame of the bureaucracy"; one warned against the "fissiparous tendencies" posed by religious or regional chauvinism; one professed faith in "the socialistic pattern of society," even without quite knowing what it meant. The streets were full of white Ambassadors, India's clunky domestic car, as they had been in Nehru's time. And the best and the brightest aspired to join the Indian Civil Service, as they had in Nehru's time.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
India independence -- In Sunday's Book Review, a review of two books on the life of Jawaharlal Nehru incorrectly stated that India gained independence from Great Britain in 1946. It took place in 1947.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 01, 2004 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Indian independence -- A review of two books on the life of Jawaharlal Nehru in the Jan. 25 Book Review incorrectly stated that India gained its independence from the British in 1946. In fact, it took place in 1947.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 01, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
India independence -- In the Jan. 25 Book Review, a review of two books on the life of Jawaharlal Nehru incorrectly stated that India gained independence from Britain in 1946. It took place in 1947.
India, which gained independence from the British in 1946, is today a much older sovereign nation than it was when I was there. And the Nehruvian world I knew seems almost as archaic as the imperial culture that preceded it. Socialism is a dead letter, and India is struggling to thrive in a world of globalized capitalism. Bright young people go into software development. The old Congress Party has been supplanted in power by a party professing the Hindu nationalist values that Nehru and his generation considered the single greatest threat to India's future. The spirit of disinterestedness, personal austerity and secular cosmopolitanism that Nehru sought to foster are all but defunct. Nehru is often considered the George Washington of India, but the Founding Fathers seem to have left a more lasting imprint on the United States than Nehru and his revolutionary generation did on India.
What are we to make of Nehru, and of Nehru's India, 40 years after the great man's death? Nehru is unique in modern history, not only the father figure of his country, but also a gifted writer and global actor who offered his people an exhilarating emblem of modernity.
Nehru is a biographer's dream, and over the last half century he has been the subject of books by leading Indian writers as well as by American and British figures. An exhaustive three-volume work by Sarvepalli Gopal appeared between 1975 and 1984. Stanley Wolpert, a leading American authority on India, published a psycho-biography in 1996 that promised to unearth the "passions and fears which drove and tortured Nehru" and featured dizzying leaps of speculation about the great man's sex life.
Two new biographies of Nehru -- one a brief and nimble sketch by Indian writer and diplomat Shashi Tharoor, the other a more substantial work of history by a British scholar of India, Judith M. Brown -- make no attempt to answer such palpitating questions as whether Nehru had an affair with Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of Lord Mountbatten, viceroy of India after World War II. But both try, in different ways, to measure just how successful Nehru was in his quest to reshape India according to the idea of it that he carried in his head and, especially in Tharoor's case, to ask whether India might have been better off with a different set of ideas.
Nehru once described himself as India's last English ruler. He was, by upbringing and experience, a remarkably unrepresentative figure, given his later iconic status. The son of a wealthy lawyer, Nehru was sent to Harrow and Cambridge, where he enjoyed a sort of Prince Hal phase as a dandy and spendthrift. He absorbed English manners and habits of thought and speech.
How this hothouse plant turned into a revolutionary firebrand is something of a mystery, and yet, as Brown points out, even as a young man Nehru was prone to bouts of withdrawal and solitude that kept him from being seduced by his surroundings; this afforded him a melancholy and critical perspective quite rare in a man of action.
Once back in the increasingly turbulent atmosphere of India in the years before World War I, Nehru might well have joined the ranks of well-heeled barristers demanding to be treated more like Englishmen. But he was deflected from that lesser destiny by the immense influence of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Biographers have made much of this extraordinary relationship, which in many ways echoed that between Nehru and his beloved, demanding father. It was Gandhi who persuaded Nehru -- and his terribly proper father -- to throw off foreign garb and to fight the British empire in a way that would resonate with the ordinary Indian.
Gandhi's gift for touching the hearts of millions of his countrymen made him indispensable to the anti-British campaign. But Nehru, with his English rationalism and secularism, found Gandhi's religiosity obscure and maddening, and he raged against the older man's habit of calling off protests at the first sign of disorder or violence. And yet the older he got, the more convinced Nehru became of Gandhi's conviction that change must begin in the heart of each man, until, ironically, he died almost a Gandhian.