How Jawaharlal Nehru travelled through India, in his own words

In this extract from Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru recalls his 23-hour days and travels on bicycles, boats and on elephant back in 1936-37

Pandit Jawaharlal NEHRU on horseback in the 1930’s. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)
Pandit Jawaharlal NEHRU on horseback in the 1930’s. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Mridula Mukherjee

We hear often these days of the tremendous energy displayed by political leaders hopping from rally to rally in helicopters. Contrast this with Jawaharlal Nehru’s account in The Discovery of India of his election tours in 1936-37, more than eight decades ago, in which on one occasion he clocked a 23-hour day, and the variety of modes of transport used by him, which included elephants, canoes, bicycles, and his own feet.

Read about it in his own words:

Towards the end of 1936 and in the early months of 1937 my touring progressively gathered speed and became frantic. I passed through this vast country like some hurricane, travelling night and day, always on the move, hardly staying anywhere, hardly resting.

There were urgent demands for me from all parts and time was limited, for the general elections were approaching and I was supposed to be an election-winner for others. I travelled mostly by automobile, partly by aero-plane and railway. Occasionally I had to use, for short distances, an elephant, a camel, or a horse; or travel by steamer, paddle-boat, or canoe; or use a bicycle, or go on foot.

These odd and varied methods of transport sometimes became necessary in the interior, far from the beaten track. I carried a double set of microphones and loud speakers with me, for it was not possible to deal with the vast gatherings in any other way; nor indeed could I otherwise retain my voice. Those microphones went with me to all manner of strange places, from the frontiers of Tibet to the border of Baluchistan, where no such thing had ever been seen or heard of previously.

From early morning till late at night I travelled from place to place where great gatherings awaited me, and in between these there were numerous stops where patient villagers stood to greet me. These were impromptu affairs, which upset my heavy programme and delayed all subsequent engagements; and yet how was it possible for me to rush by, unheeding and careless of these humble folk?

Delay was added to delay and, at the big open-air gatherings, it took many minutes for me to pass through the crowds to the platform, and later to come away. Every minute counted, and the minutes piled up on top of each other and became hours; so that by the time evening came I was several hours late.

But the crowd was waiting patiently, though it was winter and they sat and shivered in the open, insufficiently clad as they were. My day’s programme would thus prolong itself to eighteen hours and we would reach our journey’s end for the day at midnight or after.

Once in the Karnatak(sic), in mid-February, we passed all bounds and broke our own records. The day’s programme was a terribly heavy one and we had to pass through a very beautiful mountain forest with winding and none-too-good roads, which could only be tackled slowly. There were half-a-dozen monster meetings and many smaller ones.

We began the day by a function at eight in the morning; our last engagement was at 4 a.m. (it should have been seven hours earlier), and then we had to cover another seventy miles before we reached our resting place for the night. We arrived at 7 a.m. having covered 415 miles that day and night, apart from numerous meetings. It had been a twenty-three-hour day and an hour later I had to begin my next day’s programme….

Occasionally in passing through a small town I would be surprised to notice that it was almost deserted and the shops were closed. The explanation came to me when I saw that almost the entire population of the town, men, women, and even children, had gathered at the meeting-place, on the other side of the town, and were waiting patiently for my arrival.

How I managed to carry on in this way without physical collapse, I cannot understand now, for it was a prodigious feat of physical endurance. Gradually, I suppose, my system adapted itself to this vagrant life. I would sleep heavily in the automobile for half an hour between two meetings and find it hard to wake up.

Yet I had to get up and the sight of a great cheering crowd would finally wake me. I reduced my meals to a minimum and often dropped a meal, especially in the evenings, feeling the better for it. But what kept me up and filled me with vitality was the vast enthusiasm and affection that surrounded me and met me everywhere I went. I was used to it, and yet I could never get quite used to it, and every new day brought its surprises.

Excerpts from Jawaharlal Nehru, The Discovery of India, Asia Publishing House, 1960 edition, pp 50-52.

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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