Jawaharlal Nehru's letters to Indira Gandhi from prison continue to teach and inspire the young & the old
Indira Gandhi was 10 years old when her father Jawaharlal Nehru, in prison in Allahabad, wrote around 30 letters in 1928. Almost a century later, they continue to teach and inspire
Last month on my granddaughter Nandini's ninth birthday, I gifted her a copy of Nehru's Letters from a Father to His Daughter. This was nearly the age at which, another child, Indira, to whom these letters were originally addressed, had received them from her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, then in Allahabad, where he had been lodged in prison by the British, while she was at Mussoorie.
I consider the act akin to the poet Yeats reading A Prayer for My Daughter to his new born child Anne, with gloom in his mind, as violence is unleashed on the streets of Dublin. He prays to see her protected from the "arrogance and hatred" that are being peddled around in the thoroughfares of his beloved country.
Things in India today look eerily similar to those prevailing in Yeats" native Ireland in 1919 or thereabouts. Mercifully, though, violence is not yet out on the street on a mass scale, arrogance and hatred are being traded in public and in homes on a daily basis.
For a child growing up in such perilous times, Nehru's Letters from a Father to his Daughter made for an ideal birthday gift.
The ideas expressed therein would hopefully instil in her mind a spirit of free inquiry and she would blossom into a bright young woman, devoid of bigotry and superstition. She would also grow up with a holistic view of the world we live in.
Letters from a Father to his Daughter is a masterpiece in its content and style.
Nehru does not want to teach Indira as much as he wants to inspire her to learn. So, he begins by recalling how she would ask him many questions when they were together and he would answer them. Since she was away from him, he would write and tell her the story of the earth and of the many countries spread on it. Nehru writes as if he is physically present and talking to his little daughter.
Rather than lecture her on dry facts, Nehru reminds her of the many places they had visited together and tells her to recall the things they had seen there. This is meant to make her think about things herself.
The natural teacher in Nehru knew by instinct that this was a better way of making a child learn. He writes:
The kings and emperors of old times left the accounts of their reigns written on stone tablets and pillars. Books cannot last long. Their paper rots away or gets moth eaten. But stones last much longer. Perhaps you remember seeing the great stone pillar of Ashoka in Allahabad Fort. (Letters from a father to His Daughter, Allahabad Law Journal, 1929, Page 8)
Perhaps you remember a gentleman who came to see us in Geneva. His name is Sir Jagadish Bose. He has shown by experiments thatplants have a great deal of life and he thinks that even stones have some life. (ibid, Page 15)
I have told you already that in the Neolithic age the Mediterranean was not a sea at all. Suddenly the land near Gibraltar between Europe and Africa was washed away and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean continued to pour in till it had filled up the valley and the Mediterranean Sea came into existence we now see today. (ibid, Page 34)
Which school text book would explain a turbulent geological event like the formation of the Mediterranean Sea in so unforgettable a manner?
The content of Letters from a Father to his Daughter encompasses all major areas of human knowledge, from Palaeontology to the origin of the Solar system and from the concept of kingship to the idea of distribution of surplus wealth of the society. The most profound wisdom evolved by the human mind is communicated to the child, Indira, in these letters, by her doting father.
Nehru reveals in the first letter itself that he wants Indira to become a true citizen of the World and not a parochial nationalist. He writes:
I am afraid I can only tell you very little in these letters of mine. But that little, I hope will interest you and make you think of the world as a whole, and of other peoples in it as our brothers and sisters. (ibid, Page 1, 2)
In order to think of this world as a family of nations, Nehru believes that his daughter would have to be free of racial bias. "People's complexion," he tells her, "is the result of the climate they live in. This has nothing to do with the worthiness or goodness or beauty of a person." (ibid, Page 37)
The idea of oneness of the world is stressed several times. Nehru would later become, along with Bertrand Russell, Norman Cousins and others, an advocate for a World Government.
He tells Indira that as "Indians we have to live in India and work for India. But we must not forget that we belong to the larger family of the world and the people living in other countries are after all our cousins." (ibid, Page, 48)
A false pride in one"s country, Nehru explains to Indira, is erroneous: “The Englishman thinks he and his country are the best; the Frenchman is very proud of France and everything French; the Germans and Italians think no end of their countries; and many Indians imagine that India is in many ways the greatest country in the world. This is all conceit. (ibid, Page, 47)
And this conceit was dangerous too and had often led to conflict and war. The pacifist father warns Indira about the horror of War. Talking about the First World War that killed and maimed millions, he wonders if it was a very civilised or sensible thing for people to kill each other like this.
"If two men fight in the street", he says, "the policeman separates them and everybody thinks how silly they are. But how much sillier and more foolish it is for countries to fight each other and kill thousands and millions? "(Page, 50)
Nehru wants Indira to be free of all superstition. A rational explanation of the origin of the idea of God is offered to her. The idea of God, and of religion, he says, came out of the early man"s ignorance and fear of natural things.
"Nature", he tells her, "must have seemed to him an enemy sending hail and snow and earthquakes... he thought that some God was trying to hit him.... How could he please him? So he would take some meat or kill an animal to please the god... He would go so far as to sacrifice a man or a woman, or even his children to appease the Gods. (Page, 54, 55, 62) This seems horrible, he says, but a man who was afraid would do anything.
In an interesting reference, Nehru tells Indira how some clever men, given the right to collect revenue, usurped people's power and declared themselves kings. They also squandered the money collected from people on themselves. "In India," he says, "we have still many rajas and maharajas and nawabs. You see them going about with fine clothes in expensive motor cars and spending a lot of money on themselves. Where do they get all this money from? They get it in taxes from the people". (Pages, 72, 73)
He also tells Indira how some people got to get more money than many who remained poor. "The rich people today," he says, "are those who have plenty of surplus wealth, the poor have none at all. Later you will see how this surplus comes. It is not so much because one person works more than another, but nowadays a person who does not work at all gets the surplus, while the hard worker often gets no part of it!
"This seems a very silly arrangement. Many people think that it is because of this stupid arrangement that there are so many poor people in the world." (Page, 62).
The presence of hereditary privileges and the unequal division of wealth must have looked outrageous to the precocious child that Indira was. Later as Prime Minister, she would abolish the privy purses of the princes and strip them of their privileges. She would also see that some part of the surplus wealth of the society came to the poor too.
To attain that goal she would, among other things, nationalise fourteen commercial banks so the poor could also have access to money. "Low-paid government and other employees, taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers...(the) unemployed and others who had never seen the interior of a bank ... danced in the streets and held rallies outside Indira's bungalow," noted veteran journalist Inder Malhotra. The daughter had turned the dreams of a father into reality!
With so much knowledge contained in fewer than two hundred pages, I wonder why the book was never prescribed for school syllabus, even by Congress governments, often accused of promoting Nehru's name?