Shobha Nehru, wife of late BK Nehru, passes away at 108

As the wife of the distinguished Indian diplomat, ‘Fori Nehru’, as she was popularly known, made friends easily and was on first name terms with many political figures. She passed away on Tuesday morning

Photo Courtesy: YouTube
Photo Courtesy: YouTube
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NH Web Desk

Shobha Nehru, wife of former Indian Ambassador to the United States BK Nehru, passed away at the age of 108 at her Kasauli residence on Tuesday morning. Aunt of Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, she was better known as ‘Fori Aunty’ to the residents of Kasauli, the hill town that she had made her home in Himachal Pradesh.

Born in Hungary as Magdolna Friedman, ill-treatment of the Jews in Europe prompted her parents to change the family name to Forbath which led her to acquiring the nickname Fori in school.

Her parents had a family business of toys and furniture. She and her parents escaped the Holocaust and the ravages of the Second World War because they had moved to India. Her brother Joseph Friedman, who was an officer in the Hungarian army, narrowly escaped as a fellow officer hid him in his house when the Nazis came looking for him. He managed to escape to Australia and settled down there. Many of her other family members, though, were not so lucky.

She met BK Nehru in Oxford and the couple decided to get married if she could adjust to India. She arrived in India in 1934 and they got married the next year. By then, she had picked up enough Hindi to impress people in Allahabad, many of whom took her to be also from Kashmir.

As the wife of the Indian envoy in Washington, she made friends easily and was on first name terms with several political figures. Henry Kissinger, though he called Indira Gandhi names, was reportedly close to the Nehrus. When Fori Nehru turned 101, stock market wizard George Soros flew down to Chandigarh in his plane to wish her. In the seventies, Indo-US relations reached a low when President Nixon and Kissinger chose to twist the arm of Indira Gandhi by rushing the US Seventh Fleet to the Indian Ocean. But Kissinger remained friendly with BK Nehru with whom he is believed to have engaged in a Track II diplomacy.

There is the endearing story of President Lyndon Johnson dropping in at the Indian Ambassador’s house unannounced on the day the Nehrus were hosting a dinner for Indira Gandhi who was visiting. While dinner time approached, the US President refused to leave. It was heading towards a protocol crisis because the President was not invited, when Fori Nehru rescued the situation by requesting the President to join them for dinner. The President readily agreed and one of the guests was hurriedly dropped to make space for the President at the table.

Fori Nehru enjoyed a special relationship with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, her husband’s cousin. During the Partition, she played an active role in securing Muslim women and in the rehabilitation of Hindu and Sikh women refugees pouring in from West Punjab. Spotting their natural gift for embroidery and knitting, she and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay set up a welfare organisation which was a precursor to the Handicrafts Board.

She developed a special affinity to India’s North-Eastern states when BK Nehru was stationed there as the Governor of Assam. In one of her rare interviews to the media, she is quoted as saying, “I went to the local bazaars in Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya and chatted with the local women to learn more about the region. In Mizoram, I saw such great sarongs and exquisite designs that I cannot imagine how the local young girls nowadays wear anything else apart from their own local creations.”

In the same interview, she admitted to have been mesmerised by the local jackfruit in Tripura. which she sent to her friends in Delhi. “Those were the most marvellous fruits I had in this land and I always wondered about the white palace of the Maharaja of Tripura. I called it the wedding cake,” she said.

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Published: 25 Apr 2017, 8:45 PM