|Saturday, September 16, 2000||
Memoirs of Vijaya
There are two Indians about whom every detail of their lives are common knowledge — Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Both were prolific writers; scholars of contemporary history, admirers and relatives wrote about them. Gandhians and Nehruvians occupy shelves of every library in the land. There is little that a new book on them can reveal. Gandhi and Nehru have become big bores.
The Nehrus produced more writers than the Gandhis. Besides Jawaharlal himself, there was his sister Krishna Hutheesingh who did not scale the same heights as some other relatives and was understandably somewhat critical of her relations. Then there is Nehru’s niece, Nayantara Sahgal, the eminent novelist who gave an insight into the family’s life in Prison and Chocolate Cake. One woman who distinguished herself above all other Indian women of her time was Jawaharlal’s sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit: first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly, first woman Ambassador to Moscow, Washington and High Commissioner to London, first woman Minister of UP, Governor of Maharashtra — and much else. She would have gone further and perhaps ended up as President of our Republic. But her spectacular career was cut short by her own niece, Indira Gandhi, who had become Prime Minister of India. The two women could not stand each other. Vijaya Lakshmi sulkily retired to her home in Dehra Dun. She made one abortive attempt to get back into the limelight when Indira Gandhi was thrown out of power in the elections following abrogation of the Emergency. She was back in politics for a few months, while her daughter Nayantara agreed to go to Rome as India’s Ambassador. Then Indira Gandhi was back as Prime Minister, and both mother and daughter took sanyas in Dehra Dun.
The lacunae in our information about India’s
first family has been filled by the simultaneous publication of two
books by Harper Collins: Before Freedom: Nehru’s Letters to His
Sister (1909-1947) edited by Nayantara Sahgal and The Scope of
Happiness: A Personal Memoir by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. The first
though valuable as a record, does not add very much to what we already
know of Jawaharlal’s views on public and private matters. The second
being in essence an autobiography of Vijaya Lakshmi, merits closer
attention. In a post-script, Nayantara Sahgal regrets that her mother
put family loyalties above personal setbacks to her ambitions;
otherwise she would have "deflated the myth cultivated by Indira Gandhi and her loyal publicists of an Indira woefully wronged (In childhood? In adolescence? In maturity?) by her aunt". Whether true or not there can be little doubt that Indira Gandhi held a grudge against her aunt. When after serving as India’s High Commissioner in London for seven years India’s relations with Great Britain soured, Lord Mountbatten and other English friends of India tried to persuade Indira Gandhi to re-appoint Mrs Pandit as India’s High Commissioner to London. Indira went through the motions of sending for her aunt and putting the proposal to her. Mrs Pandit records: "A week or so later, during a session of the Lok Sabha, I had a message to see the Prime Minister in her office. As I have said before, Indira cannot talk easily even to her closest friends. I sat opposite her and waited for her to say something. Finally she stopped her doodling and told me about the suggestion from the United Kingdom. Then there was silence. "Well", I asked, "What do you think about it?" Silence... then in a very soft voice, she said, "Well, Phuphi (Aunt) I don’t really trust you". I had lived with pretence so long that what she said actually came as a relief. I walked round the table to where she sat and, kissing the top of her head. I said, ‘Thank you, Indu, for telling me the truth!’ She then asked if I would ‘care to go to Paris for a year. De Gaulle likes you, you know’.
This offer I refused. I was certain I did not want to resume a diplomatic career".
Indira Gandhi, despite her many achievements, could be very petty and vengeful towards people she did not like. She extended her vengefulness to Nayantara Sahgal as well. At the time Nayantara had left her husband and was living with E.N. Mangat Rai, ICS, who was Additional Secretary of an important department of Government. He was an outstanding civil servant with a reputation for ability and integrity. Indira deprived him of his right to become a Secretary in the Government of India,which compelled him to seek retirement from service. And when Morarji Desai as Prime Minister appointed Nayantara Sahgal as India’s Ambassador to Rome (by then she had married Mangat Rai), the first thing Indira Gandhi did when she returned to power was to cancel the appointment.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit started writing her memoirs when she was 78 years old,relying entirely on her memory of past days. Her memory did not fail her and she continued to cherish her relations and friends till she died in her 90s.
What comes as a pleasant surprise is that she could handle the English language with skill. Reminiscing of her days in prison, she writes: "Bare and unscalable walls deprive us of the sidelong shafts of the sun and effectively shut out the dawn as well as the violet light of the sun slipping below the horizon. Vexed by the flies, the dust, the glare and the surroundings I think of the Himalayas. The mountains are good friends. It feels good to have such big strong friends. I long to see the dark belts of the pines stalking over the landscape and sense the abiding peace and beauty of the forests which are unaware of the agonies and convulsions of a continent. A dream of the sun-drenched Khali garden where the apricot and peach lead the other fruit trees in the blossom parade, and the acacia and mimosa distil their season fragrance and spread their feathery greenness on the mountain air... Nevertheless, I venture to look forward for war releases dynamic forces — to the time when humanity will take, as it must if it is to continue its upward path, the great step across the bounds of nation and race in a larger and wider human fellowship...."
Why women remember, men forget
You may recall from your own experience or those of close friends that when men and women have a casual affair, men get it out of their minds as soon as it is over while women linger over it and look forward to a repeat performance. This is not always so with one-night stands, as they are called, but by and large men forget about them sooner than women. I explained the phenomenon as due to the man’s innate promiscuity and the female’s tendency to get emotionally involved even in a passing affair. It has a simple biological reason: men have an affair without much
caring about women they are intimate with but at the back of every woman’s mind is the possibility of her getting pregnant and having to look after the child. They have an in-born nest-complex which impels them to invest in males to have somebody to share the burden of motherhood.
Apparently there is more to male casualness and female concern than this common sense explanation. In a recent issue of Nature Genetics, American scientists have written about a hormone called oxytocin which plays a vital role in establishing male-female relationship. As is usual with scientists, laboratory tests were made on rats. They found that male rats with the normal supply of hormone oxytocin when re-introduced to females with whom they had been intimate earlier, had no difficulty in recognising them and were casual in their approach. However, when introduced to females they had not known earlier, they sniffed around them (as men make passes at women) and were more excited by the prospect of making a new conquest.
Those in short supply of this hormone had shorter memories and had to reintroduce themselves to females they had known earlier. How much of this applies to humans has yet to be established. More experiments are afoot in this new branch of science called neuro-biology.
Note: Khushwant Singh is away on holiday. There will be no column next week.