Who was Nehru?

A new biography of Nehru by Stanley Wolpert has attracted scorn in New Delhi. Katherine Frank, who is herself writing a biography of Indira Gandhi, asks what we can learn from Wolpert's failures. If post-modern biography has liberated itself from portraying a "true self," does this mean that anything goes?
May 19, 1997

So far the 50th anniversary of Indian independence appears to have stimulated more excitement outside the country. The cultural imports have come flooding in: a special India number of Granta, new books by expatriate Indians such as Gita Mehta and Rohinton Mistry, popular histories of partition and biographies of prominent figures in the freedom movement, including India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. I am currently writing a life of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, and I arrived in Delhi in late January along with the first copies of Stanley Wolpert's Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny-the import which has without doubt attracted the most scorn.

For weeks the newspapers and magazines were full of reviews with headlines such as "Experiments With Half-truths," "Warts and All" or "A Below the Belt Attack." Just when the furore showed signs of waning, Wolpert, who is distinguished professor of Indian history at the University of California in Los Angeles, sent a stream of faxes to Indian papers from southern California and gave a series of telephone interviews condemning "the vicious and malicious attacks against me and my most important book."

The principal topic of conversation in academic circles, at smart New Delhi dinner parties, at the Gymkhana Club and India International Centre has been Wolpert's Nehru, or more precisely Wolpert's allegations that Nehru had homosexual relationships at Harrow and Cambridge and slept with Edwina Mountbatten, the last Vicereine. Even more damagingly, Indians object to Wolpert's portrayal of Nehru as an Anglophile outsider. For Wolpert takes at face value Nehru's self-mocking description of himself as "the last Englishman to rule India," and argues that he would have been more at home at Broadlands with Edwina than at Teen Murti, the prime minister's house, with Indira.

Biographies have been described as the books little people write about big ones, and being attacked by those to whom the big person remains dear is one of the occupational hazards of biographers. Nehru is not the first big man Wolpert has tackled: his book on Mahatma Gandhi, Nine Hours to Rama, was banned in India as was his life of Jinnah in Pakistan. There were rumours that Nehru would also be banned and that Wolpert had been denied a visa to come to India to promote it. But the book presents no threat to Indian law and order (the only legal grounds for banning a book) and Wolpert's failure to turn up here was his own decision.

Nehru is a disappointing book, but if it was merely poorly researched, badly written and devoid of insight, it would not be worth wasting words on it beyond the damning reviews it has received in India, Britain and the US. Nehru is that rare phenomenon -an instructive bad book which raises fundamental questions about the writing of biography.

Many Indian intellectuals and academics curl their lips at the mention of the book's title. Sarvepalli Gopal, Nehru's authorised biographer and the editor of his collected works, told me to quote his assessment of it as "stupid and third-rate." But the book has sold well. Despite the fact that the publisher, Oxford University Press, has done little to publicise it, the 700 copies imported from New York quickly sold out even at the exorbitant (by Indian standards) price of 675 rupees. The second shipment is now being rapidly depleted. As one critic put it, "there is gold in other people's dirt."

So, let us get the dirt out of the way. Was Nehru gay? There is no evidence that he was. Wolpert builds a far-fetched case on the facts that Nehru's tutor Ferdinand Brooks was a homosexual, that Nehru dressed up in a sari during amateur theatricals and that once on holiday in Norway he was rescued from a rushing river torrent by a male friend, an episode for which Wolpert provides the following gloss: "Can Jawahar's strange accident in Norway be read as his own carefully doctored metaphoric confession of a passionate, 'hot' and 'icy cold'-indeed 'numbing'-love affair with a young Englishman too important for him to name, too dear to forget, his heroic other?"

Did Nehru go to bed with Edwina Mountbatten? At least three people who have read the correspondence between them know: S Gopal, Janet Morgan, Edwina Mountbatten's biographer, and Pamela Hicks, the Mountbattens' youngest daughter. Gopal says it was a sexual "dalliance"; Morgan and Hicks maintain it was platonic. Wolpert did not consult either Gopal or Pamela Hicks. He does, however, fulsomely thank Janet Morgan for speaking with him at great length even though he flatly contradicts her chaste view of the Nehru-Edwina relationship.

Even in our post-modern age biography should be a product of scholarship. Wolpert's scholarship is, at times, cursory. The majority of the manuscript material written by and about Nehru and other primary evidence connected with his life is housed at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library at Teen Murti in New Delhi. Wolpert never seems to have visited the place: the Nehru Library receives no mention in his book. All his references are to published sources, including Gopal's 17-volume Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nehru's pre-1947 papers at the Nehru Library are easily accessible to bona fide researchers such as Wolpert and myself. Papers after 1947 are closed, but Nehru's heirs (reduced now to Sonia Gandhi and her children) and the prime minister may grant access at their discretion. To my knowledge, this has happened only twice. One of the two so privileged was Gopal who was asked by Indira Gandhi to write her father's biography. Wolpert, like many other scholars and writers, was not granted permission to see the post-independence papers. This seems to have left him feeling bitter. He made a pilgrimage to Sonia Gandhi "at her Jan Path fortress in New Delhi" only to be rebuffed when he asked to see the correspondence between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. Yet Wolpert makes it appear in his preface that all of Nehru's papers are embargoed and that his plea to Sonia Gandhi was rejected because there is a conspiracy to conceal "the deepest passions and fears that drove and tortured Nehru... For almost a decade foolish British bureaucrats kept Jawaharlal Nehru behind bars, and his equally foolish heirs and self-appointed guardians have locked up his mind and heart for three times as long."

Undaunted by his failure in Delhi, Wolpert flew to England to see Lord Romsey, Mountbatten's grandson, and was told that the "family line is that [Edwina and Nehru] were simply good friends." But why did Wolpert consult Romsey, who never knew Edwina or Nehru, rather than Pamela Hicks, Mountbatten's daughter who lived with her parents in Delhi in 1947-48, knew Nehru and his family well, and who told me last December that she had read all the letters exchanged between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten shortly after her mother's death in 1960? Another example of Wolpert's eccentric scholarship is the deference accorded the views of a man named MO Mathai. Mathai was Nehru's personal secretary between 1946 and 1959 and enjoyed enormous power over him. Even more importantly, Mathai was in the employ of the CIA and regularly passed on information to the American government. In the late 1970s, when Nehru was long dead and Indira Gandhi out of power, Mathai published two autobiographical books about his years with Nehru that caused even more of a rumpus than Wolpert's book is doing today. In Reminiscences of the Nehru Age and My Days with Nehru Mathai alleged that Nehru had numerous lovers, including Edwina Mountbatten, and at least one illegitimate child. Mathai also claimed that he himself had had a 12-year love affair with Indira Gandhi before he was dismissed by Nehru in 1959 on charges of corruption. It is, of course, significant that Mathai waited 20 years before telling his story-until Nehru was safely dead and Indira Gandhi had been defeated in the post-emergency 1977 general elections.

Wolpert's Nehru is a lazy book, full of lengthy quotations from Nehru's many published works and Gopal's Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was a fluent, graceful, consistently engaging writer. Some of the happiest hours I have spent working on my biography of Indira Gandhi have been reading Nehru. But he is best read in his own books-his Autobiography, Glimpses of World History, Prison Diary and The Discovery of India, all of which were written during his lengthy prison terms-rather than in the chunks Wolpert wrenches out of them. Unfortunately Nehru's felicitous prose emphasises Wolpert's own limitations as a writer. Here, for example, is Wolpert on Nehru in 1950, contemplating resigning the prime ministership, and running off with Edwina Mountbatten in a passage that might have come out of Mills & Boon: "He was sorely tempted... to give up his job and fly off with her, back to Broadlands where he could live out whatever remained of his life in its beauty and splendour. The Duke of Windsor had given up more for much less... Why not fly away with her? What happier escape from perdition to paradise? He felt sorely tempted."

Wolpert always seems to know what is going on inside his subject's head. The opening chapter, "Tryst With Destiny" largely consists of a transcript of Nehru's famous midnight speech on 15th August 1947 interspersed with Wolpert's record of what Nehru was thinking as he articulated his celebrated words. And just what was Nehru considering? Not the cause he had devoted his life to-Indian independence. Not the communal carnage that was already engulfing the country, nor the Herculean task ahead of modernising a vast impoverished country. No, according to Wolpert, Nehru was thinking about the dynasty he was founding to rule India for generations to come: "Darling Indu sat in the front row, smiling up at him. His only child, Indira, was not yet 30 but already the 'old soul' he knew her to be. She would carry the torch when his fingers faltered and his body failed. And she had given him two grandsons to continue after his own body returned to ash and dust: Rajiv, her heir, and Sanjay, the 'spare,' both Nehru boys despite their surname of Gandhi. All three his progeny... all Nehrus, destined to rule. India would long remain in sound and safe hands after his own ageing body had withered away, of that he could now rest assured." This passage occurs on page two of the biography and for the next 500 pages, the torch of power and Nehru's faltering fingers and Indira's waiting grasp recur in defiance of everything that Jawaharlal Nehru believed, fought and lived for. There is simply no reliable evidence that he wanted his daughter to succeed him and considerable evidence that he thought her unqualified and ill equipped to do so.

There is much else wrong with Nehru. As many reviewers have noted, it lacks political analysis. Recent Indian history, in Wolpert's telling, consists of the interaction of a handful of colourful personalities with whom he is often on first name terms: Jawaharlal and his leonine father Motilal Nehru, saintly Bapu [Gandhi], effete Jinnah, rugged Patel, "darling Indu." The book is also lopsided: out of 500 pages, Wolpert devotes less than 70 to Nehru's 17 years as prime minister. And this cursory sketch dwells on Nehru's trips abroad (eight pages, for example, on his 1949 trip to the US). The only domestic issue Wolpert deals with at any length is Kashmir. The planning commission, the successive five year plans, the dismissal of the Kerala Communist government in 1959, the debacle of the 1962 war with China are all glossed over or ignored.

What do Wolpert's failures tell us about the problems of biography? There are cross-cultural considerations. At the beginning of his Autobiography or the Story of My Experiments with Truth Mahatma Gandhi relates how a friend chided him for writing his life story: "What has set you on this adventure? Writing an autobiography is a practice peculiar to the west. I know of nobody in the east who has written one." Seventy years after Gandhi wrote these words, people in India have told me that both autobiography and biography are western forms, alien to the Indian personality and context. Indians, it is said, have family, group, caste, religious, regional and national rather than individual identities. Autobiography and biography celebrate the cult of the indivi-dual. The Indian "communal" identity demands a different kind of life story. Can a westerner-such as Wolpert or myself-understand an Indian life? It is a question worth asking but Wolpert does not try: he turns Nehru into the last Englishman to rule India.

His treatment of Nehru's marriage reflects Wolpert's cultural obtuseness. It was an arranged marriage to which Nehru reluctantly submitted at the age of 27. Kamala Nehru was ten years his junior, unsophisticated and uneducated. She was alternately patronised and ignored by Nehru's sisters, and chronically ill. There was little privacy in the huge extended Nehru family home, and Nehru was in any case wholly caught up in the freedom struggle. But when her husband was jailed, Kamala took his place in the movement, demonstrated, boycotted, even went to jail. After more than a decade of marriage, Nehru was deeply moved by his wife's courage and became profoundly attached to her. His Almora prison diary, kept while Kamala was dying of tuberculosis in a sanatorium in nearby Bhowali, makes heartrending reading. Kamala, who had always been religious, became even more devout as she approached death. This dismayed her agnostic husband and he was distraught when she told him she wanted to adopt Gandhi's ideal of marital brahmachara or celibacy and thus no longer wished to have sex with him. Nehru's prison diary account of Kamala's sexual rejection of him is significant because it reveals that there was passion in the relationship even after many years of marriage and despite Kamala's protracted illness. But this unconventional tragic love story does not suit Wolpert's view of Nehru as a youthful homosexual and middle aged adulterer and so he portrays the relationship between Nehru and Kamala as the loveless, perfunctory union that many westerners assume all arranged marriages to be.

I have a related problem with Indira Gandhi. She came to believe that she alone with her tightly controlled Congress (I) party could hold India together. The western biographer is predisposed to see this as megalomania. But there is another view, one which accepts that Indira Gandhi's identity was fused with a larger enduring national identity that dwarfed personal significance and justified dubious practices. The Communist MP Hiren Mukherjee, who knew Indira Gandhi well and consistently opposed her, nevertheless assured me that she possessed a deep and abiding patriotism.

The hagiographical tradition of life writing that Lytton Strachey discredited for us 80 years ago in Eminent Victorians remains alive and well in India. We credit Strachey with revolutionising biographical practice, but working in India one is forced to at least consider whether the debunking impulse that he inaugurated really is an evolutionary advance in life writing. Is demolishing or demeaning a superior activity to praising and celebrating? Is the attack on Wolpert merely the reflex defence of Nehru as a political icon or is it saying something larger about how we should treat other people-great or small?

Many people in India I have talked to-some of whom knew Nehru well-tell me that they do not recognise the man who goes by that name in Wolpert's book. Underlying this criticism is the assumption that Nehru possessed a single, coherent "true self" that Wolpert was obligated to portray. This is now considered a na?ve and erroneous assumption. Critics such as Kathryn Hughes have persuasively called for a new, post-modern biography liberated from the tyranny of chronology and the "lie at the heart of life writing of the known and knowable self." We must, indeed, acknowledge that there is no single, stable, known and knowable self that the biographer retrieves. But does that mean that a biographer can say whatever he or she feels about the subject? If the mirror of realism has shattered, do we have only the dim lamps of speculation, political correctness and fashion to light the biographical trail? In her study of Sylvia Plath's biographers, The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm depicts the biographer as a combination of voyeur and burglar: a snoop peeking through the keyhole, a thief ransacking drawers, carrying off the goods. Certainly there is enormous pressure on the biographer-who has to earn a living-to come up with goods. But do the dead have no rights?

Legally it would seem they do not. In 1984, just a few months before her death, Indira Gandhi successfully sued Salman Rushdie for libel when he wrote in Midnight's Children that she had caused her husband's fatal heart attack by neglecting him. Mrs G, as she is still known in India, will not, however, be able to sue me for anything that I say about her, just as Nehru cannot refute Wolpert's allegations. The dead are not only silenced, they are dispossessed.

The fact that the dead no longer have control over their lives is all the more reason why the biographer must tread with caution. The posthumous existence of his or her subject rests in the biographer's hands. Many more people have met Nehru in biographies of him than knew him in person. As the image of the man fades in living memory and as the people who knew him die, Nehru's existence shrinks to what has been written about and by him. Life is short but art is long. Biography has a certain longevity, too, and this should entail a compact between biographer and subject.

But what the terms of that compact should be is harder to say. Western biographers today are acutely aware of the narrative-even fictional-possibilities of their practice. This can result in aesthetically accomplished biographies which are a pleasure to read. But there is a danger in this new literary self-consciousness: our subjects may become alienated from their historical records-interesting "creations" untethered to the past. Biographers create their subjects just as novelists fabricate characters, but not out of dust. Even as we invent our biographical subjects, we must also grant them their autonomy.

Writing about Indira Gandhi I am sustained by two beliefs: that she was once alive, and that I have a responsibility to her even though she is safe from any harm or good I may do to her. Her fate, however, does not rest in my hands, nor does Nehru's in Wolpert's. No fewer than 26 writers have produced books on Indira Gandhi and mine will not be the last. Wolpert's instructively bad biography is already withering on the vine: two more Nehru biographies are in the pipeline. No one will ever have the last word.