Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Nehru and Edwina: A subcontinental love

The relationship between India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Edwina Mountbatten has long been shrouded in mystery and secrecy. It is a no go area for the Congress party in India which has always shielded the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty from controversies. Congressmen certainly do not want it to become a matter of public discourse, duh.

 'A great and unique love': brought together by their work with the victims of India's partition, Jawahar and Edwina can be seen holding hands during a visit to a refugee camp in this rare photograph.

However, the details about their intimate relationship are already in public domain in the form of a book. Indian Summer – The Secret History of the End of an Empire, by Alex Von Tunzelmann offers a vivid account of a special bond the couple shared and complex relationship between Edwina and her husband Louis Mountbatten, with the latter playing a role of a willing facilitator of this relationship and furthermore he encouraging it.

It is true there’s no age for falling in love, for love is timeless. All you need is two lonely people, mutual admiration, understanding, and a ‘spiritual’ connection.  Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten had it all in them and yes, they were smitten and in love. In Edwina’s words theirs was a ‘treasured bond’.

They both felt a sense of emptiness. Nehru was a widower while Edwina shared a complicated relationship with her husband.True, Edwina had had affairs before as well and they all were approved and facilitated by Dickie Mountbatten. But "Mountbatten 'supported the relationship between his wife and Nehru more than any of her other affairs," Tunzelmann says.

The couple would regularly write letters to each other. Only after reading them one could understand  the deepness of their love and the kind of special and spiritual relationship they shared.

It was to her husband Edwina entrusted her love letters from Jawahar in 1952. Following a hemorrhage, she had to undergo dangerous surgery. She presented Dickie Mountbatten with a sealed letter before the doctor gave her the anesthetic, telling him where they were.

'You will realize that they are a mixture of typical Jawaha (sic) letters, full of interest and facts and really historic documents', she had written. 'Some of them have no "personal" remarks at all. Others are love letters in a sense, though you yourself will realize the strange relationship - most of it spiritual - which exists between us. J. (Nehru) has obviously meant a very great deal in my life in these last years and I think I in his. Our meetings have been rare and always fleeting but I think I understand him, and perhaps he me, as well as any human beings can ever understand each other.'

'They really dote on each other in the nicest way: Edwina and Jawahar walking together in the forests around Mashobra.

It was an odd sort of confession, and not an apology. Edwina pulled through the operation, but Dickie opened the letter. 

‘I’m glad you realize that I know and have always understood the very special relationship between Jawaha and you – made the easier by my fondness and admiration for him and by the remarkably lucky fact that among my many defects God did not add jealousy in shape or form’, he wrote to her. ‘That is why I’ve always made your visits to each other easy and been faintly hurt when at times……you didn’t take me into your confidence right away.’ 

There’s an interesting tale told by S.S Pirzada, later Foreign Minister of Pakistan, that Jinnah had been handed a small collection of letters that had been written by Edwina and Jawahar. 

Dickie will be out tonight – come after 10.00 o’clock,’ said one of Edwina’s.

Another revealed that:  'You forgot your handkerchief and before Dickie could spot it I covered it up.’ 
A third said: ‘I have fond memories of Simla – riding and your touch.’

Pirzada claimed that Jinnah discussed what to do about these letters with Ftima and his colleagues. In the end, Jinnah concluded that ‘Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion’, and had the letters returned.

On another occasion, when Jawahar and Edwina were staying together in Nainital in the Himalyan foothills, the Governor's son was sent to summon the guests for dinner. Unwittingly, he opened the door of the Prime Minister's suite, and was confronted by the sight of Jawahar and Edwina in an embrace. He tactfully retreated, and nothing was ever said about the incident. These were the days of discretion in political life. 

Though such stories were never made fully public, hints of them leaked out. An anti-Nehru party in Delhi began using the slogan,

'Break open Rama's heart, you will find Sita written on it; break open Nehru's heart you will find Lady Mountbatten written on it.'

So deep was Nehru’s love for Edwina that he sent her presents from wherever he was in the world: sugar from the United States, cigarettes from Egypt, pressed ferns from Sikkim, a book of photographs of erotic sculptures from the temple of the sun in Orrissa.

'I must say they took my breath away for an instant', he wrote. 'There was no shame or of hiding anything.' 

Edwina replied that she had found the sculptures fascinating. 

'I am not interested in sex as sex', she wrote. 

'There must be much more to it, beauty of spirit and form and in its conception. But I think you and I are in the minority! Yet another treasured bond.'  

Tunzelmann writes Nehru’s relationship with Edwina was not without political implications for India. It was Edwina who extracted concession from Nehru and persuaded him that India should accept an initial phase of dominion status. This was no mean feat. Dominion status was seen as an unacceptable halfway house by Congress since its declaration of ‘purna swaraj’ (complete self-rule) in 1930, and by Nehru, who had been behind that declaration, for longer still. 

I have often wondered how Jawaharlal was won over by Mountbatten’, wrote Nehru’s close friend Abul Kalam Azad, the highest-ranking Muslim in Congress.

“Jawahar is a man of principle, but he is also impulsive and amenable to personal influence……..perhaps even greater was the influence of Lady Mountbatten. Where several viceroys and sir Stafford Cripps had failed, Edwina Mountbatten succeeded – saving her husband’s political career as well as the entire process of the transfer of power."

Alas, Edwina breathed her last on 21 February 1960 in Jesselton, British North Borneo.  She suffered heart failure. One of the world's richest women had had no splendid possessions with her: only a pile of old letters on the bedside table. She must have been reading them when she died, for a few, having fluttered from her hands, were strewn across her bed. 

They were all from Jawaharlal Nehru.

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