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Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny.

Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny Stanley Wolpert (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) 546 pp.

Stanley Wolpert sets high expectations when he claims in the foreword of his new book Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny to have found "the elusive keys to the secret chambers of Nehru's personality." His success is mixed, and at times his effort strained. Nonetheless, the book makes fascinating reading for anyone familiar with the modern history of the subcontinent, and Wolpert is particularly well-suited for writing a book about former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, having already written biographies on Mohandas Gandhi, the "father" of modern India, and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Both books were banned in their respective countries and this latest book is no exception; Indian authorities banned Nehru in March 1997 because one of the "secret chambers" Wolpert finds is actually a closet in which Nehru allegedly hid his homosexual tendencies.

The book quotes liberally from Nehru's prison diaries, speeches, autobiography and letters in a chronological look at his life from boyhood to death. The book is nearly one big cut and paste job, with Wolpert providing minimal commentary between quotes. But Nehru himself was a writer and well-read, prompting more than one British diplomat to comment that he would have been an author of note had he shunned politics. Many of the passages are delightful. During one of his stints in jail, where he spent a total of nine years imprisoned by the British, he wrote his daughter, Indira, and reflected on the mountainous source of the Ganga, wondering if he would ever see it again:
 Shall I sit by the side of the youthful and turbulent Ganga ... and watch
 her throw her head in swirl of icy spray in pride and defiance, or creep
 round lovingly some favoured rock and take it into her embrace? And then
 rush down joyously over the boulders and hurl herself with a mighty shout
 over some great precipice? I have known her so long as a sedate lady;
 seemingly calm but, for all that, the fire is in her veins even then, the
 fiery vitality of youth and the spirit of adventure. (p. 292)


Wolpert rarely interprets and contextualizes the writings of Nehru beyond the immediate political and social milieu, but when he does, his results are mixed. Psychoanalytic analysis of Nehru's inner sexual life is where Wolpert falls short. Elucidating the dynamics of Nehru's relationship with his father, Gandhi and Jinnah is where he is at his strongest. It is a shame the homosexual allegations caused the book to be banned since the discussion of Nehru's relationship with Gandhi and Jinnah sheds needed light on the roots of India's continuing conflict with Pakistan.

Wolpert claims to have uncovered the secret gay life of Nehru, a man whom John F. Kennedy found "infuriating" during a state visit to Washington because of "Nehru's focus on [Jacqueline Kennedy] and his inability to keep his hands off her." (p. 480) Even more odd is Wolpert's sensitive portrayal of the almost-public love affair between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of the last Raj, as well as his liaisons with numerous other women. Nonetheless, Wolpert claims to have found homosexual desires in Nehru's prison diaries and letters where, for example, Nehru writes about Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence:
 `The book has held me, not only because of its fine writing but also
 because of his problems and difficulties with himself,' Nehru confessed to
 his diary `Sometimes--not always--that problem was not unlike mine in some
 ways. And yet of course there is little in common between him and me,' he
 quickly added for whenever he lifted the veil that hid his true nature -
 his deepest secret self whose continued existence terrified him - he
 hastened to deny whatever he saw, closing his eyes to that most painful
 truth. (p. 283)


Nehru never makes it clear exactly what "that problem" is, but Wolpert has decided it is homosexuality However, like Lawrence, Nehru was also a diplomat, traveler, writer and, it could be argued, a guerrilla leader. There are numerous problems these two extraordinary men could have shared, not least of which is the tension between loyalty to Britain and a desire to liberate subject people from a British yoke.

Wolpert's evidence is even more questionable when addressing the writings of Nehru as a youth, supposedly when he was more homosexual than bisexual. In his autobiography, Nehru describes a hot hike in the mountains of Norway with an unnamed young Englishman. Desiring to cool off, the pair go for a dip in an icy; rocky stream. Suddenly Nehru loses his balance, is numbed by the water and swept away toward a waterfall. His companion rushes along the stream, catches Nehru and pulls him to safety Wolpert quotes liberally from Nehru's autobiographical account of the incident and asks:
 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? That resourceful
 companion had great strength and a firm grip, which saved Jawahar when he
 'had completely lost control of [him]self.' (p. 25)


There is other supposed evidence. As an adolescent in India, Nehru had a French-Irish tutor to whom he grew attached. The tutor had been a disciple of a renegade Anglican curate, Charles Leadbeater, who had been accused of pederasty on several continents and openly advocated mutual masturbation with young boys to "help them grow strong and manly" (p. 9) Whether you count this as evidence or not depends on whether you think straight men can have platonic relationship with gay men.

There are other areas in which Wolpert plays Freud to laughable effect. After being forced to marry an undesirable young girl, Nehru retreats to the mountains of Kashmir. "One of the things he did during those weeks of wondering was to shoot and kill a bear, the first and only bear he killed in his life. Was that to prove his masculine prowess?" (p. 34)

Wolpert is more successful at interpreting the writings of Nehru and defining the key elements of his personality when analyzing the relationships with his father, Gandhi and Jinnah.

Wolpert sees three consecutive father figures in Nehru's life: Motilal Nehru (his forceful and esteemed biological father), Gandhi, and, finally, Lenin and the values of socialism. It is exciting to follow the well-documented dynamic between Motilal, Gandhi and Nehru. As Nehru grows older, he turns from Motilal to Gandhi for direction; Motilal feels the loss and joins forces with Gandhi and his son to assure that his only son inherits his political patrimony. Finally, Nehru discards both as intellectual and moral guides, going so far as to say about Gandhi: "The old man is out of touch."

His shift to Gandhi was a way of rebelling against his father's aristocratic, anglophile, 19th-century liberal outlook and lifestyle that Nehru came to view as collaboration with the British Raj. By contrast, Gandhi was a "man of India," living among peasants, spinning cotton continually and advocating the development of village handicrafts rather than industry But the success of the Russian Revolution and a visit to Moscow captured Nehru's imagination. "To Nehru's radical international outlook, Gandhi represented Hindu village conservatism, and Motilal epitomized urban India's Westernized elite. But each of them was rooted in the past, whereas he and his newly found comrades belonged to the future." (p. 78)

As the book makes clear, Nehru was not much of a socialist during his years as prime minister from 1947 to his death in 1964. He somewhat attempted to build a socialist society, but as he himself once said--only half-jokingly--"I am the last Englishman to rule India." And so it must have seemed to Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the people of Pakistan after Nehru ordered troops into Kashmir and refused to hold the oft-promised plebiscite in which the predominantly Muslim population of Kashmir would settle their future status.

Wolpert recently stated in an interview that, "the story of Nehru is the story--in some measure--of the conflict between India and Pakistan." His book makes that clear and adds a new dimension to the leftist phrase "the personal is the political." Indeed, if Nehru had not believed so ardently in the tenets of dialectical materialism and had not demonstrated such a personal distaste for Jinnah, the Muslims of India may not have pushed for seccession.

As a young man, Nehru's early fascination with socialism began a long process of antagonizing Jinnah that culminated in Nehru's preemptory and imperialist behavior "as the last Englishman to rule India" in Kashmir. Nehru could never take Jinnah's claim seriously that Muslims suffered discrimination and needed guaranteed representation and special protections. Nehru felt that religious and ethnic conflicts were only symptoms of the underlying class struggle and British imperialist divide and rule tactics. He regarded Jinnah's emphasis on the separate rights of Muslims as evidence that Jinnah was "exceedingly backwards and thinks in terms of 25 years ago," (p. 258) and as someone who failed to realize that relations between religious groups in India were a "nuisance." (p. 213) For Gandhi, solving that question determined the reality of "real freedom for India;" for Jinnah it was a matter of life and death; for Nehru the question was subsumed by a larger international class conflict.

The game of "what if" in history is always tricky, but Wolpert argues convincingly that Nehru's disregard for Muslim grievances and his personal distaste for Jinnah were the determining factors in the bloody split of Pakistan and India. Wolpert identifies three crucial junctures where, if Nehru had only acknowledged Muslim concerns, Jinnah and the Muslim League may very well have remained within a federal India with a weakened center. While those opportunities are lost, banning Wolpert's book in India only serves to perpetuate the split that began more than half a century ago.

Douglas Remillard is a first-year graduate student at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Remillard, Douglas
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1997
Words:1681
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