It’s still in the family

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What’s the point of yet another book on Nehru if Nayantara Sahgal is going to be so inhibited about her uncle, asks Swapan Dasgupta

Loyalist Nayantara Sahgal at her Dehradun residence
Loyalist Nayantara Sahgal at her Dehradun residence
Photo: Raajiv K

BOOKS ON Jawaharlal Nehru written in the past two decades have cluttered our bookshelves to the point of exasperation — and a few more are on the way. The only reasons why Nayantara Sahgal’s slim volume may possibly excite any fresh interest are its deliciously provocative title and the fact that it is by the former prime minister’s niece, one who regarded Teen Murti House her “home in Delhi”.

Tragically, I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Sahgal’s otherwise elegantly written essay. There are occasional snippets of information about Nehru the man and his relationship with his wider family but they are just too occasional and, at times, too guarded.

Take, for example, Sahgal’s perfunctory account of Nehru’s relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, a subject that must have been discussed within the family. She admits to “an immediate attraction that drew two strangers of widely different backgrounds and life experiences together in a relationship”, but shies away from elaboration. “The situation,” she writes, “made for an unusual bond and a mutual enchantment that must be one of life’s most magical gifts to its elect.”

It would be understandable if Sahgal’s discretion stemmed from a desire to let matters of the heart remain strictly within the family. But she can either be a faithful family loyalist or a writer who couples archival information with insider knowledge. She whets the reader’s appetite with titbits about her dear “Mamu” and then proceeds to give absolutely nothing away.

I was particularly struck by her total silence on Nehru’s relations with his daughter. The personality clash involving Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Indira Gandhi that surfaced after Nehru’s death was the subject of Delhi drawing room gossip. Sahgal too had public spats with her cousin, particularly after the declaration of Emergency. The reader would have loved insights into these complicated human relationships, particularly in the context of a larger question that keeps cropping up: did Nehru actively promote the political career of his daughter? Sahgal gives the whole issue a deft miss.

WHAT SHE does address is Nehru’s relationship with both the Western and Eastern blocs during the Cold War. These are mainly viewed through the prism of her mother’s experiences as India’s ambassador to the USSR, US and president of the UN General Assembly. There are some nice anecdotes involving Gromyko, Vyshinsky, Robert Oppenheimer, Winston Churchill and Soekarno. But Sahgal spoils the reminiscences by quoting needlessly from contemporary press reports of Nehru’s greatness.

As a volume of reminiscences and assessments based on them, the book is far too inhibited and circumspect; as a history, it is too gush-gush in its praise of almost everything Nehru did. In trying to bolster Nehru’s place in contemporary India, Sahgal has done her own reputation no good.

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Vexing my city

Unlike most Delhi anthologies, Bharati Chaturvedi’s plunges into the city’s underbelly, finds URVASHI BUTALIA

No armchairs Chaturvedi at her New Delhi home
No armchairs Chaturvedi at her New Delhi home
Photo: Dijeshwar Singh

AMONG THE large number of books on Delhi that have appeared in recent years, this one deserves to be singled out. At its heart lies a concern and love for a city that the writers live and work in, and a sense of alarm at the direction the city is taking. Coincidentally, as I was reading this book, I happened upon a programme on television on the subject of cities, infrastructure, development — all the issues that Finding Delhi focusses on. Every single one of the 10 plus panelists was a man — most head honchos of private building companies and the government — as were the additional speakers who were called upon to add their views. The word slum was not mentioned till three-fourths of the way through the programme, and was brought to the attention of the panelists by a member of the audience, and the words ‘women and children’ received even shorter shrift, being mentioned in one sentence by the mandatory woman audience member who spoke for five seconds.

I thought, why am I not surprised? In the past few years we have all seen our city attempt to morph into a world-class city — from gated colonies to Commonwealth Games hoardings that hide the dirt and mess behind them, the attempt has been to present Delhi as a city that has (a) no slums (b) no poor (c) no rubbish and (d) specifically for the duration of the CWG, no street vendors. There’s little doubt about the intention: this is a city that is meant for the rich and well off. In Shahpur Jat where I work, a young arrogant man in an SUV stormed through the vegetable market that sprouted there every Saturday and beat up every vendor who came in his way. Soon, the vegetable market disappeared.

BHARATI CHATURVEDI’s edited volume (with its excellent introduction) draws on these issues and more. Her carefully selected group of writers explore the changes — both positive and negative — the metro has wrought, they look with love and loss at what used to be a real river and is now a mere drain, they examine the middle-class preoccupation with a clean environment — at the cost of jobs and homes for the poor, they look at what the city offers for women, and they speak in their own voices about experiencing the city’s harsh edges and underbelly. And each of the essays sounds a warning and asks a question: are cities only meant for the rich? Do the poor not contribute to the city’s income? Do they not have a right to shelter, a home? Where would the rich be without services the poor provide? Questions we need to remind ourselves of all the time.

Butalia is the founder of Zubaan Books

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