I remember seeing Jawaharlal Nehru’s face on coins and stamps when I was a child. His avuncular figure sporting a Gandhi cap, and a red rose on his achkan, appeared in a portrait that adorned the principal’s office of my primary school. As I shifted schools, I found similar portraits everywhere. My favourite is the one in which he sits with Gandhiji, both of them laughing. We got small flags, stamps and sweets for Nehru’s birthday, and we learned to call him chacha.
At some point, I had to study a passage from Nehru’s Letters to my Daughter. It describes how a pebble that rolls down a river traverses great distances across distinct geographic features, and becomes smooth and round. That was the first time I heard the details about his imprisonment during the freedom struggle, and about rivers carrying things like stones and silt. Nehru was knowledgeable, and he knew how to share it. As the story goes, he loved children.
White streaks in the sky
One of the places where I spent my childhood was a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram close to the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre and Thumba Equatorial Rocket Launching Station. Often when I heard the rumble of a rocket, I ran out and just managed to see a streak of fire or a white trail of smoke. In school, our science teacher told us about India’s space programme and about Vikram Sarabhai who helped Nehru set up his dream project, Indian National Committee for Space Research, the precursor to Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Now, while watching British European Space Agency astronaut Tim Peake in the International Space Station, I recall those rumbling rockets, and the later giant versions that took Indian spacecrafts to the moon and Mars. I remember the pride with which ISRO astronaut Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma recalled his 1984 flight on board a Soviet Soyuz T-11, an earlier version of the launch vehicle that Peake flew in. It was Nehru who put India on the space map.
Bharat Ek Khoj
Shyam Benegal’s mega teleseries based on Nehru’s Discovery of India gave me snapshots of our country’s heritage and history. It spanned millenia, from the Indus Valley, the Vedas, the Sangam literature, to covering heroes like Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi. The serial also gave me a glimpse of a man who had a deep appreciation of the country’s history, its pluralist traditions, religions and cultures. Nehru came across as a statesman, a scholar and a great storyteller. (And Roshan Seth came across as the perfect actor to portray Nehru.)
When I first came to Delhi, its street names struck me as something unique – Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah, Josip Broz Tito and Archbishop Makarios among others. The first three were co-founders of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM ) along with Nehru and the Indonesian president Sukarno. Makarios became a prominent figure in the movement. They were all pioneers and nation builders in the post-colonial world. Nehru stood tall among them.
The leaders who came after them, especially in Africa, still fondly remember Nehru and his contribution to international cooperation. NAM was a major power bloc, symbolising Nehru’s vision of international peace and cooperation. Such cooperation and collective voice of the developing world is a bit muted these days, though India is economically stronger.