Arguably the best single-volume study of India’s first Prime Minister is Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, by the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker. This is a book that I have long known (and admired). However, when I met the author’s son recently, he presented me a copy of a lesser known work by his mother, a novel through the pages of which Nehru flits in and out.
Claire Crocker’s Peacock Dancing is set in the India of the early 1960s. The main characters include the Australian High Commissioner, here named Sir Ronald Selborne, his wife, Caroline, and their daughter, Elizabeth. The last-named falls in love with a Rajput army officer, while her closest friend, the daughter of the Swedish Ambassador, wishes to marry an official in the Pakistani mission in New Delhi.
These romances and their respective fates are at the heart of the novel. But since much of the action takes place at diplomatic parties and government receptions, the most important man in New Delhi cannot fail to make an appearance. After meeting him at a party, Elizabeth Selborne reflects that ‘No man, not even her father, could draw affection so easily. It was not only Nehru’s handsome features, mobile expressions, elegance, warm smile, and easy relaxed manner. There was also an inner spirit that defied description. Even his sudden flashes of rage at some injustice or stupid inefficiency had a humanity and warmth about them and were soon over’.
A later chapter features a reception at the Prime Minister’s house, in honour of the visiting violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Here, Nehru charmed Caroline and Elizabeth by telling them ‘the history of some of the great women of India’s past. Of the Hindu princesses who had led their armies against the Moghul invaders; of great seers and holy women; of Sanskrit poetesses. As he spoke his brown eyes were alight and, although other guests around were listening to the beautifully modulated voice, Caroline felt that he was speaking to her alone as he related a particular tale’.
The admiration was apparently shared by the head of the household. Thus, as they drove past beggars and lepers in the streets of the capital, Sir Ronald was moved to comment: ‘That’s what Nehru is up against. Some of his own people could do more to help, after all’.
The novel is set against the backdrop of India’s humiliating defeat in the war with China in 1962. Some months after the event, Nehru walks Caroline through his garden, where he introduces her to the panda gifted him in better times by the Chinese Prime Minister, Chou En-Lai. As they admire the animal, Nehru, remarks: ‘My error was to think that the word of a man of honour is sufficient’. Then he adds: ‘He is a man of honour, Chou En-Lai. Of that I am still certain; however, no-one can tell the pressures a man is under from his own colleagues, how much decision rests in his hands once he returns to the political medley of his country’.
The conversation then continues:
[Nehru]: ‘You know, dear lady, I have had much sorrow recently. I suffer with my people—all those families bereft, thousands wounded. So much I have wanted to do for my country, but only in peace can there be constructive achievement’.
[Caroline]: ‘There is so much you have done already. The caste system abolished, the position of women…’.
[Nehru]: ‘Yes, yes’. Impatiently, he interrupted her. ‘All in the name of the law, but in the hearts of the people?’
Later, as the walk and conversation draws to a close, Nehru says; ‘We each have to work towards our destiny. We are born with it; some of us never achieve it. At least I have endeavoured to fulfil mine. I try not to feel that I have failed entirely’.
The novel’s epilogue fast forwards to the 1990s, by which time Elizabeth has grown-up children herself. Her eighteen-year-old son gets his grandmother talking about their years in India. Then he asks: ‘What was Nehru really like? You knew him well, didn’t you?’. Caroline replies: ‘He was a great man, truly great. Not just a good ruler in the ordinary sense. He could have been a dictator, you know. He could sway a crowd of a million with the modulation of his voice, the charm of his manner, and he was handsome, very handsome—his feelings, each change of mood, reflected in his face as he talked’.
She continues: ‘Not everyone liked him, of course. He had political enemies, and men who were jealous of him. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, either. He could be cutting at times, even with women. But he was a wonderful man, all the same. He kept all the best things the British had left and yet was a great patriot: democracy, the British parliamentary system, freedom of speech, of religion, independent status for women.’
Later, the talk turns to the fate of Nehru’s country of and his family, the untimely deaths of Sanjay, Indira, and Rajiv. When the grandson asks whether it was ‘a sort of curse on the whole dynasty’, Lady Caroline replies: ‘Yes, and yet Indira caused her own demise. Panditji would never have shot down the Sikhs in their traditional temple. She lacked her father’s tolerance, his breadth of vision, and his charm’.
The portrait of Nehru in this novel rings true. Claire Crocker captures his charm and charisma, his respect for democracy and diversity, his unique place in the history of his country. The cynic might however say that what the novel really reveals is the appeal that Nehru had for a certain kind of Western woman.
Published in The Hindu, 24/5/2009