Allahabad among the oldest cities in India is also, for Hindus, among the most sacred. It is mentioned in the Puranas, or the Hindu scriptures belonging to a period well before the beginning of the Christian era. The Hindus called the city Prayag or the place of a thousand yagnas (ritual fires). Another ancient name by which the city was known was Triveni, from its situation at the confluence of three rivers, the Ganga (or the Ganges), the Jamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. Because the Aryan settlers who gave India its dominant religion and philosophy lived mainly along the river banks, all streams and waterways assumed special importance in Hindu ritual. A point where the three rivers joined together, as they did at Prayag inevitably became sanctified and thousands have visited Allahabad every year for untold years for a dip at the confluence to cleanse themselves of past sins. The city acquired its present name, meaning the abode of Allah, in the fifteenth century, when Akbar, the Moghul emperor built a fort at Triveni to mark what was then the eastern extremity of his empire.

Allahabad is still sacred for millions of Hindus. But no longer is it either the frontier of a medieval empire or, as it was for a long time under the British, the capital of an important province. In 1917, when Indira was born, Allahabad—or at least its Civil Lines—had an air of elegant aloofness. It was the capital of the United Provinces, one of the largest administrative units of British India, and the seat of the provincial High Court (the provincial capital shifted to Lucknow in 1922, but the High Court has stayed in Allahabad). The British had built not only large residences but also numerous beautiful churches. The foreign elite scrupulously avoided fraternizing with almost all Indians, regarding them as socially inferior. It admitted into its small, exclusive, social circle only a few ‘natives’ who, in its estimate, had adequately imbibed Western culture. A contemporary of Indira Gandhi, who is now a judge of Allahabad High Court, recalls how many a time he was chased away by angry guards if he ventured into the park in non-European clothes.

The Nehru family, of course had gained social acceptance in the city’s European community long before Indira’s birth. Anand Bhavan into which Motilal, the hugely successful barrister, had moved in 1900 was not strictly part of the Civil Lines, but it was far enough from Karimganj, the old congested city where the family had lived for many years earlier and where Indira’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, was born, to be another world.

It was Motilal who built the family fortune and achieved something like social equality with the British—and national prominence. But the Nehrus, Kashmiri Brahmins or Pundits who had left their ancestral homes in the snowy, lake-studded Vale in Northern India, several generations ago and settled down in a few urban centres like Allahabad, had already produced other distinguished lawyers. They also had their share of trials and tribulations usually suffered by people in search of a new place to grow roots.

The Kashmiri pundits constitute what was and still is one of the smallest and culturally closest-knit communities in India, yet its cohesiveness and strong sense of communal belonging may be among the less important of its characteristics. Also typical of the Kashmiri Brahmins are traits as shrewdness, adaptability, an uncanny capacity to judge friends and foes, and a remarkable instinct for survival. (Significantly, these were the very qualities that enabled Indira Gandhi to turn herself from a weak leader of a dilapidated party constantly plagued by ambitious rivals and powerful enemies into a Prime Minister with almost awesome, unchallenged authority.)

It is commonly believed that several centuries ago a number of Brahmins fled from the valley of Kashmir into the plains of the Punjab and beyond to escape the tyranny of the Vale’s Muslim rulers. These Pandits apparently had exercised, as they do in modern Kashmir, political and economic influence far out of proportion to their numerical strength and had thus invited upon themselves the wrath of the Muslim administrators, who were not known for religious tolerance and broadmindedness. On other occasions in the past, many Kashmiri Pandits presumably left their cramped homeland for the big cities and princely courts of India in search of jobs and personal advancement. But the total number of migrants was small. According to one estimate, Kashmiri Brahmins settled outside Kashmir numbered no more than about 5,000 at the beginning of the present century when India’s total population was nearly 300 million. It is a measure of their unusual capacity to adjust themselves to their surroundings and circumstances that once they left their homeland Kashmiri Pandits seldom looked back. When they took up abode in Lahore, Jaipur, Delhi, Agra, or Allahabad, theirs was not a Diaspora that must end in a Return. Jawaharlal often visited Kashmir, but less because Kashmir appealed to some ancestral attachments buried deep in his mind than because he loved mountains and glaciers. He admired the Himalayan ranges of Assam with equal fervor and would probably have visited them oftener had they been more easily accessible from where he lived. His daughter’s attachment to Kashmir was to be even more tenuous and less noticeable.

Like the Nehrus, other Kashmiri Brahmins who migrated to the plains readily came to terms with their new environs, but despite their being a tiny minority and despite a willingness in certain respects to blend with the surrounding scenery, they preserved their distinctive identity. Perhaps the smallness of their community enabled it to maintain its exclusive character. Even in a city of Allahabad’s size, there were no more than a few hundred Kashmiri Pandits. Each of them was known to others. All would be invited to a wedding or any other comparable social event, and most marriages were arranged within the community. Thus, although Motilal had adopted many Western values and practices and his son had studied in Britain, when time came to look for a bride for Jawahar, the search never went beyond the small, restricted circle of Kashmiri Brahmins. (A quarter of a century later, when Indira wanted to marry a Parsi from Bombay, it would require a tremendous intellectual and emotional effort on Nehru’s part to cross the caste barrier involved in the proposed wedding.) That most Kashmiris are fair complexioned, with facial characteristics denoting their Central Asian origin, also helped them retain their separate identity and won them ready social acceptance from the British. Their pale, Occidental complexion prompted many other Indians, with their notorious weakness for fair skin, notwithstanding frequent protestations to the contrary, to regard Kashmiri Pandits with special deference. For their part, most Kashmiris expected to be considered members of a somewhat superior community. As they often justifiably reminded themselves, there was almost no illiteracy among them, their women disdained purdah, and they had produced from amongst them an unusually large number of dewans (prime ministers of former princely states) and distinguished scholars.

Indira’s ancestors left Kashmir in the beginning of the eighteenth century “to seek fame and fortune in the rich plains below,” as Jawaharlal Nehru later wrote. One of them Raj Kaul, was a noted Sanskrit and Persian scholar who had attracted the attention of the then Moghul emperor, Farruksiar, during the latter’s visit to the beauteous valley. It was probably at the invitation of the Moghul ruler that Raj Kaul joined the Delhi court. As a mark of imperial favour he was given a house on the bank of a canal and a jagir, or rights of over lordship, for a number of villages. The location of the house gave the family the name by which it later came to be known—Nehru is a corrupted version of nehar, which means canal. For a long period, Indira’s distant forefathers sported the hyphenated family name of Kaul-Nehru. Later, the Kaul was dropped.

Raj Kaul’s good fortune did not last long. In 1719, when he had barely started enjoying the financial fruits of the jagir, his patron, Farruksiar, was deposed and later put to death by the order of his ministers. The disintegration of the Moghul empire had already started, and in the following century or so its size and authority dwindled steadily under the relentless pressure of the expanding political power of the British East India Company. The decline in the fortunes of the Kaul-Nehrus virtually corresponded with the contraction of the prestige and position of the Moghul court. By the middle of the next century, when Indian soldiers rose in revolt against the company’s control, Indira’s great-grandfather, Ganga Dhar, was Delhi’s kotwal. This post was a senior one in the city’s police hierarchy and probably important, but it was obviously a far cry from the position of feudal nobility that the family had originally occupied.

The so-called Mutiny of 1857 was put down with a firm and bloody hand. In punishment for the Indian soldier’s action in raising the standard of revolt and killing many Europeans residents of Delhi and the nearby city of Meerut, the British deposed and exiled the last of the Moghul emperors, Bahadur Shah, a figure straight out of a Greek tragedy. They also executed by shooting or hanging over twenty princes and allowed their troops to run amuck in Delhi. British soldiers killed able-bodied men indiscriminately as possible rebels and continued looting and plundering shops and private homes for weeks after the uprising had collapsed. Thousands of terror-stricken residents camped temporarily some miles outside the city in the hope of returning when the orgy of killing and looting ended. But many others left the city for good—among them Ganga Dhar and his family. They headed towards Agra, 120 miles to the south of Delhi, and they very nearly lost their lives on the way.

Ganga Dhar died three months before his Motilal was born in Agra in 1861, leaving the responsibility of bringing up the child and looking after the rest of the sizeable family on his two older sons, Bansi Dhar and Nand Lal. The latter studied law and built a big practice first in Agra and later in Allahabad when the provincial High Court moved there. It was he who took young Motilal under his protective wing and established with him a bond of deep affection. Motilal, until he was twelve studied no English, only Arabic and Persian. But once he realized the importance of English in making a successful career under the British Raj, he learned it quickly and well. Influenced apparently by the example of his elder brother and possibly because the bar was the only field in which Indians at the time could expect social advancement and adequate financial rewards, Motilal took to law as a profession. After a three-year apprenticeship in a lower court in Kanpur, he moved to Allahabad, which offered a considerably larger professional pasture. Soon after his arrival in Allahabad, however, he lost his elder brother, Nand Lal, and at twenty-five became the head of and only breadwinner for a large joint family comprising, among others, seven nephews and nieces. He himself was married when he was only eighteen but lost his wife as well as a son born to her. His second wife, Swarup Rani, lost her first son, but in 1889 gave birth to a second who was called Jawaharlal (a name that he, as he confessed many years later, disliked immensely).

Motilal by all accounts, worked exceedingly hard to establish himself as a successful lawyer. It enabled him to fulfill his family obligations–he spent generously on his nephews’ education and the maintenance of numerous other relations—and to live in style that was the envy of many a senior British administrator. His grasp of Indian civil law—he usually disdained briefs involving criminal violations—was stupendous. A strong personal pride was an important trait in Motilal’s characters—a trait that Jawaharlal, and Indira after him, inherited. Another legacy from Motilal was his volatile temper. Jawaharlal could lose his temper almost instantaneously over something as routine and minor as a momentary failure of a loudspeaker system at a political rally he was addressing, just as his father often worked himself into a towering rage over trivial matters.

A relative of Indira’s on her mother’s side once referred to Motilal with a touch of contempt as nouveau riche. Motilal had undoubtedly greatly enlarged the family fortune and some aspects of his life style were rather parvenu, but the suggestion is uncharitable. He lived well, in fact ostentatiously, because he genuinely enjoyed the pleasures of life. Motilal built Anand Bhavan, the house in which Indira was born, large enough to accommodate not only his own family but also numerous guests who came to stay for long periods. Many Indian families, some whose heads were considerably wealthier than Motilal, lived extravagantly. But the Nehrus had a style all their own. They consciously chose to live like sahibs—and yet did not appear to be mindlessly aping the British. The reason for this was simple. When he left Karimganj to live in civil lines, Motilal was not trying to ingratiate himself with the foreign rulers in the hope of personal favours so much as he was escaping from the backward-looking, tradition bound society into which the urban middle class had then grown. But the Nehrus revolted against the narrow-mindedness and insularity of Indian society, not against its fundamental values, and thus, although Anand Bhavan adopted the modern conveniences of a British home, it retained the atmosphere of graciousness and ebullience traditionally associated with Indian families of social standing.

The Nehru family’ first exposure to the west had occurred in 1897, when Motilal’s eldest brother, Bansi Dhar, undertook a round-the-world voyage. Motilal himself visited Europe two years later, invoking as had his brother the wrath of the orthodox community. On his return, he angrily refused to do praiyashchit or religious penitence to ‘purify’ himself after his ‘sinful’ act in crossing the sea and eating with the ‘unclean foreigners.’ When he dismissed the demand as ‘tomfoolery,’ the priests excommunicated him and ordered social boycott of him. That he turned to Britain so often and with such zest was not merely an angry reaction to the tyranny of the foolish and narrow-minded section of the Kashmiri community. His admiration for British culture was genuine and deep-seated. In a speech in 1907 he said of Britain:

England has fed us with the best food that her language, her literature, her science, her art and above all, her free institutions could supply. We have learned and grown on that wholesome food for a century and are fast approaching the age of maturity.

 To those in India who were even then getting impatient with Britain’s niggardliness in responding to the country’s demand for self-government, Motilal spoke reassuringly. He firmly believed, he told them that “John Bull means well — it is not in his nature to mean ill.”

Things were to change and change rapidly. As Allahabad had been built at a confluence of rivers, so Anand Bhavan had been built at a confluence of historical currents. Unlike the waters of the Ganges, the Jamuna and mythical Saraswati, they did not blend—though inside the walls of Motilal’s mansion it had seemed for a time that they might. On that sparkling November day in 1917 when Indira was born to the Nehrus, Anand Bhavan belonged to the Empire. The household had begun to feel faint stirrings of unease about this allegiance, but it belonged. By the time Indu was a bright-eyed, curly-haired little girl of two, her grandfather Motilal had lost faith in the good intentions of John Bull and, led more and more by his son, was turning towards Mahatma Gandhi. The elder Nehru’s love for Britain and its traditions remained unaffected, but his friends among the bureaucrats and senior administrators of the Raj had begun to regret their jovial past associations with the Nehrus.




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