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Being 'Nehru's niece'

How 'Mamu' Nehru gave direction to a young woman's writing career? Parmita Ghosh gets talking with Nayantara Sahgal.

books Updated: Dec 24, 2007 15:06 IST

It couldn't have been the first time she was asked, but author Nayantara Sahgal takes questions on her uncle Jawaharlal Nehru rather well. Her classics

Mistaken Identity

and memoir

Prison and Chocolate Cake

, recently released as a Harper Perennial imprint, has her talking of 'Mamu' again.

Being 'Nehru's niece' is an old job that goes beyond role-play Along with her two sisters, she spoke for him in the 1950s in America, of Independence, and what it meant for an old civilisation to come together as a nation and be free. "My first book was published eight years after India's independence, so the press was full of questions about Gandhi-Nehru."

The famous surname - her mother Vijaylakshmi Pandit was Nehru's sister, India's first woman cabinet minister and President of the UN General Assembly - could have led to a political career, but didn't.

"Politics was part of our upbringing, so going to jail, for instance, figures in many of my works. When Mamu was PM, I once did ask him whether I should take part in politics and I did mention that I did not fancy it. By then he had read the memoir and he said I had a great feel for atmosphere. If I wanted to write, he said, go ahead. Yes, he had quite a say in everything. You see, Mamu was my third parent. He was a rising star and national hero. So he was a hero at home too."

There is hero-worship, but Sahgal keeps Nehru human and is perhaps the only family member to go on quote on Nehru-Edwina. "Theirs was a devoted relationship. If people are writing books about it now, it makes me very happy I quite like the way Gandhiji's children speak out about their father We're a strange nation. There's no shame in defecating in public but you're not allowed to kiss in public, when it should be the other way around."

Being part of a family that has shared so much of their life through letters, the public and the private fuses with Sahgal and is a history-telling of sorts. "The process of writing is self-discovery The novel is supposed to reveal." Relationships, a correspondence between Mangat Rai (her second husband), and herself, "with which I stepped out of line", continued that hoary family tradition.

Would she consider her rather public stand against the imposition of Emergency a stepping out of line? "I had no personal quarrel with my cousin (Indira Gandhi)," she says. "I resigned from the Author's Guild because it made no protest against writers in jail and censorship."

Another subject that riles Sahgal and which she brings up time and again is the public reception to the Nehru legacy "India's freedom was won by a countrywide movement. It did not depend on one man or one family Far from it. Under him, the Congress was not a one-leader party Nehru and after we must not forget the difference."