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Biography of Nehru by his niece

The new ‘biography’ of Nehru by his niece, Nayantara Sahgal, is not quite a biography, and, as she makes clear at the outset, is not meant to be an academic study. Read on for more details.

books Updated: Mar 12, 2011 11:09 IST

Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilising A Savage World

Nayantara Sahgal


Rs 350

PP 196

The new ‘biography’ of Nehru by his niece, the writer Nayantara Sahgal, is not quite a biography, and, as she makes clear at the outset, is not meant to be an academic study. So the reader begins with the problem of what the rules of engagement must be.

It is difficult to put a finger on what the book seeks to do. It is clearly not quite a reminiscence of a ‘great’ man by an adoring relation, though Sahgal remains uncritical enough to put off even those who have great admiration for Nehru. Sahgal’s extended essay is not a biography either. It would, perhaps, be best described as stray thoughts, encapsulated in nine chapters, on various facets of Nehru, both as a private man and a public figure.

There can hardly be any doubt that much of what India has achieved in the six decades since Independence is a legacy of the politics Nehru practised and the ground he defended. Equally, even his ardent followers would find it difficult to gainsay the argument that many, if not most, of the ailments that plague India today flow out of some fundamental flaws in the Nehruvian vision and the way ‘post-colonial modernity’ was sought to be ushered into India.

Sahgal hardly engages with the complex issues of nation-making. There is, on the contrary, a dewy-eyed celebration of India and her role in the international community of nations.

The problem lies neither in the fact that Sahgal’s offering is insufficiently academic nor that it is structured in a somewhat whimsical fashion. The subtitle of the book — ‘Civilising a Savage World’ — suggests its location. Neither ironic or metaphorical, it is as close to literal as it could get. This reading is true of the bits of the book that deal with Nehru’s diplomacy and his engagement with the world. Here Nehru has had thrust on him the mantle of the ‘civiliser’, the beacon not just of Asia but humankind in its entirety. While Nehru did his best to follow what nowadays is called an ‘ethical’ foreign policy, the claims made on his behalf do seem exaggerated and impossible to support historically.

Nehru failed ultimately to ‘civilise’ the nation not just because of his own failings and the configurations of the cultural and political economies in which he was enmeshed, but also because, the project of such a civilising was (and is) way too fantastical. The teleology of western modernity is not necessarily applicable to all terrains. India had, and still has, to modernise on its own terms, if at all it ever does.

Suhit Sen is a Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata