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Edwina-Nehru: Another story

One can’t judge an entire relationship by one incident, but I suspect Edwina was a wonderful influence on Nehru. She helped him come to practical decisions, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2007 00:17 IST

Did Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru have a sexual relationship? I don’t know but I would certainly hope so. After all, if they loved each other as much as Edwina’s daughter, Pamela, asserts — and she says Edwina left behind suitcases full of letters when she died — then it would be terribly sad if their affection was not consummated but left incomplete. And now, before you spill your breakfast coffee in moral apoplexy, let me add that I’m only echoing what Nehru’s sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, wrote years and years ago.

The truth is that even when Pamela Hicks claims the relationship was platonic she can’t be sure. To begin with, would a 17-year-old daughter be likely to know? Surely her mother and Nehru, whom she called Mamu, would have gone to enormous lengths to hide it from her? And, in fact, when I pushed the point, doubt did creep into her answers.

“Panditji was a widower,” I said. “He needed female affection and he must have wanted it. Your mother was alluring and beautiful. They were so close together. It would be natural for the emotional to become sexual.” This was her reply: “It could be and maybe everybody will think I’m being very naive … but I don’t believe it.”

Well, if it really was the case that their affair remained platonic Nehru must have felt somewhat cheated. Edwina had had lovers before. Pamela Hicks readily admits as much. Paul Robeson, the black American actor, was rumoured to be one of them. So if Nehru didn’t make it to the list I, for one, would argue that he had grounds for feeling hard done by.

However, my purpose this Sunday morning is not to wallow in speculation. Instead I want to share a true story about Edwina. One that reveals her gentle, caring character as much as her influence on Nehru. And, in this instance, thank God for that!

Sometime in 1948, when Lord Mountbatten was Governor General and Nehru Prime Minister, my Mamu, Gautam Sahgal, proposed to Nehru’s niece, Nayantara Pandit, and she accepted. Mrs Pandit, who recognised her brother as the head of the household, suggested that his permission was necessary. As my grandfather was unwell it fell on my elder uncle, Narottam, to meet Nehru and seek his blessings for the proposed marriage.

Now, Uncle Gogu, as Narottam is known, was barely 29 years old at the time and a mere Deputy Commissioner in the ICS. The prospect of asking the Prime Minister for his niece’s hand was daunting. It filled him with understandable trepidation. What if the old boy said no? Would Gautam ever forgive him?

Uncle waited till Nehru visited Simla. An appointment was sought at The Retreat in Mashobra, where Nehru was staying with the Mountbattens. Uncle Gogu, visibly nervous, arrived early. Fortunately, it was Edwina who first met him.

“Don’t be nervous,” she said encouragingly. “Let’s have a cup of coffee together and then I’ll take you to see the Big Man.” It didn’t take Uncle long to realise Edwina knew everything.

Her obvious warmth settled Uncle’s nerves. Later, when she escorted him into the study, where Nehru was sitting, his chin cupped in his hands, staring at the distant mountains, she stayed on to ensure all started well.

“Edwina’s presence seemed to soften Nehru,” Uncle recalls. After a while, having put him in the right mood, she quietly slipped out. What followed was a long lecture on socialism. Uncle Gogu listened attentively although he passionately disagreed. Neither then nor now does he accept Nehru’s views. His patience, however, was rewarded with Nehru’s willing permission for the marriage.

On his way out Uncle Gogu met Edwina again. She was waiting just in case things took an unexpected turn. This time her smile and conspiratorial wink were perfect confirmation that she had persuaded the Prime Minister of India to give the right answer.

Of course one can’t judge an entire relationship by one little incident, but I suspect Edwina Mountbatten was a wonderful influence on Nehru. She soothed his anxieties, softened his irritability and helped him come to sensible, practical decisions.

Pamela Hicks told me how Nehru’s love had made her mother a happier person. “It made my mother, who could be quite difficult at times, as many very extraordinary woman can be … lovely to be with.” I’m confident it was equally true the other way around. Uncle Gogu, I feel sure, would agree.