Nehru presenting glimpses of history and of himself - Hindustan Times
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Nehru presenting glimpses of history and of himself

ByPranavi Sharma
Jan 26, 2024 08:29 PM IST

Nine decades after Jawaharlal Nehru wrote the letters that were eventually collected and published as Glimpses of World History, the book continues to impress

From Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and Nelson Mandela’s Conversations With Myself to Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, some of the best writing in the world has emerged from prison. Even Plato, although not imprisoned himself, wrote on the trial and death of Socrates. The works of Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Solzhenitsyn were written during the repressive Stalinist era. The prison universe then resembles a genuine archipelago spanning continents and existing beyond the constraints of time and place.

Jawaharlal Nehru (HT Photo)
Jawaharlal Nehru (HT Photo)

1155pp, ₹899; Penguin
1155pp, ₹899; Penguin

In 1930, Jawaharlal Nehru was sentenced to four years of prison. During this time, over 30 months, he wrote 196 exceptionally well-informed and detailed letters on human history to his 13-year-old daughter Indira. These were ultimately compiled and published as Glimpses of World History. It’s clear that despite the challenges of prison life, he managed to preserve his idealism and hope. All of it calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s words:

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“Idealism is the offspring of suffering and hope, and therefore reaches its maximum when a period of misfortune is nearing its visible termination.”

“Bertrand Russell’s observation, that idealism peaked when misfortune was nearing its visible end, aptly applied to Nehru’s evolving perspective.” (rook76/Shutterstock)
“Bertrand Russell’s observation, that idealism peaked when misfortune was nearing its visible end, aptly applied to Nehru’s evolving perspective.” (rook76/Shutterstock)

At one point in Glimpses of World History Nehru admits, “what a useful place prison is…” Prison as often seen by thinkers like Foucault as a space for social transformation. According to him, the universe inside the prison is a “complete prison universe” and tends to become an autonomous sector. The idea of imprisonment might seem conducive to writing due to the kind of solitude, routine, and freedom it provides from distractions. Within the confined spaces of prisons, a universal power structure prevails, individuals reside in boxes or cells and the dynamics of walls and cages are ambivalent. The outer wall serves to keep inmates in, under the guise of protecting a law-abiding society, and simultaneously keeps the external world out. The writing emerging from these conditions both grows out of and resists the constraints of prison life.

The prison writer never writes solely about themselves. Writing in a resistant context involves an act of dissociation. The position from which Nehru writes inevitably, though not always consciously, ensures that the most personal expression will challenge the system and make alternate and subjective meanings. He redefines responsibility within the power structures and the prison cell becomes a privileged vantage point.

In his Minute on Indian Education (1835), Thomas Macaulay dreamt of producing good Indian clerks. Instead, they became writers. Nehru played a significant role in shaping India’s literary scene by establishing three national academies for music and literature. In 1954, he became the first chairman of Sahitya Akademi, not simply because he was the Prime Minister. By then, his talent as a writer was well-known, and he had already secured a unique position for himself in public perception.

Meandering and sometimes repetitive, Glimpses... is imbued with a romantic quality. Using short sentences, this series of loosely connected sketches recounts the story of humanity but does not aim to be scholarly. Indeed, it lacks the detached objectivity often associated with scholarly works and is at times factually wrong. The author guides us through a journey from the Indus Valley civilization to the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Persians, and the Chinese. The recounting of Christ from a non-Christian, Eastern cultural perspective is especially intriguing. Nehru delves into Christ’s militancy, highlighting Christianity’s differences from other religions that were more inclined towards assimilation into imperial structures. The book also includes his own opinions and insights on various world events and personalities. The result is that the reader in not only informed about historical events but also gets to know India’s first Prime Minister at a personal level. And, unlike typical historians, Nehru makes this exploration spanning millennia incredibly engaging. Since he writes with the awareness that his young daughter is reading the letter, there is no labouriousness either. Glimpses is comprehensive with hardly a dull page in its enormity. The essays reveal Nehru’s deep interest and understanding of human history, culture, world affairs, and social movements and showcase his idealism, love for knowledge, and a profound understanding of human nature:

“So also in the human and the social machine, we require besides goodwill, good knowledge of its workings and its possibilities. This knowledge is seldom exact, as it deals with indefinite things, such as human wishes and desires and prejudices and wants, and these become still more indefinite when we deal with people in the mass, with society as whole, or with different classes of people. But study and experience and observation gradually bring order even into this rather indefinite mass, and knowledge grows, and with it grows our capacity to deal with our surroundings.”

Woman collective farmer near Krasnodar, USSR, with newly harvested wheat circa 1935-40. (Shutterstock)
Woman collective farmer near Krasnodar, USSR, with newly harvested wheat circa 1935-40. (Shutterstock)

Nehru was a man of his time and his socialist inclinations and disdain for capitalism grew out of the economic challenges of the 1930s. While capitalist countries grappled with debt, inflation, overproduction, and unemployment, the Soviet Union thrived under its five year plans, relatively unaffected by the global Great Depression. Critically comparing the Soviet Russia with Western Europe, Nehru describes the former as a youth full of life and vigour carrying a heavy burden while the latter is an aged person with little hope or energy.

Associating capitalism with wastage, cutthroat competition, economic imperialism, wealth concentration, long working hours, and squalid conditions, he began to lean towards a democratic socialist form of governance. Bertrand Russell’s observation, that idealism peaked when misfortune was nearing its visible end, aptly applied to Nehru’s evolving perspective.

Glimpses is significant as it allows the reader to understand Nehru’s thoughts and policies for India. Witnessing wars and chaos during his time, he associated capitalism with imperialism and strongly disapproved of it. The Russian Revolution of 1917 introduced socialism as an alternative and he was dazzled. Russia’s rapid development left a lasting impression and though he did not fall for communist propaganda, he embraced the idea of modernity and progress.

The bronze head of the ruined statue of Czar Alexander III during the Russian Revolution in 1917. (Shutterstock)
The bronze head of the ruined statue of Czar Alexander III during the Russian Revolution in 1917. (Shutterstock)

He also explores contradictions and compares a “priest-ridden” India to what he perceives as a more rationalist China, even in ancient times. For him the bete noire of progress was religion. He wrote: “The old days were days of faith, blind unquestioning faith, our age is a different one; it is an age of disillusion, of doubt and uncertainty and questioning.” In no other country was the dilemma of old versus new and religion versus modernity so potent. Nehru, who mixed his consummate Indian style of explication with European ideals of reason was, at times, ashamed of using English. Yet, he bore the burden of it, emphasising that “We shall come out of this habit soon.”

“I am no historian,” he states in the book – a somewhat deceptive statement given the painstaking attention to detail evident in the volume that can be best described as a cultural history. In it, Nehru the politician and Nehru the intellectual are always at loggerheads, possibly because his political stature inevitably placed him in the spotlight, which, in turn, must have informed his writing. Even in Discovery of India, his intellect as a writer is always undercut by his politics. Still, his immersion in history and the wonder that was India rightfully placed him in the tradition of world writers. Despite its polemical nature and shortcomings as an impartial history, Glimpses possesses significant artistic value. Nehru is deeply engaged in his narrative and freely offers personal judgments shaped by his own world view. Nine decades after the letters were written and 82 years after they were collected and published, Glimpses continues to serve as a document that projects Nehru as a truth seeker.

Pranavi Sharma writes on books and culture. She lives in New Delhi.

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