The Wordsmith as Public Intellectual
As a lover of words and phrases which he used to express, intelligently and in ordered sequence, Nehru emerged as a public intellectual whose opinions mattered.
Nehru’s books make public his remarkable erudition in dealing with a range of subjects
The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), talked about the part played in French political thinking by men of letters. In the second half of the 19th century, Bengal witnessed a “renaissance” to which literary men, reformers and journalists contributed their bit. Literary works in Urdu and Hindi had a striking impact in raising mass awakening. In this connection, I recount the creative writings of Jawaharlal Nehru to mark his 50th death anniversary (May 27). Most of his books were written in jail. His love of learning was too strong to be quenched by disabilities in jail.
“Long periods in prison,” Nehru wrote, “are apt to make one either a mental and physical wreck or a philosopher. I flatter myself that I kept myself very well during all these years.” As a lover of words and phrases which he used to express, intelligently and in ordered sequence, he emerged, perhaps unknowingly, as a public intellectual whose opinions mattered. And his books held an approach to life compounded of buoyancy and optimism, a humorous tolerance towards life’s foibles and even its trials.
Nehru read 55 books from May 21, 1922 till January 29, 1923 alone. Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol had a magical sway over him. Plato’s The Republic stimulated him, whereas To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf opened his eyes to many scenes of life. As a man with socialist leanings, he perused Beatrice Webb, a Fabian socialist, and Sidney Webb. Besides, he delved into philosophy, and turned the pages of history to illuminate his understanding of ideas and movements, which stood apart as the catalyst for momentous changes. As with the French Revolution or the Bolshevik Revolution, he wanted to know what lay behind people’s upsurge. For the histories of colonialism in India, he read a great deal more on the subject.
An antidote to isolation
Nehru’s reading habits saved him from a life of frustration in the house of sorrow. In this connection he cited the Dutch philosopher, Hugo Grotius, about whom Disraeli had written: “Other men, condemned to exile and captivity, if they survive, despair; the man of letters may reckon those days as the sweetest of his life.” Without comparing his own role with the famous jailbirds — Miguel de Cervantes and John Bunyan, he wrote on October 26, 1930: “In India today, we are making history, and you and I are fortunate to see this happening before our eyes and to take some part ourselves in this great drama.” Mulk Raj Anand, the progressive novelist and essayist, once remarked, “the quality of imagination he brought to his world experience … heightened his egoistically slanted self-realization into significant statement, which is not merely personal history, but the history of a generation, indeed the interpretation of a whole liberation struggle.” Reading history is good, but even more interesting and fascinating is to help in making history.
Putting pen to paper was an antidote to isolation and to harnessing his creative energies. For example, he asked himself, what he was heir to, and answered that he was heir to all that humanity had achieved over tens of thousands of years, to its cries of triumph and its bitter agonies of defeat, to that astonishing adventure, which had begun so long ago and yet continued and beckoned to man. He wrote on the wisdom of India’s past, on its great inexhaustible spiritual heritage, and on the vital necessity to apply it intelligently and reasonably to the present and the future. Toleration and peace were the whole essence of the Indian outlook, and that his countrymen would adjust, without too great difficulty, to a new scheme of things. But the frail old man in the loincloth told him not to be troubled by the outside word but to read, write or learn any handicraft.
On the struggle for freedom, of which he was the intellectual leader, Nehru doubted whether his countrymen would be attentive to or absorbed in his detailed narrative. It did not long for such trepidations to go out of Nehru’s mind. The fact is that he is generous, understanding, and kindly in evaluating the freedom struggle in Asia and Africa. Likewise, he was sympathetic to the ideals and aspirations of liberal nationalism in Turkey and in the Middle Eastern countries, and his Asian pride was burst by Europe’s machinations in the region. He drew comparisons between them and India, and aspired for their freedom.
On Gandhi’s advice, Nehru put in writing some of these thoughts in Glimpses of World History. It consists of his letters to Indira Nehru that were meant to acquaint her with the milestones in world history, the creative thrust and splendour of mankind, the theory and practice of statecraft, the multiple influences of events, and the fate of societies that have been constructed in a narrow and superficial spirit. The letters reflect on the Indian situation and its bearing on the outside world, so that his daughter could “see a mighty procession of living men and women and children in every age and every clime, different from us and yet very like us, with much the same human virtues and human feelings.”
Nehru identified the stirring and epoch-making past events, and reflected on those illustrious men and women who made the masses do great deeds — Lenin, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Cavour, the first Prime Minister of Italy, Giuseppe Mazzini, Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, and, above all, Gandhi. Nehru admitted that it was not for him to assess his historical role, given his personal closeness to the man; but neither can those who remained untouched by the magic of his charisma and personality accomplish this task. Nonetheless, he recounted Gandhi’s leadership, his ideas, his conception of truth, and his ability to mould and move enormous masses of human beings. Without being inflexible, he adapted himself to changing circumstances and to the necessities of the moment. Certain that much ink and paper would be expended on discussing and critiquing Gandhi’s life theories and activities, he pointed out nonetheless, that he could not be reduced to theory. He would remain forever “a radiant and beloved figure.” The image of Gandhi that endured in Nehru’s mind is that of Gandhi leading the Dandi march, determined, staff in his hand.
Wide canvas of ideas
In his glimpses of the great moments in the career of these and many more people, he brought to the fore their treasures of knowledge, learning, heroism and devotion. What is more, his description recovers his own voice, his own enthusiasm, and his own strong arm at the service of his people. Drawing on the accumulated mass of notes, to which Nehru made frequent additions, his correspondence illustrate a unity of outlook and a command of facts which would do credit to any professional writer. Without the dust and tumble of politics, they are clear, emphatic, neat and without a trace of pedantry. Glimpses of World History, with its thousands of facts and events and names, stands by itself as “a demonstration of human intellectual capacity.” Hiren Mukherjee, Nehru’s biographer, remarked that a great deal happened while Nehru was in jail, affecting the whole gamut of his emotions and touched off thoughts. Hence, it was incumbent for a sensitive man like him to put them down in words that came with graceful spontaneity.
Nehru’s books make public the wide range of his interests, and his remarkable erudition in dealing with subjects ranging from domestic politics to the ethics and morality of science, from India’s role in world affairs to the urgency of setting up universities, and his thoughts on culture. Any yet, a running thread is discernible within all these diverse interests. For example, one is struck by Nehru’s awareness of the continuity between the past, the present and his hopes and vision for the future. Hence, he refers to the weight of the past, the greatness of the civilisation he had inherited, not as a burden to be carried, but as a point for judging the moral worth and wisdom of his decisions.
It is hard to find much fault with Nehru’s general conception of ideas and their execution or to deny the limitations of an otherwise wide canvas. The verdict of a reviewer in the American Current History was flattering; according to him, Glimpses of World History was a better survey of the world story than H.G. Well’s Outline. Fenner Brockway, a friend of India, acclaimed it. His daughter claimed that she learnt more from Glimpses of World History than any other history book she had studied at school. Passages from it were read out in the Aga Khan Detention Camp. Gandhi felt like translating them. Since then, new editions succeeded one another during Nehru’s life and many have appeared after his death, and the value of the work has not diminished. Besides public men, lawyer and judges thought highly of the Glimpses. Few works of the time require so little adaptation to satisfy students today.
(Mushirul Hasan is Nehru Fellow and former director-general of the National Archives of India.)