Monday, November 05, 2012

Stamp of a Statesman: Jawaharlal Nehru

The following quotes have been excerpted from Toward Freedom: The Autobiography of Jawaharlal Nehru (1941), which the first Prime Minister of independent India dedicated to his wife Kamala Nehru. His prose in this book as well as in his other two major works, The Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History, is mersmerising.

"(Toward Freedom) was written entirely in prison, except for the postscript and certain minor changes, from June 1934 to February 1935. The primary object in writing these pages was to occupy myself with a definite task, so necessary in the long solitudes of jail life, as well as to review past events in India with which I had been connected to enable myself to think clearly about them. I began the task in a mood of self-questioning and, to a large extent, this persisted throughout. I was not writing deliberately for an audience, but, if I thought of an audience, it was one of my own countrymen and countrywomen. For foreign readers I would probably have written differently, or with a different emphasis..."

"Letter writing and receiving in jail were always serious incursions on a peaceful and unruffled existence. They produced an emotional state which was disturbing; for a day or two afterward one's mind wandered, and it was difficult to concentrate on the day's work."

"My main occupation (in jail), however, was reading and writing. I could not have all the books I wanted, as there were restrictions and a censorship, and the censors were not always very competent for the job. Spengler's Decline of the West was held up because the title looked dangerous and seditious. But I must not complain, for I had, on the whole, a goodly variety of books." 

"The only books that British officials heartily recommended were religious books or novels. It is wonderful how dear to the heart of the British Government is the subject of religion and how impartially it encourages all brands of it."

"I was well up in children's and boys' literature; the Lewis Carroll books were great favorites, and The Jungle Books and Kim. I was fascinated by Gustave Dore's illustrations to Don Quixote, and Fridtjof Nansen's Farthest North opened out a new realm of adventure to me. I remember reading many of the novels of Scott, Dickens, and Thackeray, H.G. Wells's romances, Mark Twain, and the Sherlock Holmes stories. I was thrilled by The Prisoner of Zenda, and Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat was for me the last word in humor. Another book stands out still in my memory; it was Du Maurier's Trilby; also Peter Ibbetson. I also developed a liking for poetry, a liking which has to some extent endured and survived the many other changes to which I have been subject."

"It is a little absurd to discuss this question of freedom of mind in prison in India when, as it happens, the vast majority of the prisoners are not allowed any newspapers or writing materials. It is not a question of censorship but of total denial." 

"In Lucknow Jail I used to sit reading almost without moving for considerable periods, and a squirrel would climb up my leg and sit on my knee and have a look round. And then it would look into my eyes and realize that I was not a tree or whatever it had taken me for. Fear would disable it for a moment, and then it would scamper away."

"Reading was my principal occupation during those winter days and long evenings. Almost always, whenever the superintendent visited us, he found me reading. This devotion to reading seemed to get on his nerves a little, and he remarked on it once, adding that, so far as he was concerned, he had practically finished his general reading at the age of twelve!"

"Sometimes I would weary of too much reading, and then I would take to writing. My historical series of letters to my daughter kept me occupied right through my two-year term, and they helped rne very greatly to keep mentally fit."

"From sunset to sunrise (more or less) we were locked up in our cells, and the long winter evenings were not very easy to pass. I grew tired of reading or writing hour after hour, and would start walking up and down that little cell four or five short steps forward and then back again. I remembered the bears at the zoo tramping up and down their cages. Sometimes when I felt particularly bored I took to my favorite remedy, the shirshasana (a yogic exercise) standing on the head!"

"Travel books were always welcome records of old travelers, Hiuen Tsang, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, and others, or moderns like Sven Hedin, with his journeys across the deserts of Central Asia, and Roerich, finding strange adventures in Tibet. Picture books also, especially of mountains and glaciers and deserts, for in prison one hungers for wide spaces and seas and mountains. I had some beautiful picture books of Mont Blanc, the Alps, and the Himalayas, and I turned to them often to gaze at the glaciers when the temperature of my cell or barrack was 115 F or even more. An atlas was an exciting affair. It brought all manner of past memories and dreams of places we had visited and places we had wanted to go to." 

"One extravagance which I have kept up will be hard to give up, and this is the buying of books."

For previous Celebrity Stamps, see under Labels to your right.


  1. Thans for such an informative post.

    1. You are welcome, Mystica. Nehru is one of my favourite Indian writers and his The Discovery of India, which also he wrote in prison, is one of the best non-fiction books I have read. Both this and Toward Freedom are legally available online.

  2. This would definitely be eye opening for me, I imagine. I know some about the history but mostly from the more British side, I imagine

    1. Charles, Nehru's three books give the reader a comprehensive overview of pre- and post-independent India. In fact, The Discovery of India looks back at the genesis of Indian civilisation and slowly winds its way down to the freedom struggle through the first-half of the 20th century, and all that happened in between. Many Englishmen based in India during the British occupation have written credible books tracing different aspects of India's socio, cultural, political and economic life.

  3. I like the measured tone of this excerpt, the calm at the center of it. And I can understand how getting and receiving letters would disturb that tranquility...I'm thinking of another political prisoner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose "Letters and Papers From Prison" capture something of that same effort to come to terms with incarceration through the written word. In a fictional vein, there's also Manuel Puig's "The Kiss of the Spider Woman" where one prisoner keeps another entertained with stories from the movies.

    1. "The calm at the center of it..." Nicely said, Ron. I'm sure Nehru would have liked that. Gandhi wrote a lot in captivity too. I think forced confinement and living in solitude for long periods of time enabled people like Nehru, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, and Mandela to sit back and reflect upon the events, past and present, in their life, which may have helped them channelise their thoughts and actions for the future. Thanks for mentioning Dietrich Bonhoeffer: I don't know much about him. I don't recall seeing THE KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN though I've heard about it. Time to check out both.