(With kind permission from - "India - Perspectives" - August 1997)
India, The Land of Our Adoption, to a very large degree, is what it is - utterly captivating - because of great leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, whose life has inspired me, mainly through those 31 years I spent in India, but also through reading his scholarly book, "The Discovery of India". Though I did not have the privilege of meeting Mr. Nehru personally, (I was privileged to meet his daughter, Indira ) I shall ever be grateful for his strong action which enabled me to be released from an Indian prison on a trumped up charge, brought against me by jealous money-lenders and land-lords. Life in prison is no picnic and it must have been most frustrating for Panditji to be incarcerated for so long and yet, he produced some beautiful writings from behind bars, including the following letter which I quote, verbatim. Its contents reflect the dynamism of the man, his humility and his love for the people of India for whom he was prepared to suffer so much to free them from the foreign yoke. What impresses me most of all, in his following letter, is the total lack of bitterness towards the Occupation Forces who had so brutally maltreated his people and raped his land. Please enjoy the following:-
"Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru tirelessly strove to attain a state "where mind is without fear and the head is held high… into that heaven of freedom…" He wanted his people to learn from their historic past but to remain conscious of their obligations to the future. Through his famous letters to his beloved young daughter, Indira Gandhi, he helped her and posterity to imbibe his scientific temper. "The Last Letter", as Jawaharlal Nehru preferred to call it, which he wrote from Dehra Dun prison in, 1933, to Indira Gandhi, gives us a glimpse into the thought process of a father, as also its likely impact on the daughter, both of whom went on to shape the destiny of India's teeming millions!
AUGUST 9th. 1933:- We have finished, my dear; the long story has ended. I need write no more, but the desire to end off with a kind of flourish induces me to write another letter - the Last Letter !
It was time I finished, for the end of my two-year term draws near. In three and thirty days from today I should be discharged, if indeed I am not released sooner, as the gaoler sometimes threatens to do. The full two years are not over yet, but I have received three and a half months' remission of my sentence, as all well-behaved prisoners do. For I am supposed to be a well-behaved prisoner, a reputation which I have certainly done nothing to deserve. So ends my sixth sentence, and I shall go out again into the wide world, but to what purpose? A 'quoi bon'? When most of my friends and comrades lie in gaol and the whole country seems a vast prison.
What a mountain of letters I have written! And what a lot of good 'swadeshi' (made in one's own country) ink I have spread out on 'swadeshi' paper. Was it worth while? I wonder. Will all this paper and ink convey any message to you that will interest you? You will say "yes", of course, for you will feel that any other answer might hurt me, and you are too partial to me to take such a risk. But whether you care for them or not, you cannot grudge me the joy of having written them, day after day, during these two long years. It was winter when I came. Winter gave place to our brief spring, slain all too soon by the summer heat; and then, when the ground was parched and dry and men and beast panted for breath, came the monsoon, with its bountiful supply of fresh, cool rain-water. Autumn followed, and the sky was wonderfully clear and blue and afternoons were pleasant. The year's cycle was over, and again began winter and spring and summer and the rainy season. I have sat here, writing to you and thinking of you and watched the seasons go by, and listened to the pitapat of the rain on my barrack roof :- "O doux bruit de la pluie,
Partree et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur quis'ennuie,
Oh! Le chant de la pluie!"
Benjamin Disraeli, the great English statesman, has 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." He was writing about Hugo Grotius, a famous Dutch jurist and philosopher of the seventeenth century, who was condemned to imprisonment for life, but managed to escape after two years. He spent these two years in prison in philosophic and literary work. There have been many famous literary gaolbirds, the two best known, perhaps, being the Spaniard, Cervantes, who wrote 'Don Quixote' and the Englishman, John Bunyan, the author of 'Pilgrim's Progress'.
I am not a man of letters, and I am not prepared to say that the many years I have spent in gaol have been the sweetest in my life, but I must say that reading and writing have helped me wonderfully to get through them. I am not a literary man, and I am not a historian; what, indeed, am I? I find it difficult to answer that question. I have been a dabbler in many things; I began with science at college, and then took to law, and, after developing various other interests in life, finally adopted the popular and widely practiced profession of gaol-going in India!
You must not take what I have written in these letters as the final authority on any subject. A politician wants to have a say on every subject and he always pretends to know much more than he actually does. He has to be watched carefully. These letters of mine are but superficial sketches joined together by a thin thread. I have rambled on, skipping centuries and many important happenings, and then pitching my tent for quite a long time on some event which interested me. As you will notice, my likes and dislikes are pretty obvious, and so also sometimes are my moods in gaol. I do not want you to take all this for granted; there may, indeed, be many errors in my accounts. A prison, with no libraries or reference books at hand is not the most suitable place in which to write on historical subjects. I have had to rely very largely on my many note-books which I have accumulated since I began my visits to gaol twelve years ago. Many books have also come to me here; they have come and gone, for I could not collect a library here. I have shamelessly taken from these books facts and ideas; there is nothing original in what I have written. Perhaps, occasionally, you may find my letters difficult to follow; skip those parts, do not mind them. The grown-up in me got the better of me sometimes, and I wrote as I should not have done.
I have given you the barest outline; this is not history; they are just fleeting glimpses of our long past. If history interests you, you will find your way to many books which will help you to unravel the threads of past ages. But reading books alone will not help. If you would know the past, you must look upon it with sympathy and with understanding. To understand a person who lived long ago, you will have to understand his environment, the conditions under which he lived, the ideas that filled his mind. It is absurd for us to judge past people as if they lived now, and thought as we do. There is no one to defend slavery today and yet, the great Plato held that slavery was essential. Within recent times, scores of thousands of lives were given in an effort to retain slavery in the United States. We cannot judge the past from the standards of the present. Everyone will willingly admit this. But everyone will not admit the equally absurd habit of judging the present by the standards of the past. The various religions have especially helped in petrifying old beliefs and faiths and customs, which may have had some use in the age and country of their birth, but which are singularly unsuitable in our present age.
If, then, you look upon past history with the eye of sympathy, the dry bones will fill up with flesh and blood, and you will 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 failings. History is not a magic show, but there is plenty of magic in it for those who have eyes to see. Innumerable pictures from the gallery of history crowd our minds. Egypt - Babylon - Nineveh - the old Indian civilisations - the coming of the Aryans to India and their spreading out over Europe and Asia - the wonderful record of Chinese culture - Knossoz and Greece -- Imperial Rome and Byzantium - the triumphant march of the Arabs across two continents - the renaissance of Indian culture and its decay - the little known Maya and Aztec civilisations of America - the vast conquests of the Mongols - the Middle Ages of Europe with their wonderful Gothic cathedrals - the coming of Islam to India and the Moghal Empire - the Renaissance of learning and art in western Europe- the discovery of America and the sea routes of the East - the beginnings of Western aggression in the East - the coming of the big machine and the development of capitalism - the spread of industrialism and European domination and imperialism and the wonders of science in the modern world.
Great empires have risen and fallen and been forgotten by man for thousands of years, till their remains were dug up again by patient explorers from under the sands that covered them. And yet, many an idea, many a fancy, has survived and proved stronger and more persistent than the empire.
"Egypt's might is tumbled down, Down a - down the deeps of thought; Greece is fallen and Troy town; Glorious Rome hath lost her crown. Venice's pride is nought. But the dreams their children dreamed, Fleeting, unsubstantial, vain, Shadowy as the shadows seemed, Airy nothing as they deemed, These remain" - So sings Mary Coleridge.
The past brings us many gifts; indeed, all that we have today is culture, civilisation, science, or knowledge of some aspects of the truth. It is a gift of the distant or recent past to us. It is right that we acknowledge our obligation to the past. But the past does not exhaust our duty or obligation; we owe a duty to the future also, and perhaps that obligation is even greater than the one we owe to the past. For the past is past and done with; we cannot change it; the future is yet to come and perhaps we may be able to shape it a little. If the past has given us some part of the truth, the future also hides many aspects of the truth and invites us to search for them. But often the past is jealous of the future and holds us in a terrible grip and we have to struggle with it to get free to face and advance towards the future.
History, it is said, has many lessons to teach us; and there is another saying,, that history never repeats itself. Both are true for we cannot learn anything from it by slavishly trying to copy it or by expecting it to repeat itself or remain stagnant; but we can learn something from it by prying behind it and trying to discover the forces that move it. Even so, what we get is seldom a straight answer. "History", says Karl Marx, "Has no other way of answering old questions than by putting new ones". The old days were days of faith. The wonderful temples, mosques and cathedrals of past centuries could never have been built but for the overpowering faith of the architects and builders and people generally. The very stones that they reverently put one on top of the other, or carved into beautiful designs, tell us of this faith The old temple spire, the mosque with its slender minarets, the Gothic cathedral, all of them pointing upward with an amazing intensity of devotion, as if offering a prayer in stone or marble to the sky above - thrill us even now.
I have given you many quotations and extracts from poets and others in this letter; I shall finish up with one more. It is from "Gitanjali"; it is a poem, or prayer, by Rabindra Nath Tagore:-
"Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; Where words come out from the depth of Truth; Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection; Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; Where the mind is led forward by thee into every widening thought and action -- Into that Heaven of Freedom, my Father, let my country awake."
The purpose of Nehru's letter to his daughter
(by Mrs. C. Ekanayake, Retd. Specialist Teacher Eng. Lit., St. Anne's College, Kurunegala)
Nehru wrote this set of letters when he was in prison for being in the 'fore-front of the struggle' to win Independence for India. He was jailed eight times for being in the campaign against British Rule.
When Nehru was in prison his daughter Indira was a little girl. A father would usually write loving letters, affectionate and touching. But Nehru's letters were entirely different, arousing the curiosity of the readers. But Nehru has had a very energetic and ulterior motive and a far sighted purpose in his letters.
He used very simple language, so that his little daughter could understand him and follow him. Nehru was determined to arouse national feelings and devotion for her motherland.
There was an urgent need for independence for India. To end the era of British Colonial Rule Nehru made a successful attempt to inculcate, patriotism and love for 'mother India' and above all stimulate her, from her childhood - the importance of freedom to her mother country - in this Nehru succeeded.
India gained Independence and Nehru became the Prime Minister of India in 1947. Indira Gandhi realised that her father's desire were genuine and true he fought not for fame or status but with love and devotion for his mother country.
Jawaharlal Nehru's 'Letters to his Daughter' tend to inculcate the importance of patriotism and how even children could be directed in the right path to patriotism and detest flaunting of parental power.