June 2, 2014
THE HINDU ARCHIVESVERSATILE WRITER: 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