Madame Pandit's Contemporaries Included Lord Mountbatten : At 85, Nehru's Sister Recalls High Moments of a Long Life

The Washington Post

There aren't many people still alive in this country who remember Lord Louis Mountbatten as "Dickie," a contemporary and a friend.

But Madame Pandit, the 85-year-old sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, the country's first prime minister, can tell grand tales of the last British viceroy, who in changing the life of her country inevitably changed her own.

"He did a lot of harm to India because of the policies he had to carry out so swiftly," she says, referring to the hasty decision to divide the colony into India and Pakistan, leading to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims.

"But personally, he was a charming man. I was in love with him from the moment I saw him until the day he died. As were most people."

Madame Pandit is relaxing under a sun umbrella in her garden, which looks out toward the tree-covered hills that announce the beginning of the Himalayas.

Like Mountbatten, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit is one of the great figures of modern Indian history. She was her brother's ambassador to Moscow, London and Washington, the first woman president of the U.N. General Assembly, a leading freedom fighter who was jailed three times during the Indian independence movement and a bitter and outspoken critic of the politics of her niece, Indira Gandhi.

Now she is a big fan of the grandnephew who she says has finally welcomed her back into the family, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, son of the assassinated prime minister.

A Trip Back in Time

Spending a few hours with Madame Pandit is to take a trip back four decades and see Mountbatten as a member of one royal family, as viewed by a member of another.

The Nehrus are the first political dynasty of modern India, raised by British nannies and schooled in England, so the Nehru and Mountbatten families seemed destined to become friends. "When I talk about him," Madame Pandit says of Mountbatten, "I sometimes forget who he was."

She has the deep-set eyes and wide mouth of her brother. Sometimes it is startling to see so much of his face in hers. When she was younger, she had the handsome looks of a forceful, charismatic woman, but now there is a softness and sweetness about her.

This is not to say that she has lost her sense of humor and tendency to say whatever she pleases. On this morning, for instance, she casually refers to Queen Elizabeth II, another old friend, as "not a great intellect, of course, but a warm person of many interests."

Madame Pandit, who is still referred to as "Madame" from her days at the United Nations, also says she will never know the exact nature of the unusual friendship that developed between Mountbatten's dazzling and difficult wife, Edwina, and Nehru, a romantic and impassioned man who was widowed at the time.

Paired by Forces of History

It is something that has fascinated the Indians for years. There were Nehru and Mountbatten attempting to bring about the birth of modern India, thrown into a relationship by the forces of history. People have always known that Edwina was an important part of the chemistry that made it work, particularly because she was able to charm and provide solace for the moody Nehru when things seemed to be at their worst.

Last year the especially juicy parts of "Mountbatten," the well-received official biography by Philip Ziegler, were serialized in Indian newspapers, creating a brief flurry of fresh gossip about the threesome.

But Ziegler in the end described the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and her brother as "intensely loving, romantic, trusting, generous, idealistic, even spiritual," adding that "if there was any physical element, it can only have been of minor importance to either party."

Madame Pandit, too, can only speculate. "Edwina was a great friend of my brother's," she says. "A man and a woman can be great friends. I've had many good men friends, but I haven't been to bed with them.

"I think Edwina was an extremely fine woman who was drawn on many levels to my brother. I pity a woman who wouldn't have been. And he found in her a woman with whom he could exchange many thoughts."

If the relationship did become intimate, she adds, "I'm glad. What can I say? I've seen many of the letters, and I've found they are some of the best literature I've read. But that's my brother. They're so beautiful, I think they should be published."

Few Letters Made Public

Madame Pandit says the Nehru family has possession of Edwina's letters to Nehru, and that the Mountbatten family has possession of Nehru's letters to Edwina.

A few letters have been made public, such as one included in Ziegler's biography. It is from Nehru to Edwina, written 10 years after he accompanied the Mountbattens on a 1948 holiday to the mountains near Simla, the old British summer capital.

"Suddenly I realized (and perhaps you did also)," Nehru wrote, "that there was a deeper attachment between us, that some uncontrollable force, of which I was only dimly aware, drew us to one another. I was overwhelmed and at the same time exhilarated by this new discovery. We talked more intimately, as if some veil had been removed, and we could look into each other's eyes without fear or embarrassment."

Before Mountbatten's death in 1979, caused by a bomb planted on a fishing boat by the Irish Republican Army, he showed Madame Pandit a few of Nehru's letters to his wife.

Edwina had died in 1960, yet Madame Pandit says Mountbatten told her he had never read any of them. The Ziegler biography suggests that he was afraid of what he might find. Madame Pandit sees it instead as a matter of privacy.

"You don't read your wife's letters," she says sternly.

Today Mountbatten remains a controversial figure in India. People still feel that the British were so anxious to abandon the empire that Mountbatten gave in too easily to demands for the creation of Pakistan, and then drew the boundary lines so badly that millions of people were killed or needlessly uprooted. Still more lives have been lost in the three wars between India and Pakistan since.

'Can't Blame Mountbatten'

Madame Pandit prefers to fault British policy, not the viceroy. "You can't blame Mountbatten," she says, insisting that he was only carrying out policies from London.

She admits he was arrogant. "He had a great sense of his own importance," she says. "I remember I had lunch with him once at Broadlands (the Mountbatten country house in Hampshire). There were gold plates everywhere. And I said to him, 'Dickie, when two people like me and you have lunch, is it necessary to have all this around?'

"And he said, 'Well, of course. I am a member of the royal family.' "

Madame Pandit has an aristocratic bearing and is dressed elegantly this day in a blue, silk, printed sari with a navy cardigan to keep warm on a sun-filled but cool winter day.

She lives with her daughter, the novelist Nayantara Sahgal, and son-in-law in a simple, gray, stucco house on a road lined with jacaranda trees just outside Dehra Dun, a resort town 125 miles north of New Delhi.

She looks a good decade younger than she is. "My doctors were so surprised by my health that after they took the X-rays they put (the images of) all my innards up on the board for their students," she says. "And then they asked, 'How old is this woman?' And they all said, '60.' "

She remembers that when the Mountbattens had just arrived in India, there was a reception in progress at the Nehru home. "The phone rang and it was them--they wanted to come over," Madame Pandit recalls. "This was unheard of, the viceroy wanting to mix with the Indians. But they were people who had come here to make friends. In that way, they were a perfectly matched pair--whatever else might have been between them."

She has read the Ziegler biography, which she finds good, but dismisses "Freedom at Midnight," the best-selling chronicle about Indian independence by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, as "just a storybook" that built up Mountbatten as a great hero because he was the primary source for the authors.

Nehru Died in 1964

"Although in every book he is too much of a hero," she says, "because he was too much of a hero in real life. Even my brother, with all his charisma and the greatness attached to him, didn't have that. Mountbatten was always a little ahead of him."

Nehru died in 1964. Madame Pandit always referred to him affectionately as Bhai , the Hindi word for brother.

"There have been very few brothers and sisters who were as close to each other as we were," she says. "I was the little sister, nearly 11 years younger, but somehow it didn't matter."

In theory, the Indian independence movement brought women equal status with men, and Nehru always looked upon his sister as a political confidante and colleague. At one point he considered naming her his vice president.

Madame Pandit's feelings about Nehru's daughter, Indira, are another matter. Although Madame Pandit says she virtually raised Indira as her own after Indira's mother died, the two as adults became personal rivals and then political opponents in a split that never healed.

Indira Gandhi first became prime minister in January, 1966; she was assassinated by two Sikh security guards in October, 1984. Indians sometimes interpret her break with her aunt as a rivalry between two strong women at odds over whether the daughter or the sister should inherit the Nehru legacy. But Madame Pandit, not surprisingly, places the blame solely on Gandhi.

'Wasn't Friendly and Warm'

"The one thing she could not tolerate on any level was disagreement," she says. "And yet we both belonged to a family in which we were taught to disagree. So many of the books now describe a woman I didn't know. She wasn't outgoing, and she wasn't friendly and warm. I think she was a very great prime minister in many ways, but her approach to people was a denigrating approach. She brought them down rather than lifted them up."

In her 1979 autobiography, "The Scope of Happiness," Madame Pandit is even more critical of Gandhi, who was raised by an absent father and an ailing mother.

"The long years alone gave her strength of character," Madame Pandit writes, "but they took away from her some of the qualities a settled home helps to develop--tolerance and a kindred spirit. Instead of compassion, she developed hardness--a feeling that life had not been fair, therefore she would have her revenge."

In 1976, Madame Pandit spoke out against the state of emergency Gandhi had declared, saying that "if there are no civil liberties and no dissent, then where is the democracy we fought for?"

At the time she said that her niece's government was opening her mail and keeping her house under surveillance. Madame Pandit later campaigned to help bring the opposition Janata coalition to victory. Gandhi never forgave her.

Only after Gandhi's death did Madame Pandit become reacquainted with Gandhi's son, Rajiv.

"For 20 years, I didn't see anything of him because of the strained relationship between me and my niece," she says. "But he is a very loving person, and he stretched out his hand to me right away. I feel very happy."

On her 85th birthday, she says, he phoned her first thing in the morning. His picture is displayed prominently on her mantel below a portrait of Nehru.

Optimism About India

She says she is more optimistic about India now than she has been in years. "I do feel that things are fairly all right now," she says, "although there are quite a few things that are disturbing. I don't see the anchor steady as it should be. For instance, we automatically call any opposition the enemy."

Rajiv, she says, seems "very happy" to be running the country, although she describes his wife, Sonia, as "very tense" and worried about her husband's safety.

After lunch and some more talk, Madame Pandit is ready for a rest. This has been enough nostalgia for the day. "I'm not a person who looks back very much, because it tends to disappoint," she says. "Life today doesn't have that fullness and beauty and grace as it did when I was a young woman."

Every day she becomes more aware that she is one of the last of her generation.

"You read the papers, and one by one the people I've known are no more," she says. "It makes one feel rather lonely. It's almost a desolate feeling. One's family is on a different level. The ones that one lived with and worked with are on a different level, too.

"I feel it every morning when I get up. This is the biggest argument I have with my daughters, but I say this from the depths of my feeling. I honestly feel that having outlived everybody, it is high time that I depart.

"And it's not that I have any grievance against myself. I've had great fun in my life, great opportunities, great moments. But somehow I've never been afraid of death."

When in her lifetime will she ever get a chance to know another "Bhai," meet another Mountbatten, go through another freedom struggle? "I think it's high time," she says, smiling, "for me to go to a better world."

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