As a fighter for colonial freedom, I followed avidly the progress of the revolution which was taking place in India prior to her independence. When the time came for me to do something about gaining the political independence of my own country, it was a natural thing that I should take inspiration from India and her leaders who had so recently had to face and overcome problems similar to those then facing my own countrymen. There was no doubt whatever in my mind that Gandhi’s policy of non-violence was the only effective means of dealing with the colonial problem.
I have had for many years the greatest admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, not only on account of the great work that he, in company with other Indian leaders, was doing for his country, but also, and probably more so, because I respected him as a man of purpose, of courage and determination, and one genuinely dedicated to the cause of India. Owing to one reason or another, I did not actually meet Nehru until the summer of 1957 when we both attended the Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in London. He invited me to have breakfast with him shortly after he arrived in England.
More often than not, a person whom you think you know so well through his writings, his personal letters and from details given by his intimate friends falls sadly short of your expectations when eventually you come face to face with him. I am a realist. I looked forward to this meeting with him more than I can say, but two thoughts were uppermost in my mind that morning as my car sped through the London traffic to Kensington Palace Gardens, where Nehru was staying. Would he, I wondered, measure up to the degree of greatness in which I had always held him? Would I, on the other hand, fail to make a good impression on him?
Nehru was all that I had imagined he would be and more. I could not, of course, answer the second question, but of one thing I am certain: at that moment of our meeting of our first handclasp - a firm friendship was forged.
It was my first attendance at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference and I was feeling very much the new boy, in spite of the very warm welcome that was accorded to me by everyone I met. As a newcomer I decided to observe things at the meetings rather than take part in them - at any rate for the first few days - so that by watching how the older members conducted themselves at the meetings, my “newness” would not be so apparent when the time came for me to participate actively.
At each meeting my admiration for Nehru increased. Some days he barely uttered a word, but with a mere gesture, a nod of his head or by some other sign, he indicated his understanding of or agreement with the matter under discussion. When he spoke, it was always worth listening to, whether you agreed with what he said or not. What he had to say was said with the minimum of words and in the minimum of time, and expressed his views clearly and firmly. It was, I felt, the mark of a wise man.
However, my happiest association with Nehru was in India during my recent visit to that country. I cannot enumerate the many acts of generosity and kindness that he displayed to me, but one stands out particularly in my memory. It was the night that I was leaving by train for the north.
I had been warned that it would be pretty cold there and had borrowed an Air Force overcoat for the journey. Shortly before we were due to leave, Nehru unexpectedly arrived at the station looking rather extraordinary in an oversised overcoat. I could not disguise the look of astonishment on my face when I greeted him.
“Come on, come on!” he said, as he hurriedly pushed me into the railway compartment. “I know it is too big for me, but I think it should be just right for you, and just what you will need in Nangal. Try it on.”
I tried it on and it was, as he had said, just right. I put my hands proudly in the pockets and discovered fresh surprises. In one there was a warm wool scarf and in the other a pair of warm gloves.
Again, I felt particularly honoured to be invited on so many occasions during my brief stay in Delhi into the intimacy of Nehru’s home. Here, I discovered the family man, the softer and more relaxed Nehru, surrounded by the things he loved most - his daughter, his grandsons, his dogs and his home.
It is most difficult in so few words to write a real appreciation of Jawaharlal Nehru. All I can say is that I myself feel a better, wiser and richer man for having known him.