It was in New York in 1949, at a party in a private home in the upper seventies that I first met Jawaharlal Nehru. He had come to America on a visit - I believe his first one. It was partly an official state visit, partly private. The official part had already taken place and he was now informally visiting New York. Nehru came to America in the wake of cruel tragedies that had followed Indian independence and his assumption of Prime-Ministerial powers. He was one of the most celebrated personages in the world and everyone in America was excited by his visit and wanted to have a look at him.
Our hostess - a friend of Nehru's had invited a small group of intellectuals to meet him but many more people turned up than she had expected, and when I arrived the two first rooms were crowded with people. Nehru had come to the party with his daughter and sister. The two ladies in saris sat on a sofa in the foyer surrounded by a cluster of chattering guests. Nehru wore a dark business suit, looked unassuming and a bit perplexed. He stood in the living room, a glass of juice in his left hand, his back turned to a large modern bay-window.
As I approached him I watched his face. It was a beautiful face, well cut, well proportioned, with manly yet subtly refined features. It looked distant, brooding - a bit sad and also a bit stern. Yet when a smile came upon it, even the conventional one of a greeting (and it came on slowly, gradually) the face was suddenly lit with the gentle glow of friendship and charm.
When my turn came to be introduced, the hostess followed her ritual: ‘This, Mr. Prime Minister, is ...', with a few words explaining that I was a composer and that I was of Russian origin. And she emphasised the word Russian in the way grocers in New York emphasise the word 'imported'.
Nehru looked at me with his dark eyes, smiled and said: ‘I’ am afraid, we will have little to talk about ... I am completely ignorant in music ... It’s a closed book for me. And the eyes darted at me first ironically then with polite apology ...
‘But perhaps we can talk about Russia, about some of its great men’… Then he turned to the oncoming next one in line.
A little later Mr. Nehru was asked to take his place in an armchair near the bay-window and the whole party flocked to the living room and took up standing, leaning and sitting positions all over the room. The chatter gradually died down. The hostess, sitting at Nehru’s feet, announced that the Prime Minister had agreed to say a few words and answer questions.
I do not remember the exact words, but I do remember the content of what he said. He spoke of the birth of a nation, the birth of independent India after centuries of foreign rule. He spoke of the anguish and tragedies that accompany the birthpangs of a nation. He spoke of the ease with which people make, or accept misleading generalisations. ‘We, in India,’ he said, ‘have the reputation of being a tolerant people ... This, it is often said, is our historic tradition ... and you see what happened when independence and partition came to us. We gave the world a spectacle of terrible cruelty, intolerance and injustice. Yet ...’ and he paused and looked broodingly down-wards, ‘yet it would be just as wrong to make a generalisation about it. I mean, it would be wrong to say that the Indian people are cruel and intolerant, that they are all religious fanatics ... I believe they are just as any other people, and they behaved well or badly depending on circumstances. You can perhaps say that they are ignorant and retarded in their social development but this is not their fault ... You see,’ he continued, ‘ there has been a great deal of mystification made about India, in the West ... on the other hand, much too little has been known about the true circumstances in which we lived for many centuries, the exploitation of our resources, the neglect in which most of our people existed under foreign rule ...’
All this was said in a quiet, urbane, conversational manner. There was no emphasis, no emotional oratory in his manner of speaking, nor was there any apparent desire of persuasion. It was a terse statement of fact-honest, sincere, yet free from any bitterness or reproval.
Since that remote day in the 1940's, I have been in India several times and saw and was graciously received by the Prime Minister four or five times. The first time I came was in the winter of 1953. I was making a tour of S.E. Asia visiting friends of the Congress and meeting intellectuals and artists. Stephen Spender was also there (on a lecture tour in India, I believe) and we met in Delhi, where I had arrived from Bombay.
The Prime Minister was informed of our coming and the day we arrived we found in our hotel boxes engraved cards with an invitation to lunch to the Prime Minister’s residence.
Spender and I came together to the residence of the Prime Minister and were received first by Mr. Nehru’s housekeeper. We signed our name in the book and went to the garden where the lunch table was set among greenery. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister’s daughter, and a scholarly-looking Indian gentleman were standing around and waiting for us. We were offered drinks (cherry-juices) and were told that the Prime Minister was held up in Parliament ... but would arrive any minute, as indeed he did. We saw his gaunt figure walking towards us across the lawn. ‘Yes, I remember you,’ he said, as he greeted me. ‘I met you at Mrs. N’s in New York, is it not so? ... And you came here to meet our musicians and hear our music, did you? ... Or, have you other things in mind? And then he saw Spender, whom he had known before, went up to him and shook his hand.
The luncheon was lively and charming. Nehru was an excellent conversationalist but also an attentive listener. But the nice thing about him, which struck me that time and indeed every time that I saw him, was his simplicity, the utter lack of ceremonial, or any kind of pomp about him.
In the course of my five or six visits to the Prime Minister or lunches with him (the last one was in 1961, I believe, and again Spender was with me, but this time also Jayaprakash Narayan) I had occasion to speak with Nehru about many subjects: history, politics, the arts and literature, but mostly about India and its culture and artistic tradition.
He said to me often that he couldn't understand why I, a musician, should be interested in things so much beyond the normal orbit of my art, like the international political tensions in the world … He would change the subject, by saying: ‘This should really not be your concern … leave this to us ... the politicians.'
Nehru's gaze was slow, gradual, full of human warmth. After you had been with him an hour or two, you came out with the feeling of having received a gift of some kind, the mysterious gift of human contact and friendship. All this, I suppose, is what people so often used to call the magic of Nehru. I experienced it every time I saw him. This deep sense of involvement and attraction.
The last time I saw the Prime Minister was for breakfast at his house together with my wife and the Galbraiths. I think it was the spring of 1961. He looked aged and tired, spoke very little and was visibly preoccupied. I was sorry that we had imposed upon him by accepting his invitation for breakfast. But he shook my hand and said so gently, so kindly: ‘You cannot impose upon me, I am always glad to see you ... only I am presently always in a rush and ... I’m not that agile, not that elastic any more...’
This last February when I was at the East-West music conference in Delhi, I saw his daughter, but I could not see him. He was not allowed to receive guests the way he wished and saw people only on urgent business. Still his old friends Yehudi and Diana Menuhin went to call on him and had lunch with him and told him jokes and he laughed a lot. But they came back disturbed and distressed by his state of health and the way he looked.
I was told that the doctors had suggested to him that he resign and take a definite rest so as to protect his life for a few more years ... but he couldn’t accept this solution. It was not Nehru’s solution. So he knew, as his daughter knew and as many more people around him knew, that he would die, that he would die soon, at the latest this autumn ... But he preferred to die this way, the way he had lived, in full action and thus give his last strength to his country and to his people.