Saturday, November 8, 2014

A memoir of family and politics

Prison and Chocolate Cake, Nayantara Sahgal

    There are three of us - Lekha, older, myself, and Rita, younger than I. We grew up at a time when India was the stage for a great political drama, and we shall always remain a little dazzled by the performance we have seen.  This is the story of its influence on our lives, and as such it may interest people whose childhood was different from ours.
    Our lives were as normal as our parents could make them, but because they themselves had chosen to play a part in that drama, we could never live in quite the same way other children did.  We had a somewhat unusual background and, perhaps as the result of it, we have had some unusual opportunities.
    . . . Much of the atmosphere we knew as children is fast vanishing, for already Gandhiji's name is history and Anand Bhawan, our home in Allahabad, is a deserted house.

I read about this book in Emily Kimbrough's Water, Water Everywhere. She described it as "one of the most delightful and sensitive books of the year before" [1954], an account of the author's "childhood in India and girlhood in America."  She met Nayantara Sahgal in London, while staying at the Indian Embassy as the guest of her mother, the High Commissioner Vijaya Pandit.  The book sounded interesting even before I learned that Mme. Pandit was the sister of Jawaharlal Nehru.  Many years ago I studied Indian history in college, and while much of what I learned has faded, not the struggle for independence.  As the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, and the daughter of equally active parents, Nayantara Sahgal was at the center of that movement.

Mrs. Sahgal began her account in 1943, when she and her older sister Lekha were preparing to sail on their own from India to the United States.  Their younger sister Rita would remain in India.  Her parents made the difficult decision to send them to America because "apart from the fact that the political situation was tense and not conducive to study, education at that time was surrounded by restrictions."  They had to send their daughters alone because they were jailed for their part in the Congress Party's non-cooperation campaign during the Second World War (her father would die in prison the next year).  The two older sisters sailed from Bombay on an American troop ship.  Due to war-time security, the passengers were told nothing of the route.  The sisters were surprised to learn they were sailing east, when "the only person whom our parents knew personally, and who was awaiting our arrival, lived in New York City..."  They landed in California "without the slightest idea of what to do or where to go."

Mrs. Sahgal then turned back to India, to write about her childhood and the events that had brought her with her sister to America.  It seems like she was also trying to explain India to Americans.  Many of the people she met had only the vaguest ideas of where India was, or what life was like there.  Perhaps this was still true in 1954.  She also wanted to explain the struggle for independence, and the role played by her family.
We did not see Gandhiji often.  To us, India's fight for freedom and all that it symbolized in the way of valor and idealism was represented by our uncle, Jawaharlal Nehru (whom we called Mamu), who had guided the political destiny of our family toward Gandhiji.  It was Mamu, among the first to respond to Gandhiji's call when he came to India from South Africa in 1916, who influenced our grandfather, Motilal, to join his ranks.
Their father, who came from the same area of western India as Gandhi himself, was another early member of his movement.  Mrs. Sahgal wrote about their family's involvement, which meant frequent separations as her parents were arrested and imprisoned.   But she also wrote about the life that went on around these interruptions, in the family's home in Allahabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and on their country estate of Khali, in the northern mountains.  Her parents were determined to make their daughters' childhood as happy and carefree as possible, despite the difficulties of their position.  As Mrs. Sahgal admitted, "Certainly we were in no sense average, if one took the word to mean representative of the whole of India."  Theirs was a life of privilege, and not just in a material sense.  But on the other hand they grew up in the "Swadeshi movement" that encouraged simplicity of life and the rejection of foreign goods. They "grew up believing that ostentation in any form was out of keeping with the times and with our patriotism."  There were also victories, as when her parents stood as Congress Party candidates in the 1936 elections, and both won seats in the state legislature.  Her mother was then appointed Minister of Health for the state, "the first Indian woman to become a Cabinet minister. . ."

Mrs. Sahgal wrote with admiration and love of the courage her parents showed, in sending their daughters to the United States.  She and her sister also showed great courage, I thought, in coping not just with leaving their family behind, but also with the culture shock of life in the U.S.  Describing their new experiences, she compared and contrasted them with her life in India.  I enjoyed seeing America in the 1940s through her eyes.  After graduating from Wellesley College, she returned to India, where she lived with her uncle while her mother was serving as Ambassador to the Soviet Union.  The book ends with the assassination of Gandhi in 1948.  "The curtain had rung down over a great drama, but another one was about to begin. Gandhi was dead, but his India would live on his children."

This is the first memoir I have read by an Indian writer, let alone one so close to center of the independence movement.  Mrs. Sahgal wrote that she "had not worked with Gandhiji, gone to prison at his call, or made any sacrifice for my country's sake."  She was however involved in the movement, and very much aware of its impact on her family and on India.  She suffered from the losses it brought.  I saw some comments dismissing this book as a story of privilege, and overly-nostalgic.  It is certainly not a hard-hitting political history of the independence movement, or the Congress Party, but I still found it insightful and informative. It does feel a bit disorganized, as the author moved back and forth in time, but she anticipated that criticism.  In the Preface, she wrote, "If I write haphazardly, it is because I describe events as I remember them and not necessarily in the order in which they occurred. It is like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle." My other quibble is that large parts of the book consist of conversations.  While Mrs. Sahgal was only 26 when she wrote it (and this does feel like a young person's book), I still question whether she could remember discussions from years past in such detail.

In looking for information on the author and her family, I learned that she is also an award-winning novelist.  I am hoping that her other books are available in the United States, at least through the libraries.


  1. I've not heard of this one, but it sounds fantastic. I would love to read about a woman's perspective on the Indian independence movement. For a complement/contrast, you might try the Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur. Also an interesting read.

  2. Aarti, I don't think I've ever read a memoir that combined domestic/family matters and politics like this one does. Thanks for the recommendation - I'll check for the Maharaini's memoirs.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!