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The Nehru-Edwina Romance

Azizul Jalil

Mountbatten, Nehru and Edwina.

On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan were born as independent nations. In the new nations, violence exploded with Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus clashing in waves of slaughter, rape, and carnage and there was large-scale migration across the national borders. Jawaharlal Nehru watched his dream of “life and freedom” turn to chaos and destruction. Against this backdrop, Nehru, as the head of India's Interim Government in 1946-47 and later as the first elected Prime Minister of independent India developed a romantic relationship with Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the British Viceroy and later independent India's first Governor-General, Lord Louis Mountbatten. It was not at all the case that Nehru and Edwina were insensitive to the tragedy that was taking place. Quite the contrary-they both tried to do their best and worked very hard to ameliorate the condition of the riot-affected and displaced people.

Oxford-educated, Alex Von Tunzelmann has published a book “Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire” in 2007. She has given many fresh and vivid details and quotes from Nehru, Edwina and Louis Mountbatten's letters about the affection and admiration between Nehru and Edwina, which was known and tolerated by the latter's husband. It was a great and unique love- they were brought together by their selfless, often dangerous work with the victims of India's partition during which they could be seen warmly holding hands. The following account of this intimacy and human drama at the busiest and momentous of time in their lives in the context of the great turbulence in the Indian sub-continent is based mainly on Miss Tunzelmann's book.

Most communication those days, official as well as personal, was by mail, which was reliable. Written words could carry special nuances and character and many people, even those without literary background, had the great gift of letter writing. It appears from the trio's correspondence, often daily, to each other that they were pouring their hearts out and eager to convey to each other every thought and emotion that arose in their mind. At the same time, they appeared to be conducting some sort of psychoanalysis of themselves and trying to rationalise why they were feeling and behaving in a certain way. The correspondence reveals the fragility of men and women even in such lofty and powerful positions!

Edwina, glamorous and very wealthy, was a socialite and already had a number of affairs with other men. Mountbatten also had other interests. While she and her naval husband had a busy social life together and fulfilled their ceremonial duties, they were not particularly intimate in their relationship. Edwina told her husband on a number of occasions of her intention to leave him, but Mountbatten, though aware of her affairs, kept insisting on being together even by promising a lot of concessions to accommodate her proclivities. They did achieve a sort of harmony and mutual affection. When she arrived in India in March 1947 as the Viceroy's wife, Edwina was forty-five years old. She was quite a sprightly woman ready to be involved in all sorts of charitable and public service to which she was utterly devoted.

A Love that lasted till death.

Nehru, fifty-six at the time of partition, had led a widower's life ever since his wife, Kamala died at a young age. He was then completely engaged in full-time politics during which he frequently suffered long imprisonments. At a later stage, Indira, his only daughter stayed in his household. While politics and India's freedom were his passion, Nehru, highly intellectual and gifted, was also a lonely man looking for sweet, tender companionship during the dark days of the partition of India. As frustrated as he often was at the helm of Indian National Congress leadership and as head of the Indian Government, Nehru had a childlike desire for constantly sharing his intimate thoughts and emotions. Just at that time, Edwina Mountbatten, herself loveless, came and filled a void in his life.

Once, Nehru with the Mountbattens, drove up to the retreat at Mashobra on the Himalayan foothills for a few days of rest. He and Edwina would meet every morning in the garden and later in the evening stay up late, even after Montbatten had retired to his room. Pamela, Edwina's younger daughter, had accompanied them. Later she wrote: “I have often been asked whether I think Nehru and my mother were in love. The answer undoubtedly is yes, they were.” Returning to Delhi from Mashobra, Nehru immediately wrote to Edwina:” Life is a dreary business and when a bright patch comes it rather takes one's breath away.”

Mountbatten, who liked Nehru, was aware of his wife's relationship with him. He wrote to his elder daughter, Patricia: “Please keep this to yourselves but she and Jawaharlal are so sweet together. They really dote on each other in the nicest way.” He considered his wife's affair to be a relatively low risk in personal terms as he believed that Edwina could not leave him for the prime minister of India. It was better for him to allow her to carry on with Nehru than to risk her going off with another person, the circumstances of which he possibly could not control.

After the Mountbattens finally left India, in a rather unusual communication to King George VI in May 1948, Nehru chose to highly praise the outstanding contributions of both Lord and Lady Mountbatten to India and expressed his gratitude. What is extraordinary was Nehru's entreaties to the King to confer upon both the Mountbattens (Lord Mountbatten was the King's cousin) some special recognition. He pursued the matter repeatedly by follow up letters and enquiries through India's High Commissioner in London. In the end, in July 1948, the King's Private Secretary rebuffed Nehru, informing him that the King felt that adequate recognition had already been given and further recognition would not be justified.

Back in England in 1952, Edwina had to undergo a dangerous surgery. Just before, she entrusted to Mountbatten the custody of Nehru's love letters to her. In a note, she told her husband: “Some of them have no 'personal' remarks at all. Others are love letters in a sense, though you yourself will realise the strange relationship-most of it spiritual-which exists between us. Jawaharlal has meant a very great deal in my life in these last years and I think I in his.” Edwina recovered from the surgery. Once Mountbatten informed Nehru that Edwina “needs a rest but will never take one as we both know.” Nehru replied, “The only way, apparently, for her to get some rest is to come to India. So I hope she will do it this winter.” She visited Nehru in India almost every winter, often for several weeks, without her husband except for one occasion.

Lady Edwina Mountbatten died in her sleep while visiting British North Borneo in 1960. A pile of letters lay on her bedside table-a few she was reading were found on the bed. They were all from Nehru. According to her wish, Lord Mountbatten buried her at sea off the coast of Portsmouth. Nehru sent two Indian destroyers to accompany her body.

Still the Prime Minister of India, Nehru died in 1964. The first British visitor to see him lying in state in Delhi was Lord Louis Mountbatten.

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