Probably to almost every American born from 1970 on, perhaps even much earlier, the name Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) draws a shrug if not some stupid mocking of his name, "Jawawawa who?" or the sort that, unfortunately, Americans are prone to utter to hide their ignorance and to bring everyone down to their own level. Following on the heels of the work of Mahatma Gandhi in leading the overthrow of British rule in India, Nehru served as the modern nation’s first prime minister from 1947 until his death in 1964. He was pretty much a communist who allied his country with the Soviet Union, but we can forgive him that since later on Indian awoke to the powers of freedom and free enterprise. Perhaps his iron grip was needed in the formative days of his nation.
Nehru was educated in Great Britian and was widely read in the true meaning of a classical education. He went on to found many of India’s top institutions of higher education while in office and firmly believed in the power of education. And in the power of words.
I’m reading his remarkable Glimpses of World History, which he wrote while in prison by Great Britain for the sixth time for agitating for statehood and overthrow of the British. What’s remarakble is that he wrote everything from memory and seems to have grasped the broad range–and depths–of world history with remarkable clarity, vision and understanding. The book was gathered and compiled from letters he wrote in prison to his daughter, whose name may be more familiar with Americans, but I doubt it for the newer generations. Her name was Indira Gandhi.
When I started reading Glimpses, I came across this magical description of the passage of time from the perspective of a man serving his sixth prison term for an ideal he so passionately believed in. It reminded me of the passage of my own infinitely more meaningless years on earth:
"It was winter when I came. Winter gave place to our brief spring, slain all too soon by the summer heat, and then, when the ground was parched and dry and men and beasts panted for breath, came the monsoon, with its bountiful supply of fresh and cool rain-water. Autumn followed, and the sky was wonderfully clear and blue….The year’s cycle was over, and again it began: winter and spring and summer and the rainy season. I have sat here, writing to you and thinking of you, and watched the seasons go by, and listened to the pitapat of the rain on my barrack roof."
The passage reminded me of the switfness of life and the mortality that is built into our ever-so-brief days here to enjoy the seasons.
Now for those of you (especially in the media) who think that Obama’s lawyerese and concomitant confidence are somewhere great English, read this passage from Nehru on the independence of his beloved India:
"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity."
My but we’ve come a long ways in 50 years–down a steep decline from greatness that once was.