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Nehru and Edwina: A subcontinental love

What the Countess of Burma had with Prime Minister Nehru was more than an affair. PHOTO: WWW.TELEGRAPH.CO.UK

The relationship between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Edwina Mountbatten has long been shrouded in mystery and secrecy. It’s a no-go area for the Congress which has always shielded the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty from controversies. Congressmen certainly don’t want it to become a matter of public discourse.

However, the details about their intimate relationship are now in public domain in the form of a book. Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann offers a vivid account of a special bond the couple SHARED and complex relationship between Edwina and her husband Louis Mountbatten with the latter playing a role of a willing facilitator of this relationship and furthermore encouraging it.

It’s true there’s no age for falling in love, for love is timeless. All you need is two lonely people, mutual admiration, understanding, and a spiritual connection.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten had it all in them, and yes indeed, they were smitten and in love. In Edwina’s words theirs was a ‘treasured bond’.

They both felt a sense of emptiness. Nehru was a widower while Edwina shared a complicated relationship with her husband. True, Edwina had had affairs before as well, and they all were approved and facilitated by her husband. But Mountbatten ‘supported the relationship between his wife and Nehru more than any of her other affairs’, Tunzelmann says.

“The couple would regularly write letters to each other. Only after reading them one could understand the deepness of their love and the kind of spiritual relationship they shared.”

It was to her husband Edwina entrusted her love letters from Nehru in 1952. Following a haemorrhage, she had to undergo dangerous surgery. She presented Dickie Mountbatten with a sealed letter.

“You will realise that they are a mixture of typical Jawaha (sic) letters, full of interest and facts and really historic documents”, she had written. “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. J (Nehru) has obviously meant a very great deal in my life in these last years and I think I, in his. Our meetings have been rare and always fleeting but I think I understand him, and perhaps he me, as well as any human beings can ever understand each other.”

There’s an interesting tale told by S S Pirzada, later foreign minister of Pakistan, that Jinnah had been handed a small collection of letters that had been written by Edwina and Jawahar.

“Dickie will be out tonight – come after 10:00 o’clock,” said one of Edwina’s.

Another revealed that:

“You forgot your handkerchief and before Dickie could spot it I covered it up.”

A third said:

“I have fond memories of Simla – riding and your touch.”

Pirzada claimed that Jinnah discussed what to do about these letters with Fatima and his colleagues. In the end, Jinnah concluded that “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion”, and had the letters returned.

On another occasion, when Jawahar and Edwina were staying together in Nainital in the Himalayan foothills, the governor’s son was sent to summon the guests for dinner. Unwittingly, he opened the door of the prime minister’s suite, and was confronted by the sight of Jawahar and Edwina in an embrace.

He tactfully retreated, and nothing was ever said about the incident. Though such stories were never made fully public, hints of them leaked out. An anti-Nehru party in Delhi began using the slogan,

“Break open Rama’s heart, you will find Sita written on it; break open Nehru’s heart, you will find Lady Mountbatten written on it.”

So deep was Nehru’s love for Edwina that he sent her presents from wherever he was in the world; sugar from the US, cigarettes from Egypt, pressed ferns from Sikkim, and a book of photographs of erotic sculptures from the temple of the sun in Orrissa.

“I must say they took my breath away for an instant”, he wrote. “There was no shame or of hiding anything.”

Edwina replied that she had found the sculptures fascinating.

“I am not interested in sex as sex”, she wrote. “There must be much more to it, beauty of spirit and form and in its conception. But I think you and I are in the minority! Yet another treasured bond.”

Alas, Edwina breathed her last on February 21, 1960. She suffered heart failure.

Still one of the world’s richest women had had no splendid possessions with her: only a pile of old letters on the bedside table. She must have been reading them when she died, for a few, having fluttered from her hands, were strewn across her bed.

They were all from Jawaharlal Nehru.

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