Monday, 19 June 2017

A Pinch of Salt

I think it is better to take everything with a pinch of salt. I don’t think it is good to get too excited, too passionate, too idealistic and too partisan about anything in life. In the long run, it can cause one a fair amount of discomfiture.

I made the cardinal mistake of becoming a rabid nationalist during my sojourn in Moscow. And it happened because of Nehru.

photo courtesy: The New York Times
I was in awe of him. I hero-worshipped him right through my school and college days.

One summer evening in Moscow (when I was a student there) I was told that Nehru was arriving in Moscow to attend some conference.

I decided to go to the airport to have a glimpse of him. I joined a large group of Indians who had gone there to greet him. As he came down the ramp of the airliner, on an impulse, I left the group of spectators and quietly made my way onto the tarmac to get a closer look.

photo courtesy: indiatvnews
A row of senior diplomats had lined up to greet Nehru on arrival. I went forward and stood behind them surreptitiously, hoping no one had noticed me.

An innocuous looking Russian dressed in a shabby gray suit approached me and said in my ear (in Russian): “Young man! You shouldn’t be doing this!” and walked away nonchalantly. I paid little heed to him.

When Nehru arrived, he was greeted by Khrushchev and other senior dignitaries of the Soviet Government. Then he was escorted towards the diplomats. He started walking down the row, shaking hands with each one of them. When he was close enough, I pushed aside two tall, elderly diplomats and took my place in the row beside them. They looked surprised and annoyed but said nothing.

When Nehru approached us I offered him my hand. A look of surprise and confusion crossed his face on seeing such a young diplomat in just shirt and trousers. Khrushchev, equally surprised, smiled broadly, looked at me and said in Russian: “STALEVARI! STALEVARI!” meaning “a steel worker! A steel worker!”. That his whom he mistook me for. Bhilai had just been built and many young Indians had come for training to Moscow.

Nehru looked tired, emaciated and worried, as though he carried the burden on the entire world on his shoulders. His hand was soft and sickly. His face was pale and haggard.

After he had left and the diplomats dispersed, I walked back towards the airport building, feeling happy as a lark!
Just then the Russian in the gray suit who had earlier whispered in my ear walked up to me, jabbed me in the ribs so hard I almost doubled over with pain. He said softly: “Comrade! I warned you! You shouldn’t have done that!”.

That was my first encounter with the KGB. I couldn’t walk straight for a fortnight after that. My rib cage was sore, if not cracked. These guys knew their job. My next encounter with this organization came about many years later. On that occasion, I was kicked in the balls so deftly that I was laid out horizontal for many days. However, about that later…

The day after Nehru’s arrival news came that he wished to meet the Indian students studying in Moscow. I made a beeline for the embassy that evening. This wasn’t the Nehru I had shaken hands with at the airport the day before. He looked refreshed and rejuvenated. He was full of jokes and anecdotes and the students responded with thunderous claps to his speech.

After the meeting was over and when I was about to leave, our Ambassador, Mr. T.N. Kaul, who knew Dad very well, approached to me and asked me if I would like to meet Nehru in person. I jumped at the offer. I was asked to go to the first-floor landing and sit down at the coffee table and wait. I did so.

I must have waited for ten minutes before Nehru came out from one of the rooms. He shook hands with me. His hand was no longer soft and flaccid. Neither did he look tired or haggard. He looked fresh as a daisy. He smiled and sat down at the table. Tea was served.

Nehru asked me what I intended to do after returning to India. I didn’t want to lie to him. I told the Prime Minister bluntly that I had no intention of returning to India because there was no future there. Mr. T.N. Kaul winced as he heard these words. 

Nehru’s face turned red. He became livid with anger. He looked at T.N. Kaul and asked angrily: “Why the hell did we return to India from England? I could have stayed on in England and become a barrister there instead of coming back to India to be lathi-charged and sent to jail in India!".

photo courtesy: indiatvnews
 And then he looked at me with blazing eyes. "Your own father could have lived on in London and kept on working for the BBC for the rest of his life! Why did he return to India?”. 

I was shivering in my pants. He always carried a baton in his hands. He was so angry I thought he was going to clonk me on the head with it.

But he cooled down as quickly as he had become angry.  He continued in a more conciliatory tone:

“We returned to India because India is our Mother! If you settle here you will have a beautiful, blue-eyed, blonde, rich mother but she will be your step mother! Your real mother will always be India! And even if your mother is old and ugly and haggard and sick and poor; even if she is a leper -- a mother is a mother! And it is when she is in bad shape that she needs her children most! Did you say you are Balraj Sahni’s son?” with these words he got up abruptly and walked away after giving me a look of utter contempt. T. N. Kaul followed him shaking his head disapprovingly at me.

I was left speechless. Nehru’s words had shaken me to the core. I read his Discovery of India and it became my guiding light. I read his “Letters to a Daughter” in which he spoke about the history and “the glory and greatness of India” and these books affected me deeply.

To be patriotic is good, to be a nationalist is perhaps even better but to be a chauvinist is crass stupidity. It is blind, unquestioning faith and that is counterproductive. Hitler and Stalin had turned people into chauvinists and the results were disastrous. That is what I became – a chauvinist. The results were, in the long run, equally disastrous.

By the time I returned to India Nehru was no more.

Nehru had spoken in the epilogue about the “glory and greatness of India”. Those words had left an indelible impact on me. Nehru’s words and books made me feel proud to be an Indian.

But what I saw when I came back home the conditions here saddened me. This was certainly not the India Nehru or our freedom fighters had envisioned. At one point, I even joined the Congress Party to be of service to the nation.

But the man who had inducted me into the Party (a bigshot in Party echelons) was removed from office because of a huge scam running into crores. And soon I discovered scams, bribes, corruption and nepotism everywhere. I resigned the party in disgust.

Nehru’s patriotism and nationalism had evaporated and opportunism and personal aggrandizement had taken its place.

“One does not live be bread alone”. One needs an ideal to inspire and motivate one. For many years, I meandered through life a depressed man, wondering if I had done the right thing by coming back to India.

And then Prime Minister Modi arrived on the scene. I heard his, first speech in the Parliament. I heard the first speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort. I heard his speeches when he went to the US, Australia and the UK. I heard the words “the glory and greatness of India” again. I felt the fire being rekindled within me.
photo courtesy: NDTV
But I am not getting too excited, too passionate, too idealistic and too partisan about anything yet. “We are such stuff as dreams are made of” said Shakespeare. Dreams are important. Dreams are good. But I have decided to take everything with a pinch of salt this time.


  1. Agreed that one should not be "getting too excited, too passionate, too idealistic and too partisan about anything" but for good reasons, one may, nay should, "get excited, passionate, idealistic and partisan" about the things one believes in! Reminiscing about the first PM is fine but not everything was bad after him! True, things even then were needed to be taken with a pinch of salt but many good things did happen during the intervening period which we can't overlook!

    Just my two pence worth thoughts! :P :)


  2. That Bum Nehru (& Jinnah) caused partition for their selfish motives to become 1st PM of free India. Loser went to the U.N. when he could have fought to keep our land intact. Imagine general Patton ceasing an inch? Loser.