Wives of Political Leaders of British India-Swarup Rani Nehru
PART 1: EARLY LIFE
Motilal Nehru’s natural shrewdness, persuasive manners and sense of humour had enlivened many a courtroom. But his personal life was marred by tragedy: He had lost his firstborn son and wife in childbirth. Though he had decided to never marry again, Motilal was persuaded by his mother to marry Swarup Thussu, delicate beauty with ‘hazel eyes and thick chestnut hair’. Swarup belonged to the ‘fresher stock of Kashmir’, having migrated to the plains relatively recently, unlike the Nehrus, who had migrated nearly a century ago. Swarup was petite, with a ‘Dresden-china perfection’, and had exquisitely shaped hands and feet. The youngest child of her parents, Swarup Rani, had been spoiled by her parents. Historian B.R. Nanda writes, “it was not easy for her to fit into her husband’s household peopled by a host of relatives and dominated by her formidable mother-in-law whose fierce temper was the byword of the town.” Swarup and Motilal made a ‘charming pair’. But misfortune hit again, when their firstborn, a son, did not live. This was followed by the death of Motilal’s elder brother Nandalal in 1887 and thus the responsibility of his widowed sister-in-law, and 7 nieces-nephews fell on him. The burden, Motilal was prepared to shoulder, but he desperately sought the joy of a son, chances of which seemed bleak: he was told that he was destined to never have one. Ironically, exactly 10 months after this prediction, on November 14, 1889, at 11.30 pm, Swarup gave birth to a boy, who was named Jawahar (precious stone). With his father earning well by now, Jawahar had a lavish lifestyle, pampered by his parents.
Little has been found on Swarup Rani. Thus, one gets to view her only from the lens of her husband and son. Swarup was said to have superstitiously gone inordinate lengths to protect her beloved son from the ‘evil eye’; admonishing anyone who commented on his looks, growth, talents, appetite— even serving him a private snack before dinner so that he would not hungrily eat in front of others at the dinner table and invite comments. She applied a black tikka (dot) on her son’s forehead to repel ominous gazes.
Pandit Nehru wrote in his autobiography, “I admired father tremendously… Though my admiration and affection for him remained strong as ever, fear formed a part of them. Not so with my mother. I had no fear of her for I knew she would condone everything I did.” He admitted that because of Swarup’s indiscriminating love, he tried to dominate his mother a little. She was her confidante. He felt “more of an equal with her” as he was soon as tall as his mother. Swarup was the one Jawahar would run to for comfort on being thrashed by his father.
Swarup and her sister-in-law, would narrate stories from the Hindu mythology to the young child, indulge him in various ceremonies and poojas, Swarup Rani with her son Jawahar take him to the Ganges for a dip occasionally and visit the temples. Diwali, Holi, Eid all were celebrated with equal fervour but it was Naoroz—the Kashmiri New Year which was even more special. New clothes and money tips were given. Motilal, on the other hand, made frequent trips to foreign countries, refused to perform ablution, bought motorcades, and was said to have sent 'linen for laundry in Paris’. However, Motilal never dislodged the religious pocket in his house. Swarup might have tolerated the western cutlery, English governesses, but her religious beliefs were unshakeable. She was closely attached to the holy scriptures, rituals and made frequent visits to Benaras and Haridwar. Thus two cultures existed simultaneously in Anand Bhavan— their home. Swarup‘s health had suffered a setback since Jawaharlal’s birth. But in 1900, eleven years after her son’s birth, she gave birth to a daughter who was named Sarup Rani— nicknamed ‘Nan’, better known as Vijay Lakshmi Pandit. In May 1905, the Nehrus set sail for London. Motilal had 2 objectives in mind —to get his son into a school and consult doctors for proper treatment for Swarup. After putting Jawaharlal into Harrow, on the advice of the doctors in London, Swarup was taken to watering places (health resort with mineral springs) across Europe. The family visited the mineral springs of Cologne, Bad Homburg but those failed to produce the magical effects promised.
The family had to suddenly leave for India after Swarup felt worse. Even in correspondence between father and son over political issues in India, Swarup’s health was a subject of anxious comment. Swarup, on her part, wrote to her son every week except when she was too ill to do so. Her letters were written in colloquial Hindustani, overflowing with emotion, asking him to wear ‘warm clothes’ and spread ‘a thick rug on the bed’. Amidst all this, there was great rejoicing when a son was born to the couple in November 1905. An ecstatic Motilal wrote to Jawaharlal: The little stranger chose your birthday as the most fitting time to come to this world…” However the happiness was short-lived, Rattan Lal died within a month of his birth.
Two years later, on November 4, Swarup gave birth to another girl who was named Krishna, lovingly called Beti. Krishna wrote several years later, “I hardly remember a time when mother was hale and hearty, able to eat, drink and lead a normal life like the rest of us. I did not even know what it was to have a mother’s constant care, for she had to be taken care of herself all the time.” Swarup suffered from bouts of severe illness periodically and was semi-invalid for long periods of time. Thenceforth, her sister Rajvati, widowed at an early age, came over to Allahabad to take care of her sister and her household.
How Swarup featured in the political world and what happened in her later half of life, we will present in our blog next week.
Nanda, BR. The Nehrus: Motilal and Jawaharlal
Nehru, Jawaharlal. An Autobiography
Tharoor, Shashi. Nehru: A Biography