Sunday, 14 August, 2022
HomePageTurnerBook ExcerptsNehru was too modern for India. He suffered from a 'cultural homelessness'

Nehru was too modern for India. He suffered from a ‘cultural homelessness’

In ‘Nehru and The Spirit of India', Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee offers an original perspective on Nehru and Indian history—a ‘minoritarian’ approach.

Text Size:

Octavio Paz in his 1966 speech, described Nehru as someone who ‘belonged to a double anti-tradition’. Educated at Harrow and Cambridge, Nehru developed close links with European culture and, Paz points out, ‘drew inspiration from the rebellious and heterodox thought of the West’. In An Autobiography, Nehru describes his introduction at Cambridge to Nietzsche (who was a ‘rage’) and Bernard Shaw, among others. He thought of himself as ‘sophisticated and talked of sex and morality in a superior way’. One of Nehru’s early influences, he writes, partly via Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, was ‘a vague kind of cyrenaicism’ (a hedonist philosophy that derived from ancient Greece of the fourth century, which considered sensual pleasure as the supreme good).

Nehru’s other lineage is traced by Paz back to his ancestors who ‘had frequented the Mogul court and had absorbed Persian and Arabic heritage’, and to his family tradition from which ‘he had a vein of heterodoxy vis-à-vis Hindu traditionalism’. In the beginning of An Autobiography, Nehru mentions his ancestor Raj Kaul, who ‘had gained eminence as a Sanskrit and Persian scholar in Kashmir’, catching the attention of Farrukhsiyar, the man who took over the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb’s death. Nehru’s younger uncle, Nand Lal Nehru, was ‘considered to be a good Persian scholar [who] knew Arabic also’. A little later, Nehru mentions, ‘[father] and my older cousins treated the question [of religion] humorously and refused to take it seriously’. When his father returned home after visiting Europe, he had to undergo the ‘prayaschit’ or the purification ceremony, according to Brahminical norms. But Nehru writes, he ‘refused to go through any ceremony or to submit in any way . . . to a so-called purification’.

Nehru emerges as a man of double modernity. This doubleness of identity across two or more cultures makes Nehru an exemplary figure. The relationship with Europe would have been modern in an intellectual but not experiential way. Nehru did not have to go through any crisis vis-à-vis Christianity. In India, however, Nehru’s identity mirrored an impressive heterogeneity.


Also Read: India’s textbooks were written with Nehru in mind. It rejected the past


Nehru’s double modernity was perhaps most responsible in making him restless towards all sorts of traditionalist tendencies. It also made him prone to more accusations regarding his politics and sense of belonging. When conservative lawyer and politician from Madras, Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyer said in public that Nehru ‘did not represent mass-feeling’, Nehru agreed to the verdict and extended the point in the epilogue of his autobiography:

I often wonder if I represent anyone at all . . . I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere. Perhaps my thoughts and approach to life are more akin to what is called Western than Eastern, but India clings to me, as she does to all her children, in innumerable ways . . . I cannot get rid of either that past inheritance or my recent acquisitions . . . [T]hey create in me a spiritual loneliness not only in public activities but in life itself. I am a stranger and alien in the West . . . But in my own country also, sometimes, I have an exile’s feeling.

The man who lived a double modernity suffered in his own admission—a sense of cultural homelessness that we may describe as spiritual unheimlich. The double home of East and West created a tension that was aesthetic and spiritual. To belong and not to belong was Nehru’s cultural predicament. It produced a divided sense of self in Nehru, which is part of a larger condition of the modern self. There is an estrangement from the ascriptive modes of the self. The modern individual is thrown towards the anxious desire—in Rimbaud’s words—‘to be absolutely modern’.

Nehru was too modern for India. Walter Crocker called him, the ‘frequently un-Indian nationalist’. In the beginning of The Discovery Nehru poses the question he seeks to find out about India: ‘How does she fit into the modern world?’

Nehru was already modern. India wasn’t yet modern. It is not how modernity fits India, but how India fits modernity that was Nehru’s concern. Modernity was the new thing. It was the new idea and sensibility that had dawned in history. India was an old idea and an old sensibility, lagging behind in time. Western modernity had announced a new time in the world, a time of radical change and progress. Modernity meant a new structure—a new apparatus of thought, life, social relations and economy.

To be modern was in India’s favour. Despite being ushered in by colonial power, the spirit of modernity gave the colonized a chance to be part of universal history. It was a matter of historical inevitability. In Octavio Paz’s phrase, ‘the Third World is condemned to modernity’.

Nehru’s question also begged the other question that he sought to find an answer for: How do I as a modern subject, fit into India?


Also Read: Nehru going to UN on Kashmir was an error. And he knew it


There are two aspects to Nehru’s modernity and being the modern subject. One is the question of belonging. Nehru confesses:

India was in my blood and there was much in her that instinctively thrilled me. And yet I approached her almost as an alien critic, full of dislike for the present as well as for many of the relics of the past that I saw. To some extent I came to her via the West, and looked at her as a friendly westerner might have done. I was eager and anxious to change her outlook and appearance and give her the garb of modernity.

Nehru’s intellectual and cultural ties with India were intercepted by another place, its history and culture. Nehru epitomized the modern traveller, who brings ideas from elsewhere. In this, Nehru was not alone. He was one among other Indian leaders and thinkers to learn and get inspired by western thought. Does that disqualify Nehru, and others like him, from belonging to India?

It is an absurd question. The territorial idea of culture is prone to absurdities. The outsider–insider question is taken to a conspiratorial level during times when nationalist politics is driven by ethnocentric sentiments. Who is less Hindu or more Hindu determines who is a good or bad Hindu in ethnocentric terms. Identity is determined by a measuring tape. Less and more, in turn, is determined by who is traditionalist and who is modern. These debates often plummet to shallow polemics. It turns the question of identity, political.

Nehru was more than willing to tailor India for modernity. Nehru concedes modernity is a ‘garb’, a matter of appearance. It lacks (historical) ground, as it is still in the making. Modernity was a new and alien condition for India. Since it was rooted in traditionalist thinking and practices, India had to perform the new script of modernity. Nehru did not believe in the emulative aspect of culture and demanded genuine inspiration. It was a difficult task for a people who suffered two hundred years at the hands of a new beast called colonialism, and its colonial project of modernization. Modernity in India was destined to be a shallow act. People were reluctant to let go of their historically established social prejudices, and made ambivalent gestures towards Western values of modernity. The performance so far has been fraught with contradictions and profound shallowness. The shallow act includes Macaulay’s curse of mimicking the colonizer.

This excerpt from ‘Nehru and The Spirit of India’ by Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee has been published with permission from Penguin Random House.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular

×