Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, sister of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and aunt of the autocratic Indira Gandhi, is without question an admirable woman. She suffered along with India's millions to defeat British control of India. When she was not in prison, she served as local leader, going on after independence to become India's first ambassador to the Soviet Union, a spokesman in the United Nations, ambassador to Britain, the United States and Mexico. As a full-fledged participant in Gandhi's awesome peaceful revolution, she should have a fascinating story. Unfortunately her memoir is as intimate as a political candidate's speech and as historically significant as an Oscar winner's thanks. The events are documented, and for those who know Nehru's autobiography, the story of Gandhi and some Indian history, Pandit's book will be a helpful footnote. Others beware - discretion rules her words and undermines the excitement of her times.
Pandit was born in 1900 into a distinguished and wealthy Brahman family from Kashmir. Her childhood home in Allahabad was luxurious with gardens, tennis courts, riding ring and swimming pool. Symbolic of the split in upper-middle class society, the house was divided into Indian and Western sections and loving father's offices, reception and dining rooms on the Western side. This Western side of her upbringing gave Pandit the sophistication to work in politically tumultuous India. From her mother she gained respect for India's traditional ways. Mme. Nehru, shy, old-fashioned, accustomed to daily footbaths in a silver basin, withstood hardship with as much steel as the poorest peasant. The two sides of colonial India were united in the daughter, Vijaya.
No closer family relationship existed than that between her and Jawaharlal, her older brother. He introduced Mahatma Gandhi to his family in 1920. And by the time Vijaya married writer and lawyer Ranjit Pandit, she had spent several weeks in Gandhi's famous ashram. Along with the rest of her family, she was quickly convinced that the passive resistance taught by the great man was the only way to India's freedom. To the Gandhi-inspired boycotts and marches, the British reached with arrests. Until independence, leaders and members of Nehru's newly formed Congress Party were subject to periodic imprisonment. Inevitably, radical changes swept the Nehru and Pandit households. Ranjit Pandit no longer practiced law, luxury was gone, food was short.
Crisis fell upon crisis. Shortly after her father's death in 1930, Mme. Pandit served her first prison term. Her brother wrote her: "Prison is the best of universities if only one knows how to take its courses." Nonetheless its lack of privacy distrubed her. About leaving her three children, she said "I have never quite forgiven myself for that first jail term which broke up my home when my children needed its security and comfort.... I am now sure I acted selfishly, thinking in vague terms of personal political achievements...."
Slowly Britain gave in to some local political participation of Congress Party members. In 1937 Mme. Pandit became a cabinet minister under a British governor. In this role she supervised schools and hospitals, and the budget for her departments. She rapidly educated herself in areas where she had little experience. During World War II, she took one something new. Under horrendous conditions, she worked for relief of the famine that swept Bengal. Later, Gandhi sent her to New York to introduce a resolution at the U.N. protesting discrimination against people of Indian origin in South Afirca. This job began more than 20 years of international service for the new India. When her country won independence in 1947, she was well on her way to becoming one of the best-liked and best-known women in international political life.
How one wants to know more of her feelings about this riches-to-rags-to-political-riches life! Stalwart reserve and rather tiresome gratitude to all the public figures with whom she's been acquainted cover her disillusionment with today's India, her conflicts with the authoritarian Indira, her unamplified statement that dependence on her brother harmed her political career. Now retired, she lives alone in her home state of Uttar Pradesh where she tends her garden, cooks, reads in a house with a view of the Himalayas. To one's disappointment, this small, pretty woman proves finally to be as mysterious as those mountains.