When Neruda smiled at Nehru

I HAVE been riveted to an Indian reprint of Pablo Neruda’s memoirs. Strangely enough, it gives a clue about the trouble people, especially from Pakistan, have with Indian visas and the harassment they face at the customs.

I know Pakistanis who genuinely love India but are routinely denied a visit permit. I know Indians who have taken a different citizenship in Europe and America and they too have to struggle these days to find a benign visa officer at an Indian mission in their vicinity. It is an uphill struggle that seldom yields fruit.

We are told the problem has been compounded by the Headley affair whereby a Pakistan-born American citizen used his Indian visa to carry out terror attacks in India. The fact is that terrorism has become only another handy ruse for the
government to execute a wider policy rooted in fear — a fear that preceded the advent of terrorism as we define it today.

Mahatma Gandhi had dreamt of a country with an open mind that would welcome ideas and cultures from afar. Sanskrit shlokas are routinely flaunted in official literature — ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbukam’ (‘The world is a family’) and ‘Atithi devo bhava’ (‘A guest is an incarnation of god’), but in practice the opposite is true.

After the British handed over power to an ideologically regressive Indian elite, narrow nationalism surged to take the lead in prescribing what was good or bad for the country. It went after visiting missionaries after independence and still continues to target foreign nuns, priests and their Indian colleagues though all that these worthy people have done is to set up hospitals and schools for the poor in the name of Christ. Secular ideas too are frowned upon.

In fact, before contemporary terrorism became an issue, the Indian government was discouraging left and liberal scholars from abroad from being invited to political discussions on public platforms. I would have thought at least Jawaharlal Nehru was not an ideological bigot, but Pablo Neruda has disabused me of this cold comfort.

It happened that two or three years after independence, there were concerns in the international pacifist movement opposed to nuclear weapons that India though avowedly peace-loving had been wavering somewhat in joining the campaign. The head of the World Peace Council at the time, the Nobel Prize-winning French scientist Frederic Joliot-Curie, asked Neruda to carry a letter to Nehru. Here is how it went, in Neruda’s words:

“I boarded the plane for Bombay. I was going back to India 30 years later. It was no longer a colony fighting for its emancipation, but a sovereign republic: the dream of Gandhi, whose first Congress I had attended in 1928. Perhaps none of my friends from those days were alive, revolutionary students who had confided their stories of struggle to me, like brothers.

“I got off the plane and headed straight for the customs. From there I would go to some hotel, deliver the letter to the physicist friend Raman, and go on to New Delhi. I hadn’t counted on my hosts. My suitcases were taking forever to get out of the place. A number of people I thought were customs inspectors were going through my baggage with a fine-tooth comb. I had seen many inspections, but never one like this.

“My luggage did not amount to much, only a medium-sized suitcase with my clothes, and a small leather bag containing my toilet articles. But my trousers, my shorts, my shoes were lifted and checked over by five pairs of eyes. Pockets and seams were explored with meticulous attention. In Rome, I had wrapped my shoes, so as not to soil my clothes, in a wrinkled newspaper I had found in my hotel room. I believe it was Osservatore Romano. They spread the page on a table, held it up to the light, folded it carefully as if it were a secret document, and finally put it aside with some of my papers. My shoes were studied inside out, like unique samples of fabulous fossils.

“This incredible search lasted two hours. They made an elaborate bundle with my papers (passport, the address book, the letter I was to hand the head of state, and the page from the Osservatore Romano) and ceremoniously secured it with sealing wax before my eyes. Then I was told I could go on to a hotel.

“Using all my will power so as not to lose our proverbial Chilean patience, I remarked that no hotel would allow me to register without identification papers and that the object of my trip to India was to hand the prime minister a letter, which I could not deliver because they had confiscated it. ‘We’ll talk to the hotel and they will take you in. As for the papers, we’ll return them to you in due time.’ This was the country whose struggle for independence was part of my experience as a young man, I thought.

I shut my suitcase and my mouth simultaneously. …”

Neruda describes a virtually silent meeting he had with Nehru.

“Dark, cold eyes looked at me without feeling. Thirty years before, he and his father had been introduced to me at a huge rally for independence. I mentioned this to him, but it produced no change in his face. He replied in monosyllables to everything I said, scrutinising me with his steady, cold eyes.”

After the meeting Nehru asked Neruda if he could do something to make the visit pleasant. Neruda found his moment of revenge and requested permission to visit the Taj Mahal. When the hotel manager told him he could go to Agra, Neruda enjoyed his own perverse moment by turning down the offer as he had a plane to catch.

“Five years later, in Moscow, I had occasion to sit on the annual Lenin Peace Prize committee, an international assembly of which I was part. When the moment came to present and vote on the year’s candidates, the Indian delegation proposed Prime Minister Nehru’s name. The shadow of a smile crossed my face, but none of the others on the jury understood it, and I voted affirmatively. The international prize consecrated Nehru as one of the champions of world peace.”

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.