Nehru and Edwina: A subcontinental love

Published: March 29, 2013

What the Countess of Burma had with Prime Minister Nehru was more than an affair. PHOTO: WWW.TELEGRAPH.CO.UK

The relationship between India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Edwina Mountbatten has long been shrouded in mystery and secrecy. It’s a no-go area for the Congress which has always shielded the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty from controversies. Congressmen certainly don’t want it to become a matter of public discourse.

However, the details about their intimate relationship are now in public domain in the form of a book. Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann offers a vivid account of a special bond the couple shared and complex relationship between Edwina and her husband Louis Mountbatten with the latter playing a role of a willing facilitator of this relationship and furthermore encouraging it.

It’s true there’s no age for falling in love, for love is timeless. All you need is two lonely people, mutual admiration, understanding, and a spiritual connection.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten had it all in them, and yes indeed, they were smitten and in love. In Edwina’s words theirs was a ‘treasured bond’.

They both felt a sense of emptiness. Nehru was a widower while Edwina shared a complicated relationship with her husband. True, Edwina had had affairs before as well, and they all were approved and facilitated by her husband. But Mountbatten ‘supported the relationship between his wife and Nehru more than any of her other affairs’, Tunzelmann says.

“The couple would regularly write letters to each other. Only after reading them one could understand the deepness of their love and the kind of spiritual relationship they shared.”

It was to her husband Edwina entrusted her love letters from Nehru in 1952. Following a haemorrhage, she had to undergo dangerous surgery. She presented Dickie Mountbatten with a sealed letter.

“You will realise that they are a mixture of typical Jawaha (sic) letters, full of interest and facts and really historic documents”, she had written. “Some of them have no ‘personal’ remarks at all. Others are love letters in a sense, though you yourself will realise the strange relationship - most of it spiritual – which exists between us. J (Nehru) has obviously meant a very great deal in my life in these last years and I think I, in his. Our meetings have been rare and always fleeting but I think I understand him, and perhaps he me, as well as any human beings can ever understand each other.”

There’s an interesting tale told by S S Pirzada, later foreign minister of Pakistan, that Jinnah had been handed a small collection of letters that had been written by Edwina and Jawahar.

“Dickie will be out tonight – come after 10:00 o’clock,” said one of Edwina’s.

Another revealed that:

“You forgot your handkerchief and before Dickie could spot it I covered it up.”

A third said:

“I have fond memories of Simla – riding and your touch.”

Pirzada claimed that Jinnah discussed what to do about these letters with Fatima and his colleagues. In the end, Jinnah concluded that “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion”, and had the letters returned.

On another occasion, when Jawahar and Edwina were staying together in Nainital in the Himalayan foothills, the governor’s son was sent to summon the guests for dinner. Unwittingly, he opened the door of the prime minister’s suite, and was confronted by the sight of Jawahar and Edwina in an embrace.

He tactfully retreated, and nothing was ever said about the incident. Though such stories were never made fully public, hints of them leaked out. An anti-Nehru party in Delhi began using the slogan,

“Break open Rama’s heart, you will find Sita written on it; break open Nehru’s heart, you will find Lady Mountbatten written on it.”

So deep was Nehru’s love for Edwina that he sent her presents from wherever he was in the world; sugar from the US, cigarettes from Egypt, pressed ferns from Sikkim, and a book of photographs of erotic sculptures from the temple of the sun in Orrissa.

“I must say they took my breath away for an instant”, he wrote. “There was no shame or of hiding anything.”

Edwina replied that she had found the sculptures fascinating.

“I am not interested in sex as sex”, she wrote. “There must be much more to it, beauty of spirit and form and in its conception. But I think you and I are in the minority! Yet another treasured bond.”

Alas, Edwina breathed her last on February 21, 1960. She suffered heart failure.

Still one of the world’s richest women had had no splendid possessions with her: only a pile of old letters on the bedside table. She must have been reading them when she died, for a few, having fluttered from her hands, were strewn across her bed.

They were all from Jawaharlal Nehru.

Sapan Kapoor

Sapan Kapoor

A history buff and India-based journalist, the author has worked with the Press Trust of India. He blogs at sehar-anawakening.blogspot.in/

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Stranger

    Awww I am smitten by their story. Leave them alone I say. We are driven by circumstances. Whats wrong in what they did. The dead deserve some privacy.Recommend

  • Ali tanoli

    I guess no one mind in indiaRecommend

  • Stranger

    @Ali tanoli:Those days the difference between the elite and the common man was much more than today. No internet , no digital tv, no wireless. Firstly many didnt know this and secondly ‘such’ behaviour among the elite was accepted anyways.Recommend

  • Sychh

    What I would be interested in is, if their relationship had any impact on the political decisions made at that time. The rest is just a complicated love story, like any other.Recommend

  • Asjad

    Well probably it did have an impact on political decisions that is why her Husband was so supportive of the relationship…what other reason might there be ?Recommend

  • http://gujrat RAW is WAR

    @ Ali tanoli

    affairs of rich/famous people are glamorous. For poor people it will look cheap and ugly. The truth. I guess also true for Pakistan.Recommend

  • Ali tanoli

    @stranger
    For that reason he got favor when time comes for kashmir freedom he was very clever man
    and jinnah never liked her so she got jealous of him.Recommend

  • Adil Uddin

    I don’t think that one must discuss about anyone’s private life this way UNLESS if the love affair had made any impact on Pundit Nehru’s political decisions. There are many conspiracy theories about partition and British departure from Indo-Pak Subcontinent. And many Indians are angry at Nehru-Gandhi dynasty which they believe is responsible for many issues.

    There was a social activist named Rajiv Dixit in India who was very vocal against Western influence in Indian society and politics. He also discussed about the affair of Nehru and Edwina, but also dragged Mohammad Ali Jinnah into the story making it a Love Triangle. Dixit also said certain things about Jinnah and Nehru which were disturbing. He criticized the personality of Jinnah saying that he was no one without British backing and how British establishment played a dirty game by conspiring with Muslim League and Congress. You can call the late activist a conspiracy theorist too but few of his points were valid such as multinational companies and their tricks and impacts on human health. Recommend

  • Another Pakistani

    Ishq-e-Memnu of 1940sRecommend

  • Faraz Kakar

    Beautifully written. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Its all water under the bridge but if this affair is seen in the context of history one can not deny Nehru’s ability to kill two birds with one stone.Recommend

  • I am a Khan

    A film should be made on their love story….why didnt Edwina leave Mountbatten and marry Nehru?Recommend

  • http://syedaabidabokhari.wordpress.com The Only Normal Person Here.

    I thought it would be another mocking Nehru and Edwina piece, but guess I was wrong … beautifully narrated.Recommend

  • Saad Durrani

    So, the first Indian Prime Minister home-wrecked?

    @Another Pakistani:
    Well, Ask-i Memnu comes from a novel which was written in early 1900s. Recommend

  • Queen

    The letters could have had been used by the Muslim League to gain political benefit but I guess Qaid-e-Azam made the right decision and had them returned.

    I agree with @Ali Tanoli that due to this affair, “Nehru got favor when time came for Kashmir freedom.” Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com Anoop

    @Ali tanoli:

    “For that reason he got favor when time comes for kashmir freedom he was very clever man
    and jinnah never liked her so she got jealous of him.”

    So Nehru thought the way to get Mountbatten to lend him a favour is to go around with his wife.

    Genius!

    I thought I can’t understand Shakespere, you are definitely up there..Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com Anoop

    Nehru was a man. Like you and me. Not infallible. His wife had died, he saw nothing but instability in the country, for which he spent 9 years in Jail.

    There was a call for breaking up his beloved country, first there was CMP, then outright claim for Pakistan was made. Riots everywhere. His India, with 80% poor, barely able to meet the needs. There were the Britishers, soon-to-be-Pakistanis, Hindu Right, Leftists, ultra-communists, the poor, the Dalits, the Sikhs, the Bengalis.. So many people asking Nehru questions: What will happen to us?

    In such times of distress its not surprising a man looks for a companion, even at unlikely places.

    Nehru was a great man because he was Secular and a Democrat; he made sure India followed those exact beliefs – there was no compromise on them(Jinnah had asked for the usurpation of one-man-one-vote principle). Nehru deserves credit for his vision and leadership, steering 1/6th of Humanity to the shores of stability, secularism and Democracy. Lets now forget how tactfully he kept communal forces at bay, unlike Jinnah.

    Nehru is great for the above mentioned reasons. His personal life is ours own. Let the man who has committed no sin to throw the first stone, if you are indeed in the mood.Recommend

  • C. Nandkishore

    Are you from RSS. When I was a kid I used to hear these stories from RSS. Also how Shiekh Abdullah and Nehru were half brothers. Recommend

  • Rashid

    “affairs of rich/famous people are glamorous. For poor people it will look cheap and ugly.”

    Don’t manipulate. Correct sentence would be.

    “for cheap people it is glamorous. For leaders it is cheap and ugly”. Where do you stand by the way?Recommend

  • Raza

    One of the most intriguing relationships in history I’d say, and also one with the most unusual dynamics. How often is it that a man not only doesn’t hold a grudge against someone who is having an affair with his wife but also favors him. Something about it is a little sickening to be honest. But fair play to Nehru if he was able to use this relationship to gain political ground in the partition, I respect his cunning. This coming from a PakistaniRecommend

  • M Ali Khan

    Yeah, no wonder Nehru got his way with the Mountbattens securing a disproportionate advantage towards India in the Boundary Commission awards, the distribution of assets, and fast-forwarded the date of independence by almost a year, and of course getting the upper hand in Kashmir.

    Machiavellian love-affair, indeed.Recommend

  • Gp65

    For those people claiming that Nehru and India benefitted due to this relationship, can you please exp lain the logic? re you saying that Lord Mountbatten LIKED the fact that his wife had an affair with someone? If he did not as one would imagine, then h e would be expected to have a grudge against Nehru not favour him.Recommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com Anoop

    @Raza:

    “But fair play to Nehru if he was able to use this relationship to gain political ground in the partition, I respect his cunning. “

    His cunning lie in the fact that he let the Communal demand from Jinnah take its shape. Without which Pakistan would be part of India today!!!

    http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/2012/03/28/how-pakistan-is-good-for-india/

    If you think a man can gain your favour by dating your wife, then, a) There is a name for what you are, that I cannot reproduce here or b) your sense of how things work is completely different than most. Catch my drift? :)Recommend

  • Nowsherwan

    This is something for which chacha Nehru has earned my respect. He actually practiced the old dictum of ” divide and rule” , and for that matter the division was certainly not of native territoriesRecommend

  • Pappoo

    Nehru and Edwina: A subcontinental adultery Recommend

  • Rubab Hfeez Khan

    nice story narrated by sapan kapoor!!!Recommend

  • Somdev Bhattacharya

    If all these facts are true then edwina could have influenced nehru on india’s policies on
    behalf of the british govt. and all these blunders of the nehru-gandhi family has
    deteriorated india since it’s independence.Recommend

  • senmc

    @Another Pakistani:
    hahaha lolx so true…Recommend

  • senmc

    @RAW is WAR:
    well u should then plan a bollywood film on this so called glamorous love affair …wud b a big hit! true! in pakistan it is considered a very cheap stunt to get considerations in many ways…so its justified…Recommend