If Shakespeare were alive today, he might not have written Anthony and Cleopatra but rather Jawahar and Edwina– Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang
That India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of independent India’s first governor-general Lord Louis Mountbatten, were besotted with each other till their last breaths, was beyond any possible shadow of a doubt for all those who closely followed the lives of the two powerful personalities of their time- be it their friends, families and authorised biographers or the authors and historians of modern India.
However, there is no congruence among them over the nature or extent of the Nehru-Edwina relationship. Some of them, mostly belonging to the families of Nehru and Edwina, term the bonding purely platonic and completely devoid of the vice of lechery. However, it has been disputed by another group that cites specific instances and eye witness accounts to claim the relationship was indeed corporeal. And, one can’t ignore Edwina’s touching and confessional letter to Mountbatten wherein she talked about Nehru’s “love letters” although she described “most” of the relationship as “spiritual”.
So what sort of relationship existed between Nehru and Edwina? Was it platonic, corporeal or spiritual? There is no simple answer to this question. Nehru-Edwina relationship has been a matter of intense research and speculation since 1947 when Edwina first landed in India along with her husband Lord Mountbatten who, as the last viceroy of British India, oversaw both the independence and the partition of India.
Since none of them is alive today to defend themselves, let’s examine Nehru-Edwina relationship purely based on facts and pieces of evidence coming from credible sources, including reputed authors and historians, without getting into wild speculations.
Edwina-Louis Mountbatten opted for ‘open marriage’
Edwina Ashley tied the knot with Louis Mountbatten, the great-grandson of Queen Victoria, in the year 1922. Their marriage lasted for 38 years till the time Edwina died in 1960. However, throughout these 38 years, both Edwina and Louis were not faithful to each other as both of them got involved with multiple partners at different points in time.
The fact that Edwina got into numerous relationships after her marriage to Louis Mountbatten has been acknowledged by their daughter Pamela Hicks.
“My mother had at least 18 lovers,” she wrote in her memoir titled “Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten”. Nehru, of course, was the last person to enter Edwina’s life and she remained attached to him until her death.
According to Pamela, her father Louis was devastated when he came to know of Edwina’s promiscuity for the first time. However, he compromised with the situation as he lacked the courage to divorce her fearing the shame it would have incurred.
“When my father first heard that she had taken a lover, he was devastated. But eventually, using their reserves of deep mutual affection, my parents managed to negotiate a way through this crisis and found a modus vivendi (way of life),” Pamela wrote.
British historian Andrew Lownie, in his book ‘The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves’, has also mentioned how the couple eventually agreed upon an open marriage wherein both of them agreed not to insist on any commitment. And, they stuck to it for the rest of their lives.
Now we can understand why Lord Mountbatten never objected to Edwina’s intimacy with Nehru.
‘Mountbatten himself knew that they were lovers. He was proud of the fact, unlike Edwina’s sister who deplored the relationship and hated Nehru for the rest of his life as a result,’ Richard Hough, the author of several books on the Mountbattens, had noted.
Nehru-Edwina story begins in March 1947
In March 1947, Edwina arrived in India along with her husband Lord Louis Mountbatten who was sent as the last British viceroy to oversee the independence and the partition of the country. She fell for Nehru within days of meeting him and the two became “soul mates”, as Pamela Hicks mentions in her book. Both of them were lonely in their lives at that time. Nehru was a widower while Edwina, despite being married, was craving for love and affection.
‘She found in Panditji [Nehru] the companionship and equality of spirit and intellect that she craved. Each helped overcome loneliness in the other,” Pamela wrote. “They were soul mates… But my father was never jealous. He could see that the relationship made her happier and easier to be around.”
Pamela who fondly called Nehru “Mamu” (maternal uncle) further mentions in her book how she and her father would leave Nehru and Edwina alone while walking out together.
“My father and I would tactfully fall behind when they were deep in conversation. But we did not, at any time, feel excluded.”
In his book titled “Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny”, American historian and author Stanley Wolpert also refers to the public display of affection by Nehru and Edwina. Wolpert recalls attending a function in New Delhi where he was surprised to see Nehru and Edwina behaving like “adolescent lovers”, touching, whispering into each other’s ears, laughing, holding hands.
Edwina gifts emerald ring to Indira Gandhi while leaving India in 1948
Edwina and Mountbatten left India in June 1948. The thought of getting separated from Nehru made Edwina emotional. She wanted to give an emerald ring to Nehru as a parting gift but she knew he would not accept it.
“Instead, she handed it to his daughter, Indira, telling her that if he were ever to find himself in financial difficulties, he was well known for giving away all his money she should sell it for him,” Pamela writes in her book.
At the farewell party for the Mountbattens, Nehru directly addressed Edwina and said, “Wherever you have gone, you have brought solace, you have brought hope and encouragement. Is it surprising, therefore, that the people of India should love you and look up to you as one of themselves and should grieve that you are going?”
Next day, according to Pamela, Edwina and Nehru exchanged gifts. While Edwina gave him an 18th century French box that was made of gold, Nehru presented her an antique coin, a crate of ripe mangoes and a copy of his autobiography.
Pamela further writes that Edwina could not hold back her tears while she was leaving. She took out St, Christopher’s crystal from her neck and asked her PA to get down of the ship and give it to a person who could hand it over to Nehru.
“She was silent throughout the journey.”
Era of letters and frequent visits
Even after Edwina’s departure from India, her bonding with Nehru remained as strong as ever. In the beginning, they were writing to each other every day, though the frequency got diluted to weekly within a year and became fortnightly by 1954, according to Andrew Lownie.
Edwina would visit India every spring and stay at Prime Minister’s house. Nehru too visited Britain most of these years and spent time with Edwina. There was no holding back for Nehru and Edwina.
When Nehru visited Edwina at midnight
In his book “Truth, love and little malice”, renowned author Khushwant Singh has mentioned how Nehru‘s visit to Edwina at the midnight in London became a scandal in British media. Khushwant was working as Press Attaché and Public Officer for the Indian High Commission in London at that time.
Khushwant Singh writes that during one of his visits, Nehru landed at Heathrow airport late in the night. Instead of heading to his hotel from the airport, Nehru decided to visit Edwina at her house. Next day, the photograph of Edwina, in her nightgown, opening doors for Nehru was published on the front page of “The Daily Herald” newspaper. The caption of the photograph read- Lady Mountbatten’s midnight visitor. The report also mentioned Lord Mountbatten was not in London at that time.
When Russi Modi saw Edwina in Nehru’s arms
Renowned author MJ Akbar, in his book “Nehru-The making of India”, has quoted former Tata Steel CEO Russi Modi as saying that he once saw Nehru holding Edwina in his arms, according to a BBC report.
Akbar writes that Russi Modi’s father Sir Homi Modi was the Governor of Uttar Pradesh from 1949-52. During one of his visits to the state, Nehru arrived in Nainital along with Edwina and stayed with Governor Homi Modi. At 8 pm in the night, Sir Modi asked his son to go to Nehru’s bedroom and tell him that the dinner was ready and everybody was waiting for him.
Akbar writes that when Russi Modi opened the door of the bedroom, he saw Nehru holding Edwina in his arms. Nehru stared at Modi with an annoyed facial expression. Modi immediately closed the door and stepped out. After some time, Nehru arrived at the table and Edwina followed him.
Edwina’s confessional letter to Mountbatten
Andrew Lownie writes in his book that Edwina was hospitalised with a haemorrhage in 1952. Edwina worried she might die and therefore, passed Nehru’s letters to her husband for safekeeping. Louis Mountbatten asked his daughter Pamela to read those letters as he was “nervous” about the content of the letters.
While making the request for safekeeping these letters, Edwina wrote a confessional letter to her husband wherein she termed “most” of her relationship with Nehru as “spiritual”.
“You will realise that they are a mixture of typical Jawaharlal letters full of interest and facts and really historic documents. Some of them have no ‘personal’ remarks at all. Others are love letters in a sense, though you yourself well realise the strange relationship — most of it spiritual — which exists between us. J has obviously meant a great deal in my life, in these last years, and I think I in his too. 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… It is rather wonderful that my affection and respect and gratitude and love for you are really so great that I feel I would rather you had these letters than anyone else, and I feel you would understand and not in any way be hurt – rather the contrary. We understand each other so well although so often we seem to differ and to be miles apart. You have been very sweet and good to me, and we have had a great partnership. My admiration and my devotion to you are very great. I think you know that. I have had a very full and a very happy life on the whole — all thanks to you! Bless you and with my lasting love,” she wrote.
Interestingly, Louis Mountbatten waited for a year before he replied to Edwina’s letter. In an emotional reply that was laced with love and affection, Louis explained how he never felt jealous of her relationship with Nehru.
“I’m glad you realise that I know and have always understood the very special relationship between Jawaharlal and you, made the easier by my fondness and admiration for him, and by the remarkably lucky fact that among my many defects God did not add jealousy in any shape or form. I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever known what jealousy means — universal as it seems to be —and if it concerns the happiness of anyone I’m as fond of as you, then only my desire for your happiness exists. That is why I’ve always made your visits to each other easy and been faintly hurt when at times (such as in 1951) you didn’t take me into your confidence right away. Considering how deeply fond we are of each other and how proud and admiring I certainly am of all your wonderful achievements, I cannot but be sad and worried that we should have had so many differences… I know I’m selfish and difficult but that doesn’t change my deep and profound love for you… You have been my mainstay, my inspiration and my true companion for far more than half my life,” Lord Mountbatten replied.
Edwina dies with Nehru’s letters by her side
When Edwina died in 1960, at the age of 58, a pile of Nehru’s letters were lying by her bed and it gave enough hint of what Nehru meant to her and how badly she missed him in her last moments.
It’s not an arduous task to get an idea of the nature and the extent of Nehru-Edwina relationship if one takes into account these revelations.
Perhaps nobody understood Nehru-Edwina relationship better than British writer Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang who summed it up beautifully by saying that if Shakespeare were alive today, he might not have written Anthony and Cleopatra but rather Jawahar and Edwina.