THE WAY IT WAS: My tryst with the Nehrus

Daily times, August 28, 2005
THE WAY IT WAS: My tryst with the Nehrus —Mohammad Sameen Khan

“My name is Indira Nehru,” she said. As an afterthought she added, “Gandhi” and said, “This is my son Rajiv.” The little boy was enjoying his milk made from condensed milk which was then imported from Switzerland

The Sherpur family’s association with the Nehrus was a long one. It began in the early twentieth century. The Sherpur Estate like other estates in UP (some of them were larger than those that had been declared ‘states’) had refused the formal status of ‘states’ with its protocol and formality and had many cases pending before the Allahabad High Court and the Lucknow Chief Court. They therefore needed lawyers to appear in the High Court and the Chief Court on their behalf.

While Mahmudabad and Nanpara chose Mr MA Jinnah of Bombay to represent them in the Oudh Chief Court, Balrampur and some taluqedars of Oudh and the Sherpur Estate of Rohilkhand chose Pandit Moti Lal Nehru.

But in the famous Rani Abadi Begum vs Khalil ullah Khan case, the Sherpur family on behalf of Rani Abadi Begum (who was married to my uncle) chose Hasan Imam and Ghulam Imam of Patna. The respondents Khalil ullah and others were represented by Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru, Iqbal Ahmed (later the chief justice of Allahabad High Court), Naim ullah, Husain Qutbuddin Ahmed and MM Ansari when the case was brought before the Oudh Chief Court .The case was ultimately decided by the Privy Council in favour of Rani Abadi Begum and the Sherpur family.

Since the business class had not emerged in UP by then (it emerged after the First World War) the lawyers’ biggest clients were the taluqedars of Oudh and the big zamindars of Rohilkhand and Agra Division which included the Aligarh District. The lawyer-client relationship between the Sherpur Family and Moti Lal Nehru continued till his death although he had by then emerged as a national leader, of the Congress Party and India.

However, his life style had changed much earlier. He had sent his son Jawahar to Harrow and Cambridge for education and he had also bought the house of Justice Syed Mahmood (the son of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan) and named the house Anand Bhawan. He had developed a close personal relationship with the UP aristocracy.

During the final phase of the Independence movement, I had not merely read the autobiography of Gandhi Ji and Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru but also Joachim Alva’s Men and Supermen of Hindustan which included an excellent write up on Mr Jinnah. I was only a student of seventh class at the Modern School in New Delhi at the time.

However, my two years at the Aligarh Muslim University High School in the 9th and 10th class that transformed me from a scion of the UP aristocracy to an articulate and active political being. During that period I stayed at the English House where the Muslim elite of the subcontinent usually resided.

In 1944 I was admitted in the first year at the famous St Stephen’s College, an elite college. However, during this period I stayed away from national politics. In 1945 my mother Noor-us-Sabah Begum decided that instead of going to Mussoorie for the summer — which was frequented by the UP aristocracy — or Naini Tal — where the UP Governor held court — we should go to Kashmir.

Our lawyer, Mr Bhandari, made the arrangements and rented a villa in Srinagar. A railway compartment was booked for us. We were to go to Lahore from Delhi, stay for a day in Lahore for sightseeing before leaving for Rawalpindi.

Apart from my mother and myself, my two younger sisters, Nuzhat and Nighat, my two kid brothers, Tasneem, who perhaps seven years old, and Jamshed, who was nearing his first birthday, were with us. We were also accompanied by my eldest brother-in-law, Sakhawat Ali Khan of Rampur. He visited a hill station every summer for health reasons. And of course I should not forget to mention the servants, male and female; without them a railway journey would have been unthinkable.

Leaving by the Frontier Mail from Delhi in the evening we arrived in Lahore in the morning .We rented a big Chevrolet for Rs 25 for the whole day and visited the Lahore Fort, the mausoleums of Jehangir and Noor Jehan and the Shalimar Garden. The driver took us to a Muslim restaurant in Anarkali where we had a sumptuous lunch; we were served the best of Lahori food which we enjoyed thoroughly.

In the afternoon we went to the Railway station and were soon ensconced in our reserved compartment. The train moved towards Gujranwala, then a non-descript little town. A little more than an hour later, we arrived at Gujranwala Railway Station. The platform was dimly lit; there were no vendors except women selling boiled eggs with salt. All of them were dressed in kameez and dhoti.

Only 17 years old at the time, I would get down at every station and roam around, visualising myself as a smart young man. My mother always worried till I came back to the compartment. As I wandered around the platform in Gujranwala, I saw a young woman — attractive looking –wearing a white cotton sari running up and down the platform. She was apparently searching for something. I asked, “What do you want? What are you looking for?”

She said, “You can’t do anything about it.”

But when I insisted, she said, “I need a feeding bottle for my son. The bottle I had has broken.” Bottles at that time were made of glass and not plastic.

I immediately rushed to my own compartment and asked my organised mother — who observed purdah — for a feeding bottle. She must have brought at least six for Jamshed, my baby brother. She gave me the bottle.

I rushed to the young lady and gave her the bottle. By this time the train had started moving. I got inside her compartment. She prepared the bottle for her little son and started feeding him while we talked.

“You are an angel. How did you get this bottle?” she asked.

“From my mother who is perhaps more organised than you are. She has six bottles for my little kid brother Jamshed,” I answered.

I asked her who she was.

“My name is Indira Nehru,” she said. As an afterthought she added, “Gandhi” and said, “This is my son Rajiv.” The little boy was enjoying his milk made from condensed milk which was then imported from Switzerland. The can carried the photo of a Swiss maid.

We talked for an hour. She too was going to Srinagar for a holiday. I told her that I was from Sherpur — an estate known for tiger hunting, close to the Nepal border. I also told her that her grandfather, Pandit Moti Lal Nehru, had been our legal adviser.

So this is how I met Indira Gandhi and Rajiv for the first time. As the Americans say it was no big deal for me at all.

The writer is a barrister

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