Review: Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography (Volume - 1) by Sarvepalli Gopal

Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography - 3 Volumes by Sarvepalli Gopal

The Boxed Set

The Discovery of IndiaGlimpses of World History and An Autobiography were the books which I always used to pick up from the shelves of bookstores but never bought them thinking I will first read about the man and then his words. So I performed a search for ‘Nehru’ on Flipkart and a lot of books came up. Much lower down the list was a 3 volume biography by Sarvepalli Gopal and published by Oxford. Sarvepalli Gopal was the son of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – who was the second president of India. One of the articles in Frontline by Ramachandra Guha mentioned a discussion involving him and
two other historian friends discussing Gopal’s work after the latter’s passing away. So this one looked like a perfect first step towards finding more about the man who is no less than a legend in Indian history and is a revered personality. And the cost of Rs. 1575/- for a box cased of 3 dust-jacketed hard bound books wasn’t steep at all. So I ordered it along with a lot of other ones with some apprehension about the quality of the casing and how it would be delivered. When it arrived, I was no less than impressed by the bubble wrap around the case and nearly airtight packing.

Volume One

In the midst I realized that page 143 was totally out of place. While page 142 talked of Nehru’s period in jail in the early 1930’s, page 143 suddenly jumped to problems with China and Pakistan! I wrote to Flipkart and they readily replaced it with a new set, but the problem persisted. Then I wrote to Oxford India and it’s been quite some time since I have been following up with them, but to no avail yet; thumbs up to Flipkart though.

Now, to say that I am going to review this book is an over-exaggeration in the least. Both, the man about whom these books are and the man who has written them, are much larger in stature to be reviewed. Hence, rather than that, this is a reflection of my understanding of Nehru and other personalities involved in Indian Independence from the book.

The book starts with the birth of Jawaharlal Nehru on the 14th of November, 1889 in Allahabad, and traces very briefly the history of Kaul-Nehru’s and how they migrated from Kashmir to the United Provinces. The author brings out the aspects of Nehru’s personality when he was a young boy – shy, not clear in thoughts, “showed no signs of fire inside him and generally bored” and overspending his dad’s money and more often being in debt. It makes for an amusement to read that “at the Bar examinations, Jawaharlal just managed to pass” and when next year he passed the finals, Motilal wrote to him: “I do not look upon it as a great achievement. But you have eminently succeeded in investing the event with an importance which it did not possess”. While one cannot help but laugh when Motilal, once again, wrote to his son: “I wish I were my son instead of being myself” when Rao Maharajsingh sent a “money order for Rs. 500” to Jawaharlal while “the first fee” which Motilal himself got was Rs. 5 only! Two startling incidents where Nehru almost got killed stand out amongst these pages. Of course the luxuries of life were at Nehru’s disposal because of a rich father – Motilal, who was a “bright pupil but never graduated” and “setup a successful legal practice, first in Kanpur then in Allahabad”. But these worldly attractions didn’t keep Nehru out of the struggle for independence for long. His tryst with destiny was already written.

In his youth Nehru encountered General Dyer, the man responsible for ordering the firing in Jallianwallah Bagh, in a train and found his attitude callous. Nehru regarded Gandhi as his mentor and was a disciple of him, even when in later years their differences of views and ideologies were more prominent. Nehru’s wife, Kamala, died at the young age of thirty six. She was “born in a social environ much humbler than that of Nehru’s” and “from the start faced resistance from some family members”. She “hardly figures in Nehru’s diaries of prison time of 1920’s”. But after her death he missed her all the more and lost interest in life at one point of time. “Many women, drawn by his charm or driven by snobbery, made claims on him and he did not always firmly resist their gross ardours”, but no specific names are mentioned.

Criticism of Jinnah and Rajagopalachari is abounding in the book - Jinnah, not in the least, for his shrewdness in increasing his own stature by gaining support from the British and Rajagopalachari for his appeasement of the British for personal political gains. The chapters on the Second World War eruditely bring out the dilemma the British Government faced with India – “one had to be free and democratic to fight for freedom and democracy” - and the dilly dallying of the various political forces in play at that time in support of and against the Japanese.

This book is as much about the movement for Indian independence as much about Jawaharlal Nehru. It took me a lot of time to read the first volume, not only because lot of chapters regarding the government structure were difficult for me, but also because I made my own notes – making it easier for me to quickly wade through the important points at a later date. The first volume covers the period 1889-1947 in 398 pages, second one covers the period 1947-1956 in 346 pages and the third one covers 1956-1964 in 336 pages. At the outset it’s a logical deduction that more the years hence more the number of pages, but a thoughtful consideration does point to the fact that Jawaharlal’s life always had been more about his growing up, gaining an understanding of the Indian people and wanting an undivided India and a pan-Asian togetherness, rather than a divided India with barking neighbours.

While Jawaharlal made a moving speech on India’s independence, Gandhi celebrated by fasting, a resemblance to the events which were to follow.

This scholarly work rises above the common “knowledge” about Nehru and his family, and proves the facts, mostly in favor of him. A brilliantly researched work of art by an eminent historian it is and deserves a place in the library of the ones who are curious about Chacha Nehru. 


  1. Ordered my set just yesterday; will start reading in a week. Thanks for the fine review!