The Most Beautiful Ambassador
A slight but striking woman in a sari endured three terms in British jails to win through to Washington as the much-loved envoy of 340 million free Indians
THAT AUGUST 15 reception at the home of Her Excellency the Ambassador of India, Madame Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, at the handsome, park-surrounded 2700 Macombe, N.W., threw the sophisticated Washington diplomatic corps somewhat for a loop. It was at the cocktail hour, but there were no cocktails. Wasn’t this something of a risk for a newly appointed ambassador (May 12, 1949) to take?
Her Excellency moved among her guests welcoming them to this, the Independence Day celebration of her vast country. Representing, if against her will, the King of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, and full-heartedly, the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is her brother, and some 340 millions of her people, the first woman ambassador to the U. S. was a target of curiosity.
Slight, small, in flowing soft-silk sari, her beautifully shaped grey-haired head held high, it soon became apparent that here was a substitute for cocktails, par excellence. The party grew. People refused to leave. The polite hour of departure was long past. But still, in the long drawing-room, the lounges, and on the lawn, the diplomatic guests and those selected from the highest places in the land firmly clasped their glasses of iced coffee, fruit juice or tomato juice, sampled kababs (little patties of meat fried in butter), sarnosas (triangular savories) and such Indian sweets as barfi (made out of milk, cheese and sugar, scented and flavored with saffron). Obviously everybody was having a fine time.
When it got to be midnight, and past, the white-turbaned waiters with their still, cryptic, clear-brown faces, passed more refreshments, now pilau (rice and chicken made according to ancient recipes). Still as fresh, as interesting and interested, as full of magnetism as at the beginning of the party, the ambassador moved like a flame torch among her guests, striking sparks of laughter and wit.
Perhaps, receiving the homage and appreciation, she may have thought back for a moment to the long months in the cell of a British jail in her own home town of Allahabad; or even to those sunny days at Dandi on India’s west coast, when, to the wrath of the British, those now smooth, relaxed hands had helped Mohandas Gandhi boil salt. Or to her 11 months in jail during World War II.
No doubt the ambassador thought of many things, for behind the humanity and warmth of her eyes and manner there is a sense of one standing a little back and looking on. A sense of impregnability—what could touch anyone who has lost as much, and gained as much, as she? It is almost as though her manner said, I am free to be myself. Perhaps that is the touchstone of her attraction.
“Mother is Signing a Loan”
I CAME to 2700 Macombe Street on a sunny fall day. At the wide-open doorway, Alfred, the Italian-French butler with mildly English accent, was ready to open the car door. In the hall, snapping to attention, stood a tall Hindu in khaki and turban. When he smiled his teeth flashed like a sudden snap of sunlight.
As I came into the small sitting room, a slender, dark girl with immense eyes came hurrying through the drawing-room door.
“I am Rita Pandit,” she said. “Mother’s so sorry she’ll be a bit delayed. She is signing a loan for some vast sum at the bank this morning. Please sit down. And will you have sherry?” (The loan was for $10 millions toward development of agriculture in India.)
Rita is the youngest of the three daughters of Her Excellency and the late Ranjit Rao Sita Ram Pandit, an Indian scholar, lawyer, linguist and author. The other
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daughters, both married, and living in India, are Chandralekka Nahta and Nyantara Sehgal—both, judging from photographs, remarkably beautiful.
Rita was full of tomorrow when she was leaving for Geneva, Switzerland, for her first taste of European education. »She had in her 18 years been schooled in India and America. Under her sari (some eight yards of wide silk cloth draped gracefully to the figure) was a Western sweater.
“The weather’s so cold here,” Rita laughed, explaining, “I mostly wear Western dreas to school anyhow, it is obviously more suitable. Rut I do think our sari is marvelous for evening wear. Specially with gold cloth I think it’s quite stunning. You ought to see mother . . .” she laughed again. “Of course I admit I am prejudiced, but I do think she is the most beautiful ambassador in the world.”
At Marriage, a Fresh Name
I had barely sipped my sherry when there was a flurry in the hall, a creamysmooth voice speaking the liquid Hindustani, and a slight woman swept into the room, hatless, a Western coat over a blue, flowing sari. The first impression was of huge, snapping eyes, and much energy. There was a firm, warm handshake.
This, then, was Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who had been Swarup Kumari Nehru of the long-fabled Nehru family, toast of United Nations and of Washington. “Swarup Kumari,” her given name, had meant “princess of beauty,” and she had never liked it, appropriate though it was. So, according to a Hindu custom, she had changed it at her marriage to Vijaya Lakshmi (“vijaya” is “victory,” and “lakshmi” is “goddess of wealth and prosperity”). She couldn’t have been more right.
She changed and came down and sat in an ordinary-sized chair which looked huge when she relaxed in it, one arm hanging over the side.
“I am tired,” she said. “You know, I suppose it’s the house as well as the embassy. Home and work. Other ambassadors do have someone to take over the social side. I do both.”
Her relaxation for a moment softened her face—her official one is well-defined as though in bright sun; now it had the gentler contours moonlight grants.
It is quite impossible not to be interested in this woman when you meet her. Her vitality is that sort of a bonus to social interchange today’s vapid small talk completely lacks. She knows where she is going. It is not later than you think, for her.
From a Kashmir Valley
We had lunch in a long, handsome room, big windows opening to the autumn-yellow garden. The servants brought a marvelous omelet, a salad (all green), and then a huge bowl of fruit which the others at the table—all Hindus — washed carefully in the finger bowls. Her Excellency ate little. She smiled with sudden, unexpected sweetness as Rita said, “Mother’s decided to reduce.”
“Why not?” asked the ambassador. “Doesn’t everybody?”
We sat in the sitting room after lunch while Rita went up to pack. The house quietened down, and the room was filled with distilled green light from the still-green oaks outside. Mrs. Pandit folded small and relaxed into the chair again, her head high from
the neck of the tan blouse caught at the throat with a silver pin, the dark blue sari falling in wavelike folds beyond her feet.
“No,” she said thoughtfully, gazing at the empty space between her two outstretched hands, “I do not really believe I have one single quality that my neighbor does not have. Except perhaps, one realization. That is, looking at myself objectively, I do see that I give of myself freely. Perhaps that is why I get so much back.”
So there, in that quiet room, the faint echo of Hindustani occasionally sounding like ofT-stage music, I thought of all I had learned about this woman who may go down as one of the great ones of our time.
Two hundred years ago her family came down from a Kashmir mountain valley to seek fame and fortune in the rich plains. They settled by a canal
which gave them their name. First it was Nahar (“canal”); time smoothed this into Nehru.
Mrs. Pandit’s father, Pandit Motilal Nehru, who settled in the ancient town of Allahabad (the “abode of the Gods”), in the United Provinces, was a natural leader among the proud Brahmin Kashmirians, a race of people who always provided leaders wherever they went.
There has been some misunderstanding about the apparent similarity in her father’s name, and her husband’s. “Pandit,” when it precedes a name, means scholar or a deeply learned man, as in the case of her father, or in the case of her brother, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. When the name appears as last name, it is merely that, a surname.
At the time of Swarup’s birth, August 18, 1900, the Nehru family was well-to-do, famous. Pandit Motilal
Nehru was a rich, brilliant lawyer. There were already legends about the family. It was said that the Nehrus sent all their laundry to Paris. India wasn’t quite good enough for them. That was not true.
Actually, they lived the life of the well-to-do Indian family perhaps with a slightly more pronounced list to the West than to the East. The children were brought up by English, Swiss and French tutors and governesses. Unlike most young Indians, they learned to ride, swim, play tennis, were taught in the arts and music.
Back to the Homespuns
Yet there was another side to the ambassador’s childhood too. She was nurtured on a deeply rooted love of India. Her mother was an intelligent, well-educated Kashmiri woman with a knowledge and love of the old traditions. From her the small girl gained an understanding of the land; learned the folk legends, stories and songs, reaching into the dimness of centuries past.
The test of this dual education came in 1916 when the Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from South Africa. His coming changed the destiny of the Nehru family.
Up to then most of the young men shouting for freedom, the intellectuals dreaming of it, had been either ineffectual hot-heads or men stupid in the traditions of English liberalism. Gandhi emphasized the land, its history, the people in the rural districts and their importance in the whole scheme of things. He made the Freedom Movement national.
When he called in 1919 for the civil disobedience the whole Nehru family, disregarding the cost to its comfort and prestige, overnight changed its Western style of living. Here was one of the wealthiest and most cultured families ready to accept imprisonment, sacrifice, possibly poverty. The influence of their act on the rest of the educated class of India was felt immediately.
Two years later the lovely young girl who today is an ambassador, married a husband chosen, formally, by her family. However, she had met him previously and knew she did wish to marry him. He was a thoughtful young man, related to Gandhi, educated in England and at the Sorbonne, interested in the arts and ancient culture.
Speaking of the marriage a close friend of the family says: “To understand her happiness you must recognize that she is first and foremost a woman. An American ambassador to India, meeting her in Washington again, said recently, ‘It is rare to meet a politician who is also a statesman and to cap all this, charming but you do meet the combination in Madame Pandit!’ He might not have recognized her in the first years of her marriage. She was all woman.”
Yet, when time came she was ready to take her part, at the side of her husband, in the activities, then illegal in India, which were ultimately to lead to the freedom of her country.
Gandhi had picked on a simple but symbolic act with which to prove his strength. The peasants could not afford salt, yet needed it. The British forbade private manufacture of salt. So Gandhi gathered his supporters and they made salt on the banks of the sea and upon the tidal deltas of the great rivers.
Mrs. Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit helped boil salt and distribute it among the poor. And soon the gently nurtured daughter of the Brahmins was pacing the dark of a British jail.
That first term of imprisonment came in 1932 and lasted 15 months.
In 1939 she was jailed again for six months. Her crime was participating in the civil disobedience movement which flared as a protest against the imprisonment of Gandhi. She took part in public meetings and processions which had been banned, in illegal picketing of liquor stores.
Again in 1942, she was in jail for 11 months. This time she had declared that a subject people should not be required to fight for freedom when they were not free themselves. Her eldest daughter accompanied her and whenever they could they worked on a small garden plot in the prison yard. She was released on medical grounds.
Meanwhile she had been elected to the municipal board of Allahabad in 1935 and served as a chairman of the education committee for two years. In 1937 she was elected to the United Provinces Legislative Assembly and appointed Minister of Local Government and Health. She was the first woman provincial minister and served for two terms.
Stories are still told of that time. Of how the beautiful, young Minister of Health not finding room on a train, traveled by bullock cart to areas racked with cholera; of how once when no doctors or nurses were available she refused to leave the bedside of a stricken young woman until other care arrived. Her circuit took in hundreds of square miles but she covered them, human, vivid, sometimes moved to hot anger at the inefficiency of bureaucracy, sometimes moved to tears in pity. But impervious to fear or fatigue.
Censors Blocked a Memoir
In 1945 she came to America to visit her two daughters who were, by then, studying at Wellesley. She had written a memoir but the manuscript had been censored by British authorities in Bombay, and she wished to seek an American outlet for it. Next spring the autobiography she has tentatively called “Sunshine and Shadow” will be published.
She could not get priorities on the airlines, a fact she probably remembers with amusement now, when, as an ambassador, even her guests have them. Finally a U. S. Army general offered her a seat in an army plane and she accepted on the spot; left India without preparation; landed in New York penniless. It was her first trip to this continent. She couldn’t have known less about the manners and customs.
Her shuttle-flight friends registered her at the Waldorf-Astoria. After all, it hadn’t occurred to them Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit wouldn’t have all the cash she needed. She gazed out of the high windows over the vast spreading city, turned to a waiter and ordered orange juice. It came in a bowl, with rose leaves floating upon the iced serving dish.
Luckily, friends gathered about and suggested a lecture tour. She spoke in 33 states. The halls were crowded. The enthusiasm catching. Soon leaders in India became aware of the oratorical, magnetic powers of this small, blackeyed, vivid woman who could present the Indian point of view to the outside world.
There are still repercussions from that lecture tour. Even yet the mail at the embassy contains queries from women who heard her speak. They ask the kind of simple questions Mrs. Pandit met on her tour. “Do you approve of breast feeding?” she was once asked. The ambassador-to-be asked right back, “Do you?” The woman said, “Yes. And for how long did you feed yours?” Mrs. Pandit (now 49) took a long breath and answered in
her gentle English accent, “It’s such a long time ago now, I can’t remember.”
The agencies organizing that tour apparently took most of the money. What there was left over she spent with the happy abandon her father had believed in (Motilal Nehru thought hoarding money a slight on his own capacity to earn whenever he liked and as much as he liked). She gave a magnificent party for her eldest daughter on her 21st birthday. It was the sort of a success the Pandit parties are gaining a name for wherever the ambassador goes.
She Beards the Khan
In that year the Indian Government stint, her as an unofficial representative 1« the San Francisco United Nations Conference. The official delegate was British-chosen Firoz Khan Noon. His personal assistant was a bearded Indian called Khan. At one meeting where Mrs. Pandit spoke this Khan got up and heckled. He was booed out of the meeting.
In 1946 she was appointed leader of the official Indian delegation to various entertainments and diplomatic receptions. These she punctiliously attends, in sari, bareheaded, with very few jewels. She almost always looks the best-dressed woman present.
She keeps a sharp and personal eye on her household, concerning herself with everything from the supervision of meals and the staff to the arrangement of flowers and changing the furniture or sending the drapes to be cleaned.
When she talks her words make pictures with the help of her flashing dark eyes and her expressive hands. They sing a battle song when she says, “Any foreign rule prevents growth in a people. We are backward because we have not been free. Of course, we need much now. Food is the first problem. Then a general rising of the standard of living. Why only 12 out of 100 of my people can read!”
“Because of the vastness of the population?”
“No,” the answer flashes, “because of long foreign rule.”
I address her as “Ambassadress,” by chance.
“No,” she corrects me. “Ambassador. Ambassadress is the wife of an ambassador. I am the ambassador.”
Then she sits back, small again in the brocaded chair. “I am sometimes tired and I don’t feel I am useful. I have given up my home, and I have given up my family. And I don’t feel l ve got anything back—I mean inside.
“But I have the strongest faith in our future. If India continues to conserve her energy and channel it in the right direction I think my country can lx* a mighty force for democracy and peace.”
There is a splatter of leaves against
the long windows, like a sound of rain. “I love a rainy day,” she says. “I can work then. There is so much work.” She stares thoughtfully between her palms, held easily, gracefully, on her lap. “Anything one doesn’t do normally is a rest. I do not rest when I go to bed. There is much to think.”
I shall remember that long, unhurried afternoon. I’ll remember little things too, as when Mrs. Pandit said, “The car can take you to the chancery, and then to your hotel. David must pick me up a picture at the Shoreham anyhow.” She laughs, “I did a very impulsive thing the other night.”
She had been to dinner to a private suite at the Shoreham and on the wall was a water color that looked so like a vale of Kashmir, with the mountains rising on the background, the ambassador immediately was homesick. So she wrote the manager and asked whether she might buy the picture.
“I have a letter from him saying he would be happy for me to have it. Of course it easily may not be Kashmir at all, but I shall call it Kashmir.”
And I shall remember the arrival of an Indian Prince, His Highness The Jam Saheb, Maharajah of Nawanagar, and the sudden hush in the big house and how the handsome, proud people lifted their joined hands, and the salutation, “Narnasthe, namasthe,” was like a soughing of a soft wind. And how through it the ambassador, impatient at not being able to properly greet her great guest, still continued to pose for a Karsh portrait for Maclean’s.
Until suddenly, for a moment, her temper snapped and with a marvelous choice of words she said just precisely what she thought of the imposition on her time. With the tempest over she was, if possible, more completely charming and direct than before.
On Some Foreheads a Sign
But perhaps the simplest picture of all I will keep the longest. I had got up to go, that first afternoon, when, like any mother, Mrs. Pandit said, “Did Rita show you pictures of my other daughters? No?”
Lightly she ran upstairs and down again with a couple of framed pictures, one of her husband, a man with a deeply grave, handsome face, another of two lovely, dark girls with their husbands.
1 remarked on the small round mark on their foreheads which I had also noticed on some other Indian women. “It is the marriage sign,” the ambassador said.
I suppose it was unavoidable. 1 looked up at her pure, high, markless forehead. And for a moment she was no longer a brilliant representative of a vast country but simply a lonely woman. “Widows don’t wear one,” she said. ★