Mountbatten, Prime Ministers And Life

By Sunil Kumar Narendra Modi’s swearing in yesterday at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan is a watershed moment in our national destiny. Today also marks five decades since Nehru; our first Prime Minister died on May 27, 1964. In a country that has as ancient a history as India; a trifle like fifty years is practically nothing. But in the history of the modern republic; the influence of the Harrow and Eton semi-educated intellectual has been profound.

Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace in...

Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace in New Delhi, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading his “Glimpses of World History” early on in life made me enamored about this man whose vision extended around the planet. Although his positive legacy includes the founding of famous institutes of learning and the public sector behemoths we have today; in recent years his life and personality have come under more scrutiny lately.



Mountbatten; the last Viceroy was quite typical of the English of the period; a pompous aristocrat; who disregarded the advice of advisers and astrologers; and kept the date of Indian Independence at August 15th. Simple reason; on August 15th, 1945; the Japanese had surrendered before C’est arsifique Batten in WWII.


In another standard irony of history; the boundaries of India and Pakistan were declared two days after Indian independence; leading to more bloodshed. The totally avoidable loss of life was substantially the handiwork of this guy’s lopsided and flawed approach in approaching the vexed and complicated issue of Partition.  Mountbatten met his end at the hand of the IRA(Irish Republic Army) in 1979; when he was assassinated with a bomb in his fishing vessel Shadow V.

As Mountbatten himself once put it: ‘Edwina and I spent all our married lives getting into other people’s beds.’ Some more facts that are guaranteed not to shock anyone in an age of explicit nudity on screen; and Sunny Leone becoming a Bollywood star.

(For what is to come; Source; the Brits themselves; to spell it out; The Daily Mail;  so nobody tell me anything else). The spoiled favourite granddaughter of a Jewish financier close to the royals, Edwina Ashley was the richest and most glamorous deb of her time.

In 1922, she married  21-year- old Mountbatten. Vain, charming and boyish, Dickie was devoted to Edwina, but still awkward in bed. He famously named her breasts Mutt and Jeff – the nicknames that World War I soldiers gave their campaign medals. To him, sex was unromantic, ‘a mixture of psychology and hydraulics’.

There were also mutterings that he preferred men. Things went downhill after their daughter Patricia was born in 1924. While Mountbatten doted on the new arrival, the passionate Edwina was pathologically jealous of her own child being the centre of attention. ‘A divine little daughter. Too thrilling, too sweet,’ she trilled to her diary – but then packed the baby off to nannies on the South Coast.

The highly sexed Edwina then proceeded to look for lovers from all walks of life. Nehru, like both Mountbattens, had bisexual tendencies. Her first was the aristocratic Lord Molyneux. He was followed by a rich, polo-playing American, Laddie Sandford, and then by Mike Wardell, the good-looking manager of a London evening newspaper. At times, she juggled all three at once. ‘Lord Molyneux is in the morning-room and Mr Sandford in the library, but where should I put the other gentleman?’ asked a desperate flunkey when they happened to visit together.

While her husband was posted to Malta in the early Thirties, she turned to American golf champion Bobby Sweeny. Next came playboy Larry Gray, before she went on a Mexican cruise and jumped into bed with the elder of two Californian brothers, Ted Phillips, quickly followed by his sibling Bunny. This serial sexual gallivanting went on until the birth of her second daughter Pamela in 1929.

By now, Mountbatten, too, was seeking other women. In 1931, he was flirting with the 18-year-old future Duchess of Argyll and even kept her photo in his cabin. ‘The only photo of any girl!’ he wrote to her. Later, there was Barbara Cartland and the Frenchwoman Yola Letellier, on whom Colette based her novel Gigi. Edwina was fiercely jealous, but she didn’t think to change her own habits. Throughout the Thirties, she had dozens of admirers, known in the private slang of the Mountbatten circle as ‘ginks’. She even dallied with conductor Malcolm Sargent, and then embarked on her most adventurous affair to date, with the bisexual West Indian cabaret pianist Leslie Hutchinson.

Although Edwina successfully sued a newspaper for saying she had a black lover, there is not much doubt she conducted an on-off relationship with ‘Hutch’ for 30 years. She famously gave him a gold bracelet bearing her name, a gold cigarette case and, conclusively perhaps, a jewelled penis sheath from Cartier. This sexual track record seems like an unlikely apprenticeship for a woman to become the great love of the socialist founder of modern India.

But Edwina, the social butterfly, also had a strong streak of idealism. Never one for empty titles, she seems to have climbed in and out of bed looking for a cause. With the onset of World War II, her tireless work in the bombed- out East End was followed by a spell in South-East Asia repatriating British refugees from prison camps and hospitals.

Not for nothing did the blood of her great-great-grandfather, the distinguished 19th-century reformer Lord Shaftesbury, run in her veins. Mountbatten’s war service culminated, of course, in the recapture of Burma from the Japanese. Beside her bed was a collection of his letters. Indeed, both had such a successful war that in 1947 they were posted by the new Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee to Delhi, as the last Viceroy and Vicereine of India to facilitate the smooth transition of power to Nehru, the country’s nationalist leader.

While the young Edwina had been playing the field, the patrician Nehru had been working hard for his country. Born in 1889, son of a leading lawyer, he came from a rich and influential family with distinctly Anglicised tastes in clothes and culture. The boys were educated in England and the girls had English governesses who gave the children English names. Jawaharlal became ‘Joe’, his sisters ‘Nan’ and ‘Betty’.

After Harrow and Cambridge, Jawaharlal was called to the Bar in London, but he soon returned to India. In 1916, he had married the high-born Kamala, riding to his Maharajah-style wedding in Delhi on a white horse. But he had already come under the spell of the charismatic Gandhi, at the time a failed lawyer who, having been shabbily treated in British-owned South Africa, returned to his own country fired up against social injustice and determined to free it from foreign domination. Nehru sympathised with Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy. At home, meanwhile, his frail wife started her own radical crusade to improve women’s rights. Interestingly, the Nehru marriage somewhat mirrored that of the Mountbattens. In her 30s Kamala developed into an irresistibly attractive woman who was always surrounded by infatuated young men, including Feroze Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma), the future husband of her daughter, Indira, who would of course later became the country’s fiery leader. Many people are convinced Kamala and Feroze conducted a long and satisfying affair.

However, Kamala died at a young age of tuberculosis in 1936. And though Nehru had also had affairs, he never remarried. His only love now was his country – until he met Edwina Mountbatten.

It wasn’t Edwina’s first visit to India – she had engineered an invitation to the Viceregal Lodge before her marriage in hot pursuit of Mountbatten, who was also staying there.

Undignifed as it seems against the backdrop of the huge historic events in which they were caught up, there are those who suspect that Nehru, like both Mountbattens, had bisexual tendencies, and that Dickie, in a last attempt to establish physical intimacy with his unresponsive wife, may have joined them in a physical menage a trois.

Whatever went on in the bedroom, the Mountbattens joined Nehru in a very public romance with India. This, though, didn’t go down well back in Britain, where disapproval came to a head after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. Seeing a newspaper photo of the grieving Viceregal couple squatting on the ground at Gandhi’s cremation, Churchill angrily concluded that they had gone native, disgracing themselves as royal representatives. When they returned home, the old war hero refused to shake Mountbatten’s hand.

The unconventional Lady Mountbatten, however, rose above all this. She visited Nehru every year and he (her soulmate) visited her in England, where his sister became High Commissioner. When parted, they wrote to each other constantly – and Edwina made no attempt to keep the letters secret from her husband. A year later, in 1960, 58-year- old Edwina, by now leading a selfless life, died alone in her sleep while on a trip to Borneo on behalf of St John Ambulance Brigade. Beside her bed was her collection of Nehru’s letters.

And the love affair was not over yet. As her body was taken by the Royal Navy to its sea burial off Britain’s south coast, Prime Minister Nehru made his last and most public declaration of his devotion, sending his own Indian Navy frigate to cast a wreath into the waters on his behalf. Such a dramatic farewell would make a stirring finale to any film.

But as the director Joe Wright, who was behind the scheduled movie says, it will be a long time before it gets made, thanks to the explosive mixture of politics and forbidden love. Nehru’s other grave mistakes including the status of Jammu and Kashmir; the indirect role in the Partition of India and the status of Tibet; war with China among others have been discussed too much for anybody to actually comment on. So; ends the story of the “Chacha” who was sold to us as an icon; a beacon of hope for a country apparently built on an edifice of justice. I still believe in it; but not so fervently in those leaders who partially laid the foundations of the republic. The above story; from somebody else’s pen; so it could be true; who knows?

Jawaharlal Nehru hands out sweets to students ...

Jawaharlal Nehru hands out sweets to students at Nongpoh in Meghalaya (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s post again mentioned something long ago; I’ll write about something else tomorrow!

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