Reminiscences of the Nehru Age by M O Mathai

Reminiscences of the Nehru Age

M.O. Mathai was assistant to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Mathai worked with the United States Army in India before becoming an assistant to Nehru in 1946. He was a Madras University graduate working in Assam when he wrote to Nehru soon after Nehru’s release from prison in 1945, offering his services.

He was Nehru’s Special Assistant and alter ego between  1946 and 1959, was reputed to be the most powerful man after the  Prime Minister during the years that he served Jawaharlal.

For over a decade that he was at the very hub of the decision-making process, Mathai was the only one to know everything about Nehru, most especially the first Prime Minister’s private thoughts about Politics,  Congress leaders, Bureaucrats,  Money, Women, Sex, and Alcohol,  along with much else that attracted his attention off and on.

So we have completely new information, never before published,  about Nehru’s style, Krishna Menon’s personal habits, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s extravagance, Feroze Gandhi’s ambitions, and Mountbatten’s weakness for titles and honours. In the process, new light is thrown on Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Patel, Kidwai, TTK, Maulana Azad, Rajaji, Rajendra Prasad, Radhakrishnan, Churchill, Shaw, and Lady Mountbatten.

This work is a major contribution to modern Indian history as it gives an insider’s view of how the powerful often tried to manipulate Nehru for purposes that were not always conducive to nation-building.

M.O. Mathai, Nehru’s Special Assistant till 1959, when he resigned his post on account of
unfounded malicious allegations by  Communists against him for misusing power, is eminently qualified to write a full and authentic account of the Nehru years, which he has done in this book.

Mathai wrote: “Nehru, recognized as one of the world’s five best English prose writers of his day, was loath to sign anything drafted by others except strictly protocol communications. The result was that he had to spend an enormous amount of time in dictating letters and drafting or dictating statements and speeches. He has signed more communications drafted by me than by all the others put together.  That was because, when the signed letters and notes came from him, I would detain some that were dictated in his weariness late at night. These I redrafted for his signature.”

While he worked for the Prime  Minister, the author was known for his determination to serve Nehru alone, just as he was also famous for his unquestioned personal integrity and honesty in dealing with political and financial matters.

Since his resignation in 1959, Mathai has been living a quiet life, collecting material for this book.

The petty ambitions which sway most men never troubled him. He has played his part in building up free India and with deep sadness watched how Nehru’s country was being weakened. But he knows that the foundations which Nehru laid will ever be safe even though his daughter administered a severe jolt to them.

First Published, 1978

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This book is not history or biography, but chatty stuff containing my reminiscences. No doubt it contains historical and biographical data pertaining to a significant period of India’s history.

When a number of friends urged me to write my reminiscences, I said: “Either I shall write without inhibition or not at all.” In writing this book I have been largely guided by the philosophy contained in the Introduction to Vol. V (1902) of his monumental thirteen- volume work, Napoleon et sa Famille, by Frederic Masson.

He states:

“It is time to cease at last making this senseless distinction between the public man, whom history may claim arid the private person in whom she has no right. There is only the human being; a person’s character is indivisible like his nature. As soon as a man has played a historic part, he belongs to history. History lays her hand upon him wherever she happens to come across him, for there is no fact in his existence, however petty, no insignificant utterance of his sentiments, no microscopic detail of his personal habits which may not serve to make him better known. I am sorry for him if he has any vices, or abnormal inclination, or ugly sides to his nature, for history will tell; and also if he squints or is crippled, she will tell. She will collect his words, even those murmured in love. . . .She will question his mistresses as well as his physician, his valet and his confessor. If she is lucky enough to get hold of his cash-book, she will peruse it carefully and relate how his services were paid, how he enriched or ruined himself, what fortune he left behind him. She will lift his winding-sheet, to see of what illness he died and what was his last emotion when confronted with eternity. From the day he attempted to play a  part in history he delivered himself up to her”.

“This is how history shall be, no longer either political or anecdotal, but human; no longer a chronological arrangement of dates and words, of names and facts, but something which will remind you of life itself; which gives off a smell of flesh and bone, the sounds of love and cries of pain, in which the passions play their part and from which may, at last, emerge the lineaments of men whom we can meet as brothers”.

“What! Shall poetry be allowed to appropriate the right to express all the passions of humanity, drama to show them on the stage, fiction to reproduce them from the imagination, and shall history, condemned to wear forever the harness of a false modesty and an assumed dignity, strangled in the swaddling clothes in which the traditions of a monarchical historiography have wrapped her up be obliged, if she will not be regarded as frivolous and incur the strictures of the sticklers for deportment and the Philamintes,  to keep within polite generalities and to speak about human beings as she would about heavenly bodies, shall history, which records mankind, only be allowed by dint of dexterous circumlocutions, and of kindly suppressions, to suggest, in noble phrases, that this same mankind has known passion, love and sin? Political  actions which had none but political motives— they do occur; but  how rarely!”

I have also been guided by the exceptionally frank three-volume autobiography of Bertrand Russell.

Before I started writing this book, I suspended from my mind all personal loyalties of a conventional nature: only my obligation to history remained.

I have made no full-scale assessments of the historic persons with whom I came into close contact. It is for distinguished historians of the future to undertake that task.

If any reader feels aghast at some of the uninhibited disclosures in this book, I would like to refer him back to what is contained in this Preface.

M.O. Mathai


Chapter 29 titled “She” was withdrawn by the author at the last minute due to the contents being “intensely personal”.But the following unverified material has been in circulation in the Net. The rumor was that the author was forced by Indira Gandhi to withdraw it in any way.


She has Cleopatra’s nose, Pauline Bonaparte’s eyes and the breasts of Venus. She has hair on her limbs which have to be shaven frequently. Physically and mentally she is more of a male than a female. I would call her a manly woman.

I met her first in her ancestral home in the winter of 1945. She then had a baby son of crawling age and who was a cry baby. My first reaction was that she was a conceited girl with unhappiness written all over her face. Her second son, born in December, 1946, was an unwanted child. As a baby he had to be circumcised to remove a defect. By 1947 her cup of unhappiness was full and fortune took possession of her face.

In the autumn of 1946 her father gave her a small Austin car. She wanted me to teach her driving. In the initial stages, I used to take her to the Viceroy’s bodyguard’s Polo Ground for lessons. She was quick in learning. Then I stopped the driving lessons because she was getting into the advanced stage of pregnancy. I told her I didn’t want her to take any risk going into the open roads learning driving. Her second son was born in the middle of December 1946. By the middle of February 1947, she was ready to resume driving lessons. We went into the roads and to Connaught Circus. Then I told her “you just imagine that you know everything, concentrate, consider the person driving a car from the opposite direction is a fool, and go along with confidence driving the car, take a round of Connaught Circus and come back”. She did that and returned in triumph. The driving lessons ended there.

Before the middle of 1947, she asked me to take her out to a cinema. From then on we used to go out for pictures as often as I was free – which was not frequent.

She looked forward to taking me out driving over the Ridge with the jungle on either side. She hated small cars. So we used to go in my car which was a Plymouth. She liked to go into the wilds where there were ruins. Drives to regions beyond Qutab Minar were favored. One day, during an aimless drive, she told me complainingly “You do not love me”. I said, “I do not know; I had not thought about it”. By the autumn of 1947, I knew she had fallen headlong in love with me without my taking any initiative in the matter. Her face would light upon seeing me. She started talking to me about herself. She said that sometime after her marriage, she discovered that her husband was not faithful to her. This came to her as a great shock because she married him in the teeth of opposition from every member of the family. She said she began to lose her saris, coats, blouses, shoes, and handbags. She suspected the servants until she discovered some of her lost things on the persons of two women at a party. These women were known to be friendly with her husband. She also found out to which women her husband had given the books stolen from her book-shelves.

She made it known rather discreetly what her intentions were about me. I told her I had two inhibitions: (1) I did not like to fool around with married women; (2) my loyalty to her father prohibited anything such as she had in mind. She was immediately forthcoming about No.1. She assured me that some time ago she had stopped having anything to do with her husband. She added: “I can no longer bear the thought of his touching me”. She further confided in me “fortunately he has also gone impotent though he retained his attraction to women”. About No. 2 she was angry with me and asked “What has my father got to do with it? Am I a minor?”

Since then she spent as much time with me as possible and ridiculed me for my attitude to her father in so far as she was concerned. But I continued to resist gently. I was not mentally prepared or reconciled as yet.

On the 18th November 1947, she took me to her room and kissed me full on the lips and told me “I want to sleep with you; take me to the wilds tomorrow evening”. I told her that I had very little experience with women. She said “all the better”. So on the 19th, which was her birthday, we went driving out and chose a place in the wilderness. On our way back I told her that I had some revulsion about milk in her breasts (though she had stopped breast-feeding the child a while ago). Afterward, she did something about it and soon went completely dry. She discovered that I knew little about sex, and gave me two books, one of them by Dr. Abraham Stone about sex and female anatomy. I read them with profit.

She was not promiscuous; neither did she need sex too frequently. But in the sex act she had all the artfulness of French women and Kerala Nair women combined. She loved prolonged kissing and being kissed in the same fashion. She had established a reputation of being cold and forbidding. She was nothing of the kind. It was only a pose as a feminine measure of self-protection. She was a passionate woman who was exceptionally good as a wriggler in bed. During the twelve years we were lovers, I was never satisfied with her.

Progressively she became hostile to the fat female family friend who used to come to stay. Ever since she saw the family friend welcoming me on arrival with a hug and an innocent kiss on my cheek, she became jealous and livid with rage against the family friend. Occasionally the family friend used to ask me to take her and my “she” to a good cinema whenever there was one in town. My “she” could cleverly see to it that I did not sit near the family friend but only next to her as third in the row.

The day before the next time the family friend was expected to arrive “she” asked me to take her out into the wilds after sundown. In the car I asked her ‘what is the big idea? I have some urgent work to do’. She replied ‘as long as the fat one is here, I will keep away from you because I do not want you to touch me after she has touched you.’ I assured her that I had absolutely no interest in the fat one. Eventually, ‘she’ got used to the fat one’s friendly welcome and departure gestures to me.

She tried hard to persuade me to occasionally go up to her room while her husband was there, sit down and talk to them both. I told her that I had no intention of practicing deception. So she used to bring him to my study occasionally.

She used all kinds of devices to ensure that her children spent as little time with their father as possible. She told me that she did not want any influence of their father on them because she was convinced that his influence would be bad for them. She concluded by saying: “I do not want my children to grow up as champion liars.” This was one of the reasons why her husband was shifted to a separate room.

Once I mentioned to her something which her husband had told me. She said: “Don’t believe a word of what he says. I have learnt it to my bitter cost”.

She wrote to A.C.N. Nambiar, whom she had known personally for a long time and who was also a friend of her father and mother, asking for his opinion about divorcing her husband. She knew that Nambiar was a dear friend of mine. Nambiar replied to her to say that under certain circumstances it was preferable to have a clear break to living in make-believe. I did not encourage her in this matter, mostly for the sake of her father.

One day, she told me that she could not bear the thought of being married to a Hindu. I told her “It is a compliment to the galaxy of great men Hinduism has produced through the ages”.

I never encouraged her to come to my bedroom. On one occasion she came. It was past midnight. I was fast asleep, having worked till midnight; she lay down beside me and gently woke me up by a kiss. I asked her “What is the matter?” She said: “I had to come”. I did not know if she had been troubled in mind. I told her: “Let us lie here quietly and do nothing unless you want to”. She said: “On this occasion, I only want to be with you”. She lay there relaxed till about 4 in the morning, and gently tip-toed to her room upstairs. Before going away she told me: “I never told you that once I thought of committing suicide. Such thoughts do not come to me anymore. You have given me back my happiness.”

Once, early in our life of love, she told me, “I never knew what real sex was until I had you”. At the height of her passion in bed, she would hold me tight and say “Oh, Bhupat, I love you”. She loved to give and receive nick-names. She gave me the name of Bhupat the dacoit, and I promptly gave her the name of Putli, the dacoitess. In private we used to call each other by these names. About her protestations of love in her romantic excitement, I quoted to her once two passages from Byron’s Don Juan:

“Man’s love is a man’s life, a thing apart, It is a woman’s whole existence. In her first passion woman loves her lover; In all others all she loves is love”.

She replied, “all right, I want you to tell me as often as possible, not in bed, that you love me”. I tried my best to oblige her. In fact, there was no difficulty, for I had fallen deeply in love with her.

One evening, I found her disturbed. When she saw me, she burst into tears. I asked her what had happened. She said that when she came from her dressing room to drink her usual glass of milk, she discovered that there was finely powdered glass in it. The powder was floating on the thick cream. At the first sip she immediately sensed it in her mouth and spat it out. She said that from her dressing room she heard her husband sneaking into her bedroom and making an exit. She controlled herself, put her arms round me and holding me tight, said: “Oh, Mackie, I love you; I am so glad you came up.”

In the Constellation plans on our first visit abroad together, she was all excitement when we were in sight of Mont Blanc. She said softly to me, “I like the Queen Bee, I would like to make love high up in the air”. I asked her:”Didn’t you ever dream of soaring higher up like an eagle and surveying the world? I woke up from such a dream once and found myself on the floor, for I had fallen from the bed without breaking any bones”. She knew I was pulling her leg. On reaching London, she found out the first free meal-time for her, and arranged for me to take her to a quiet restaurant. On reaching the restaurant, I asked her to order the food; I said I would have the same as hers with the addition of six large raw oysters on ice with appropriate sauce to begin with. She said she too would have it. The main dish she ordered was veal. She said, “Ever since I arrived here, I have been dying to eat veal”. I asked her if ever she had read Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra. She said, “No, why?” I told her Vatsayana had prescribed veal for a young couple for six months before marriage. She had not even read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Her knowledge of the Ramayana was only what her grandmother had told her. In many ways, she was a denationalized person.

She did not like artificial birth-control aids. Once in the early fifties she got pregnant by me. She decided to have an abortion done. She went to the British High Commission doctor whom she knew personally, but he refused to help. So she went to her ancestral home and got in touch with a lady doctor whom she knew personally and in whom she had perfect confidence. On this trip she took her second son with her. After a fortnight the mother and the little son returned with the good news that the boy was cured of his defect in speech in the natural process. Earlier he could not pronounce “R”, and the mother was worried about it; she was in a frantic search for a speech-correction expert. On the day of her return, she told me that the whole thing came out without any medication or aid.

Was the father aware of her attachment to me? The answer is in the affirmative. Every time he had to go out for dinner, he knew where to find her. Fifteen minutes before the time of departure, she would come fully decked up and sit in front of me in my study. At the stroke of the appointed time the father would pass my study and call her out.

In the winter of 1958 I happened to see something by sheer chance. Immediately after lunch, I went to convey some urgent information to her. She had already closed the door. I knocked; after about five minutes she half-opened the door and peeped out. I discovered that the curtains were drawn and a tall, youngish handsome, bearded man – a Brahmacahri – was in the room. I came away saying “I had something to tell you; but I shall say it later”. That was the end of our relationship. She tried to make me believe several times that the scene I witnessed meant nothing more than some “yoga” and “spiritual” lessons. I gave her the definite impression that I was not interested in her explanations. Gradually she grew bitter against me. In fact, ultimately she became my deadly enemy – which constantly reminded me of the famous couplet of William Congrave:

“Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

Within a fortnight of the incident, I collected all her passionate letters and returned them to her. A year later I came across some more in my old papers. They were also returned to her.

There is an erroneous belief among some that she and her husband came together during the last two years of the husband’s life. Enough had happened in their lives that a reunion of hearts was not humanly possible. It is true that she was kind and considerate to him during his illness. Certain things were done during this period and more specially at the cremation and collection of the ashes of the husband and well-advertised to give certain desired impressions. They were all for public consumption, for, by that time, she had emerged as a full-fledged political animal.

23rd June 1977.

Reminiscences of the Nehru Age by M.O. Mathai