Life | The Fragrance Of Love

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The Fragrance Of Love
Text by Madhu Jain and Illustration by Farzana Cooper
Published: Volume 17, Issue 11, November, 2009

The buzz about love through the ages is what engages Madhu Jain, triggered by the news of a new film in the works, on Pandit Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, who have posed the eternal ‘love’ mystery

Some romances – literary, celluloid or actual – remain evergreen. Occasionally tossed up and turned into headlines, they add a bit of sparkle to our otherwise prosaic times: love in the time of pragmatism doesn’t have an easy ride. Much newsprint has flowed recently over the nature of the relationship between India’s first prime minister and the last vicereine. Centrestage in the proposed film based on Alex von Tunzelmann’s book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire is the relationship between Pandit Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. The buzz about the film is all the louder because of the cast: Cate Blanchett and Hugh Grant and the curiosity about the Indian actor who will play the third part of this unusual triangle.

Alas, most of the discourse has been over whether the Edwina-Nehru affair was platonic or otherwise. Lost in all the prurience is the depth and intensity of this friendship – and the quality of romantic love if you like. The correspondence between the two is poignant, lyrical even. I had a privileged insight into it some years ago when I met Janet Morgan, who was then working on her authorised biography – Edwina Mountbatten: A Life Of Her Own (HarperCollins, 1991). We were in Oxford at the time, where my husband was a visiting professor. A journalist friend suggested I get in touch with Morgan because the Mountbatten family had given her access to the correspondence between Edwina and Pandit Nehru.

I invited the author for lunch, slaving all morning over tandoori chicken, broccoli ki sabzi and carrot halwa to butter her up. I needn’t have bothered. She was more than generous in sharing her little goldmine of information. Apparently, Pandit Nehru wrote to Countess Mountbatten of Burma every day – from the time she left India in 1948 until 1960, the year she died. His letters, carefully wrapped in a box, weighed about five pounds. Most of them were on fine blue paper and some with roses pressed between the pages.

Unfortunately, Morgan only had access to a one-way correspondence. She did not get permission from the Gandhi family to read Edwina’s letters to Nehru. What struck me about the content of these beautifully written epistles is how close the two were. It was a marriage of minds, and at the risk of sounding a trifle treacly, of hearts. Equally interesting is the extent to which Pandit Nehru confided in Edwina, occasionally seeking her advice about political strategy and dealing with people.

It would be prosaic to call these ‘love’ letters. Though love there obviously was, while sex was probably not part of the equation. It is the fragrance of romantic love that still lingers on in these epistles. The prime minister and the last vicereine of the Raj may not have met often after the Mountbattens left. But when Edwina died, his letters were found scattered on her bed. She was buried at sea, off the HMS Wakeful. Accompanying the ship was an Indian frigate sent by Nehru. A wreath of marigolds was cast into the sea from it at his behest.
A romantic gesture that spoke a million words.

Celluloid romance
Which brings me to the point of this column: romance, call it courtly love if you like, appears to be beating a fast retreat – as is sensuality. Indian cinema usually holds a mirror to our society, albeit one that often resembles a fairground mirror that exaggerates and distorts what it reflects. Take two popular new Hindi films: Wake Up Sid and Love Aaj Kal made by young directors about young people. It’s all about being ‘cool’ and ‘modern’, with pragmatism the reigning mantra.

At least until the last few reels. Until then love is about not having to say ‘I love you’, especially in LAK. Love is about not letting anybody into your space. Love is about not revealing your vulnerability. Love is not allowed to get larger-than-life. Love is about being pals. All very cute and fresh and in your face, yes. And, of course, sexy. But, where’s the poetry and the passion – and the metaphor? The gathering clouds in Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (he was also a 20-something when he made the film) that reflect the burgeoning passion of the young couple (Nargis and Raj Kapoor) pack more sensuality into the film than do the million instant intimacies bouncing off the screen these days.

Passion is more palpable in our ads, but not between mere mortals. Here, the real romance is between a man and a car – or his bike or a gizmo. In this world of aspirations women romance their diamonds and branded goodies. The smouldering, covetous looks are saved for them. Significantly, the real object of desire is what they see in their mirrors: it’s now all about loving the self.

Narcissism has walked in from the front door: women appear to be more in love with their computer-enhanced tresses and airbrushed fair and lovely skin. And the men: instead of writing paeans to the luminous beauty of women, the hunks in our ads (and indeed films) are more obsessed with how they look. They are far too busy with their fairness creams – competing with women to be the fairest of them all – to bother about courtship.
As for those simile-laden billets-doux, the bells tolled for them when the age of texting, sexting and 24/7 connectivity dawned.

Poetry of love
What’s left for the romantic imagination? Any given moment you can find out what the one you fancy is wearing or doing: that’s what sms-ing is mostly about. You can also find out what they are thinking this very moment: that’s what tweeting and Facebooking – and public intimacy – are mostly about. Forget what John Keats said about unheard melodies being sweeter. Were the poet around today he would probably cover his eyes and plug his ears.

Romantic love gained its potency from the inaccessibility of the loved one and what was left unsaid, or half-said. Sometimes, silent gestures say it better. Keats wrote some of the most romantic poetry in English literature. The love of his life, Fanny Brawne, said it with a small gesture. She wore the engagement ring Keats gave her until the day she died. They were never to marry: he died of tuberculosis in Rome when he was just 25. Fanny wore the ring through all her years of mourning his death. She continued to wear it when she later married and bore two children.

The modest ring – almandine (a type of garnet) set in delicately worked gold – lies innocuously behind glass in the recently renovated Keats House in Hampstead. Where he wrote Ode to a Nightingale and where he fell in love with the girl next door – Fanny.
The ring speaks volumes.


Madhu Jain is an author and a journalist. She writes for several publications and is currently working on her second book. She also curates art shows.

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