Did they or didn't they? Whether it's yet another film, biography, or television series, this question hovers over any discussion of the relationship between Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Edwina Mountbatten.
Well, to put it in simple, blunt English: did India's first prime minister have an affair with the last vicereine of India? But bear with me: I have a slightly different take and set of facts on this, of which more later.
The question just popped up again with the proposed film based on the book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End Of An Empire by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann. You can understand the buzz around the film with the foppishly handsome Hugh Grant bringing Lord Mountbatten to life on screen and Cate Blanchett essaying the role of Edwina and Irrfan Khan rumoured to have been cast as their good friend Jawaharlal Nehru.
Expectedly, the Indian authorities have their knickers in a twist. They don't want to appear boorishly censorious, given the fact that the film is being made by Working Title and directed by the award-winning Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice). So, they can only snip bits from the script if the film is to be shot on location in India.
Out must go any kissing scenes between Pandit Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. They can't even be shown holding hands. The word love has also been banished though love there must have been.
But more significant than any romance between India's first prime minister and the wife of the man responsible for dismantling the empire — and for Partition — is the nature of the confidences they shared. These were no mere billets-doux but far more substantial.
In his letters to Edwina after she left India, Nehru often sought her advice on matters of state and strategy. British author Janet Morgan was given access to the correspondence between the two by the family. And I was lucky to meet Morgan some months before her fascinating book — Edwina Mountbatten: A Life Of Her Own (HarperCollins, 1991) — was published.
I was stationed in Oxford at that time and author-journalist Ian Jack suggested I get in touch with Morgan for a 'scoop' story. So I invited her for lunch. Morgan told me she was given a little box that weighed over five pounds: it contained all the letters Nehru wrote to Edwina between 1948 and 1960, when she died.
She also told me that Nehru wrote to Edwina every day, from the time she left India until she breathed her last. Most of the letters were written on fine, blue paper. A few of them even had a rose pressed between the pages.
But what surprised her — and me — the most was the contents of some of these epistles. In one of them he apparently writes about the embarrassment the sharp-tongued VK Krishna Menon, India's first high commissioner to the court of St James — and a close associate of Nehru — had become. In yet another letter, Nehru talks about how difficult he finds it to deal with colleagues in the Congress.
It was obvious to Morgan that Edwina used to occasionally advise him on political matters, including the strategy needed to manage his relations with ambitious politicians. Morgan also told me that her understanding of the relationship between Nehru and Edwina would have been more complete had she been able to read Edwina's letters to Nehru. The Gandhi family refused to let her see the correspondence.
I wonder if the letters from Edwina have been carefully preserved, how much the bundle weighs, and what more they disclose. Certainly, Nehru's letters reveal the depth of this relationship.
When Edwina died, his letters were "scattered" on her bed. And Nehru, ever the romantic, sent a wreath of marigolds to be dropped in the English Channel: Edwina was buried at sea.
For me this sweet-sad relationship has been the real discovery of Nehru.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi