Nehru’s Red Rose

No, I am not talking about any of his rumored links, but the bright red rose he pinned to the lapel of his achkan. Nehru was insistent that it was always bright red and not pale in color. Also it was never yellow as some books mention. So what is the story behind it? Was it an event that got him to carry on with the habit, was it a woman or some women? Or??

We talked about Gandhiji and his austerity, as well as his loin cloth wearing and the reasons behind that. But Nehru always wore an immaculate Achkan (sherwani like coat) with the Gandhi cap and the telltale bright red rose and at times a small cane with a silver head. Nehru, his ackkans and the red rose became inseparable after he became prime minister. In fact the laal gulab went on to become a family symbol for the Nehru’s as time went by and their supporters even coined the ‘lal gulab zindabad’ slogan during the Indira days. The man and the rose evoked strong reactions in the 50’s. Deep Inder’s (The invisible path) Laila explains it nicely - As soon as we would see him with the familiar red rose on his coat, we would all shout in genuine joy, Chacha Nehru ki Jai, Chacha Nehru ki Jai!” “And he would gracefully join his hands in Namaste which we all felt was meant especially for us…

Or listen to Deepak Chopra’s (The Soul of Leadership – excerpt source acknowledged gratefully and now recounted with thanks) story about the day Nehru visited Jabalpur- My (Deepak’s) mother had dressed in her best sari and it did not matter whom she turned to – a maid, a best friend, nobody could talkj of anything but Nehru. When the motorcade finally wound its way through the streets, it passed directly in front of our house. Then something remarkable happened. My mother had found a place in front of the crowd. Earlier she had confided to us that she was certain Nehru would notice her among the tens of thousands thronging his route, and although we had teased her, her confidence remained unshaken. And when the moment came, she actually did catch Nehru's eye! He paused for a second, and then reached for the single red rose he always wore in his lapel. He tossed it to her. Even in all the tumult my mother caught it, and when the parade was over, she took it inside and carefully placed it in her best vase.

All that afternoon our house wad filled with people coming over to marvel at the rose, the kind you could buy in the market stall for a few rupees. But because Nehru had thrown it with his own hands, it had taken on his mystical status. And because my mother had caught it, so had she. People who saw her every day now lowered their voices to a whisper in her presence and looked at her with reverence. And when I looked at my mother, I saw that her brush with greatness seemed to have given her a new sense of herself too. At the days end, Nehru’s rose was saved for posterity, carefully pressed between the pages of a book like a sacred relic.

Mallika Chopra his daughter, however gives a slightly different version – She (Granny) kept in a vase in the middle of an emptied room, and friends flocked to see it, shoes off and in silence or reverence. When the rose began to fade, her mother threw a party and gave a petal each to her friends. According to her, Deepak who wondered about the rose and its significance got this profound explanation from his mother -  In those rose petals are the hopes of the Indian future, our dreams, our aspirations, longings of a lot of suppressed people longing for freedom, our passions and love for each other, and what we strive to become. The rose, she said is an essence of our soul.

But as you can imagine, the rose became a subject of many a legend. One such legend is that he took to the habit of wearing a rose in his buttonhole after a child pinned one on his ‘chachas’ chest in 1938. The story goes that he started to and eventually got accustomed to tucking the flower to his jacket after a little girl courageously came too close and tucked it on his jacket at a function. It is said that he often compared the two saying that children were like the buds in a garden who needed to be cared, nurtured and loved, as they were the future and foundation of a nation.

Another legend (MG Agarwal – Freedom fighters of India V2) is that he wore it in honor of his ailing wife Kamala who passed away before him. That he liked roses is clear and is mentioned in other memoirs and stated by Shashi Tharoor in his book on Nehru – the story of how Nehru redressed a matter concerning a not so elaborate wedding for his sister Krishna (Betty) by plucking a red rose and tucking it into her hair before the ceremony.

But other accounts mention that Indira Gandhi had the responsibility of picking and delivering a red rose from his teen murti garden every day. ..Anyway thus we saw associations for each of the famous persons of that period, Churchill and his cigar, Gandhi his loincloth and his staff and Nehru’s red rose.

Rama Narayana Chaudhry was one who decided to find out and recounts an interview with the PM
I have often intended to ask you, why do you always wear a red rose?
Nehru: There is nothing special about it.
Chaudhary: Nothing special?
Nehru: No. I began wearing it casually 10 to 15 years back. And I like a deep red, not faint.

But Nehru did not always give the same answer to the question. Once Bruce and Beatrice Gould, Associate editors of ‘The ladies home journal’ met up with Nehru at Delhi and brought up the topic of the red rose - Mrs. Beatrice Gould commented "I admire your always wearing a rose. Is it a symbol of anything?" "Yes, of levity," he replied. "It is necessary, in the midst of problems, to remember the lighter things.

Mathai his secretary writes in his memoirs (My days with Nehru) that there was talk of Congressmen in the Indian Parliament to start a "Red Rose League," as the British Conservative MPs started the "Primrose League". And he goes on to rightly mention that it would have been futile anyway for one cannot expect imagination from Indian politicians or to associate them with anything beautiful…

Austine writing for the Milwaukee sentinel (The women in Nehru’s life) in 1956 narrates another tale (actually she retells the version from the famous (or infamous) interview given by Nehru’s sister Krishna Hutheesing and published in the Ladies Home Journal in Jan 1955) – One of the Indian prime Minister’s most ardent feminine admirers never had the privilege of attending one of his parties. Actually she was a complete stranger to Nehru- although she is supposed to be the inspiration for one of his romantic customs – the wearing of a single Yellow (should have been red) rose on his simple white tunic. The story is that this nameless young woman used to stand outside his house morning after morning waiting for a glimpse of Nehru and that finally when she did see him, she shyly handed him a yellow (red) rose. He took the flower, got into his car and drove away. For weeks after that the girl kept her daily vigil. At first Nehru was annoyed. Then puzzled, then pleased. He always was gracious enough to slip the flower into his buttonhole.

When for one reason or the other, the young woman stopped paying her daily tribute to the country’s most powerful political personage, it is said that he sent for one of his gardeners and asked the man to bring him a yellow (red) rose every morning.

Something about this story is not quite complete and I say that because Mathai mentions that Nehru was perhaps upset (there is also this problem of the credibility of Mathai’s memoirs) about the interview given by Krishna and the rose story. While it would have been interesting to delve deeper into the story of the lady and the rose, the difficulty to unearth any information after so many years is so high that I gave up.

While Indira used the rose for effect, Rajiv Gandhi did not. He used the shawl over his shoulder like Motilal, to wean the masses and interestingly Zail Sigh who carried on the tradition, always wore one on his achkan except on the swearing in day!!

All said and done, as a saddened Nehru visibly wilted after the Chinese war while the fresh rose on his lapel signaled that it was time for another to wear it. The ill-fated Lal Bahadur Sastri who succeeded him and was the steward of a successful war against Pakistan, did not sport such objects and had a short career.


ER Ramachandran said…
Very interesting topic you have chosen and given a good treatment that it deserves! ' Little things about some great people' I had once read read. Bhimsen Joshi the great singer was a weekend auto-mechanic when he was not singing. His brother in fact wrote, Bhimanna was found below a car tinkering something always! He used to drive an old Ford at breakneck speed keeping his thumbura inside with his shishyas trembling.It stopped when police came home and requested Joshi's family members to prevent his habit as it was a matter of time before he ran over somebody! Shemmangudi the great carnatic music exponent liked to play rummy with his concert co artistes! Masti Venkatesha Iyengar ('Masti') the Gnaan peeth award winner used to walk to pensioners' club in Gandhibazaar in Blore and played rummy with his friends.

Thanks for Nehru's story with his red rose.Not many politicians these days have that grace or style for such niceties. Thanks again. Merry Xmas.
Maddy said…
Thanks ERR..
you have given me many more ideas to work on...
as you yourself with all your experience, have done a few times in the past...
incidentally I met a person in Cambodia, who mentioned you,
ER Ramachandran said…
Thanks Maddy. Your narratives keeps one spellbound. I distinctly remember RKN and Dev Anand in Guide's story. I also like both parties and wouldn't have liked anyone of them coming to trouble in the story! I don't know anybody in Cambodia unless you met somebody there on a visit.

I don't know if you are familiar with Bangalore. I wrote a post for churumuri of old Bangalore which doesn't exist anymore..
Maddy said…
Thanks ERR
I had read that Bangalore post some years ago..yes, i lived there for 4 years..
my first visit to the city was in the mid 70's by which time changes were starting..
i made an error about the Cambodia connection, he was talking about another Ramachandran...

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