There can be a few occasions in life more fulfiling than those on which debts of kindness and friendship can be repaid. These past few months have furnished me with many opportunities to thank people and organisations and governments for their staunch support for the democratic cause in Burma and for me personally. The sympathy and understanding we received from around the world enabled us to continue with renewed vigour along our chosen course in the face of immense difficulties... Our movement for democracy is firmly rooted in the principle of non-violence that Gandhi made into an effective political force even against the most powerful opponents. His influence on my political thinking is widely recognised. The influence of Jawaharlal Nehru on my life in politics is less well-known.
“Panditji” was a name known to me since I was little past the toddler stage. My mother spoke of him as a revered friend, almost a father figure, both to her and to my father. I had little idea of his importance as a statesman beyond the fact that he was the prime minister of India. To my infant mind, he was the kindly old man who had provided my father with two sets of uniform — the smartest he ever possessed. In January 1947, my father had stopped in Delhi for two days on his way to London for the Aung San-Attlee talks that were to be the first phase of formal negotiations for Burmese independence. He had left Burma in the thin cotton uniform of the People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO). Panditji took one look at the flimsy khaki outfit and decided it would not do for the icy weather of London. (That was one of the coldest winters in the history of England.) He gave instructions that two sets of a warm and smart version of the PVO uniform be made immediately. He decided that my father would also need a heavy overcoat, but since there was not enough time to have one made to measure, a British Army issue greatcoat was procured. The most widely known photograph of my father shows him wearing this garment in the garden of 10 Downing Street.
My father was still a university student when he first met Jawaharlal Nehru and other Indian leaders. The student unions were at the forefront of the independence movement in Burma and shared aspirations led to ties of friendship between anti-colonial forces in our two countries. However, as the Second World War approached, the paths to freedom chosen by the Burmese diverged from the non-violent way of Gandhi. My father led a group of young men, the “Thirty Comrades”, to Japan for military training, and this small pioneer force became the core of the Burma Independence Army.
After my father’s death, Nehru continued to keep an avuncular eye on my mother from afar. Whenever she went to India or whenever he came on official visits to Burma, he made her feel his concern for her well-being and the well-being of her children. I may even have been taken along to meet him during one of his visits, but I can only remember seeing him for the first time at Delhi Railway Station when I was about 16. My mother was then ambassador to India... She and I and a small group from the embassy and the ministry of external affairs were waiting to welcome Prime Minister U Nu, who was travelling up by train from Calcutta. Nehru also came to meet U Nu and onlookers spotted him as soon as he stepped into the area that was cordoned off from the teeming crowds in the station. Cheers went up and shouts of “Pandit Nehru ki jai” resounded. His lower lip protruding in that famous petulant look, Nehru ignored all the plaudits and all the people (including me) and walked up and down the empty platform with my mother and talked to her exclusively.
His aristocratic disdain for public approbation filled me with both astonishment and admiration. I wondered if Nehru’s public liked his cool arrogance, or whether there was a bond between them that made exchanges of mutual courtesies unnecessary. Then I remembered that my father had been notorious for his stern, almost scowling expression and for his lack of social graces. Our people loved him for these very defects, which they saw as proof of his honest, open nature. I should add that towards the end of his life my father acknowledged that as a national leader, he could not continue with the rough diamond manners of a young revolutionary.
The year I went to Oxford, 1964, was one of the most significant turning points in my life. It was also the year Nehru died. Next to the overwhelming grief of the people not just in India but in all parts of the world, I remember most vividly reports of the poem by Robert Frost found on his desk. Oxford did not take me away from India, for I made many Indian friends there. After my marriage, my husband’s work in Himalayan studies took our family frequently to the north of the country. My last sojourn in India was spent as a research fellow in the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla from 1987 to 1988...
There was... much in Nehru’s books to make me feel we had many things in common. I was struck by the fact that the very first fragment of poetry he quoted in Discovery of India was from one of my favourite poems, one that had lodged itself in my memory almost instantly at my very first reading of it, Yeat’s An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. Yet, even in our liking for the same lines, there was a difference. Nehru wrote of wanting to experience again “that lovely impulse of delight” that “turns to risk and danger and faces and mocks at death”. I had remembered the words as “that lonely impulse of delight”, and I could not check to see which version was correct, as I did not have the poem to hand. To me, “lovely” changed the entire meaning of the poem. I wished I could have discussed the matter with Nehru himself. Was it not essentially lonely, rather than lovely, to delight in what would seem at least inexplicable if not outright undesirable, to most of those around us? When, after the years of house arrest, I managed to look up the poem I found that “lonely” was indeed the right word. Was “lovely” a misprint in my copy of Discovery of India or had Nehru misread the line?
Excerpts from Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture 2012, Discovery of Nehru, by Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Opposition in Myanmar, in New Delhi on November 14