Friday, January 28, 2011

The First Foreign Bahu of the Nehru Family

Fori is the first foreign bahu of the Nehru family and the oldest Jewish woman alive

She is the one who upholds the respect of women community. Society respects her as a goddess for her great work and all the sacrifices she made. Even when there was a trend of considering women as a tool for sexual enjoyment and to get the works done by her, the qualities of a woman like her, to uphold her dignity is really praiseworthy. The slogan- Yathra naariyanthu ramanthe thathra devatha-Where the women are being respected, there only the Almighty hails- Indian epics have many names of great women like her who is still a living example for generations. Even in the era of man dominations, she has served as the indispensable part and parcel of Nehru family. This remarkable lady happens to be Mrs Fori Nehru. Though Hungarian by birth, she happens to be the wife of a very distinguished Indian, the late BK Nehru, who, in his lifetime, served his motherland with great integrity and distinction as a civil servant, diplomat and finally as Governor of Assam, J&K and Gujarat. BK Nehru, a man of great integrity and conviction, always stood his ground and refused to be dictated by the Centre on his constitutional prerogatives.

Somewhere I do believe that a wife gives strength to do what one perceives as proper and principled, and I am sure that even the redoubtable Nehru derived much of his inspiration from his beloved life companion. Exceptionally well informed and mentally agile for her age, Fori is fascinating, to say the least. But it is the world that continues to fascinate her and keeps her going. An information buff, she is glued to news whether it is about the trapped miners in Chile or the stock movements on Wall Street. Her studious nature is well reflected in her love for the environment. Only last month, this grand old lady attended the annual general body meeting in the Kasauli cantonment of SPOKE (Society for Preservation of Kasauli and its Environs)—an organisation whose founder was none else than her beloved husband, and both of them have been much respected environmentalists.

Fori’s story is the least told in the Nehru clan. In her 102 years, she has seen both the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Independence, the Partition, the Nehru-Gandhi’s and everything that shaped modern India. In 1958, about two and a half decades after becoming the first foreign-born bahu of the Nehru clan, her story found a narrator. Sir Martin Gilbert, biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, stopped at Mount Ararat in Turkey as he travelled the Asia Minor. Two Germans in a car stopped to ask about the road to India. The duo roused interest in Gilbert about India. Soon after this he befriended a young Indian, Ashok Nehru, in Oxford. Ashok inspired Gilbert to travel to India.
When he reached New Delhi, Gilbert fell ill. It was Fori who nursed him back to health. Gilbert considers himself Fori’s “adopted nephew”, and she calls him her “adopted son”. Gilbert, currently a member of the Iraq Inquiry of the British government, wrote the book Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith out of the 141 letters that he wrote to her.

Fori’s real name is not known even to some of her close friends. She was born Magdolna Friedmann on December 5, 1908, in Budapest. Her parents, Regina and Armin Friedmann, called her ‘Dundi’, meaning fat girl in Hungarian-Yiddish. The ill-treatment of the Jewish population in Europe prompted her father to change the family name to Forbath. Magdolna Forbath got the nickname Fori in school and it stuck. Fori’s parents had a family business of toys and furniture. In 1928, when she was 20, the notorious ‘numerus clausus’ of Hungary did not allow her to continue her education in Budapest. This meant the university would not admit any more Jewish students on that particular year once the quota for them was over. Her parents sent her to France and then to England for further education.

In England, in 1930, Fori took note of B.K. Nehru, a fellow student. A romance began and it scared her family. They believed Indian men have hundreds of wives. B.K. Nehru himself did not make things any better. He also painted such a bleak picture of India, as part of her mental preparation that poor Fori thought it would be her good fortune if she ever got to drink a glass of clean water in India. In 1935, Fori married B.K. Nehru and became Shobha Nehru, though she continued to be called Fori. The wedding was the talk of Allahabad then, as Hindus of Prayag were known for their orthodoxy. But she managed to win hearts by her expertise in Hindi. According to Fori, India, however, was full of culture shocks. Though she was accepted by the members of the Nehru family, surprise lurked in every corner. Considering herself lucky by meeting Mahatma Gandhi, who inspired her to learn more about India’s rich handicrafts sector. She looked for a larger opportunity to practise the Mahatma’s principles that did not come to her as a prominent ICS officer’s wife. Fori’s collection of Gandhi memorabilia is spectacular.

Fori’s relationship with Indira Gandhi has been a subject of interest for Indira’s biographers. The deep friendship was more evident, when Fori stood by Indira as she dealt with the death of her son Sanjay in an air crash. Both bonded well over global affairs too. As a diplomat’s wife, Fori excelled in providing back-room support to Indira. B.K. Nehru’s stint as the Indian ambassador to the US (1958-68) was eventful. The couple charmed the American elite and coaxed the charismatic Jackie Kennedy into visiting India in 1962.

Though a non-practising Jew in a Hindu household, Fori always took note of the Indian Jewish population and kept close contact with them. According to   Israel embassy in New Delhi, Fori Nehru is indeed the oldest Jewish woman in the world. The oldest Jewish man is a Russian. Fori has still not forgiven the Germans. “I am not much of a Jewish [person] but even today I cannot shake hands with a German,” she once told Gilbert. She never shook hands with the German ambassador in Washington, DC, during B.K. Nehru’s stint there. Inspite of all this, the patience of greatness of Fori Nehru to serve the family and the society is incomparable. That’s why she deserves the designation of Devatha –of-Goddess-worth to be worshipped for all her patience, services and sacrifices. 

I got this story idea while I was chatting with my fellow journalist friend, Gautam.Mengle on facebook. After  he helping me with the topic, I also got few more inputs on Fori Nehru’s life through “The Week” magazine (January 2nd issue, 2011).
Many stories to tell :Fori on her 101st birthday