First foreign bahu of the Nehru family and the oldest Jewish woman alive

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  1. ejazr

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    Oct 8, 2009
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    Hyderabad and Sydney STORY&programId=1073755753&contentId=8510176

    Do you have strong teeth?” I am a little taken aback by the welcome words from Fori Nehru, the oldest member of the Nehru clan, as I step into her house. As I ponder over the strength of my teeth, her blue eyes do a naughty dance. “I am going to get you some really hard rusk with marmalade on them. In fact, I also love them,” she says with a smile as I catch a glimpse of the sparkling natural teeth. Fori turned 102 on December 5.

    The house would easily qualify as a private museum. Artefacts, each with its own story, are tastefully placed all around. On the shelf is an intricately carved brass sculpture of a man on an elephant. “This one is a wedding gift I received in 1935,” says Fori.

    The opportunity for tea with Fori materialised after about eight months of effort. In fact, I took a chance and came unannounced at her doorstep in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, as all attempts for an appointment had failed. Direct phone calls had been politely dealt with, and she called only to reiterate her desire to be left in her private world.

    There are reasons for being reclusive. After her 101st birthday bash in Chandigarh and New Delhi, Fori had a chest congestion. Just before that, Doordarshan had broadcast an interview with her. According to her son Ashok Nehru, after that interview too many people got interested in her life story, and Fori stopped meeting the media.

    After spending months recovering in Chandigarh and Gurgaon, she was sent to the Lower Himalayas, to the house she and her husband, the diplomat B.K. Nehru, had built for themselves, in Kasauli.
    When I left Delhi, Fori’s friend Dr Sherry Cama had advised me to ask her for tea and sandwiches. I do just that and the feisty Fori says in a clearly affectionate tone, “Of course I will get you tea. It is also my time for tea and medicines. I do not know if as you say my tea is the best in Kasauli.”

    She places her walking stick, heavily black-taped on top, on the table and summons Sanju, her domestic help. Sanju arrives with an ornate tray filled with rusks, choco-cheese spread and biscuits. She chortles like a little girl at the sight of hot tea, the right antidote to the mountain chill.

    In Kasauli, Fori’s days are unusually intense for a centenarian. She gets up early, reads through the day and then goes for a short afternoon nap. In the evening, she reads under a table lamp. In between she squeezes in meetings with friends and attends environment preservation meetings. Her friend Lt Gen. Kamaleshwar Davar says Fori does not miss a single meeting of the Society for Preservation of Kasauli and its Environment.

    Her studious nature is reflected in her grasp of Hindi. As she orders tea for me, I can’t help but comment on it. After all, she was not born Indian. “Ah, I studied Hindi from a teacher who came home to teach after my marriage,” she says.

    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.

    We are chatting about the Chilean miners when a mild cracking sound gets my attention. I lift my eyes to see Fori biting straight into a hard rusk, savouring the cheese spread on it. “Please help yourself, son,” she says. We start talking about everything she loves and loved in life. Her husband, her Jewish roots, the Nehrus and the northeast.

    India’s northeast is special for Fori. “Just before you came a friend called from Shillong. He was telling me that it has been pouring there for the last seven days. I do not know what is wrong with the weather. This is not the time for heavy rains in the northeast,” she says. B.K. Nehru was the Governor of Assam in the 1960s. Assam those days consisted of most of the northeast. In the early 1970s, Indira Gandhi changed the political character of the region on B.K. Nehru’s advice.

    “By talking to women in the market you can find out a great deal about a particular place,” says Fori. “I went to the local bazaars in Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya and chatted with the local women to learn more about the region. In Mizoram, I saw such great sarongs and exquisite designs that I cannot imagine how the local young girls nowadays wear anything else apart from their own local creations.” In Tripura, she was mesmerised by the local jackfruit that she sent it to friends in Delhi. “Those were the most marvellous fruits I had in this land and I always wondered about the white palace of the Maharaja of Tripura. I called it the wedding cake,” she says.

    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 Mahatma, the Nehru-Gandhis 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. They bonded well as she, like him, was a European Jew, a fact that Ashok had not discussed with him. 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. The book reads like a Jewish version of Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to daughter Indira.

    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 had heard that the black Indian’s cousin Jawaharlal was a ‘jailbird’. Also, some of them believed Indian men have hundreds of wives. B.K. Nehru himself did not make things any better. He 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 1934, Fori boarded Lloyd Triestino SS Victoria. The plan was to spend a year in India and to get adjusted to the culture. If she failed, the Nehrus would let her go. She never returned.

    India, however, was full of culture shocks. Though she was accepted by the members of the Nehru family, surprise lurked in every corner. On the way to Allahabad, they visited a relative in Agra. There she bravely ventured into the washroom and came back horrified saying the loo was empty. Her to-be relatives had to explain that unlike European toilets Indian toilets did not have bathtubs, closets or wash basins. It terrified her so much that she stayed constipated for seven days before reaching Allahabad.

    In Allahabad, she was welcomed in the grand Anand Bhavan by Swaruprani Nehru, Jawaharlal’s mother. “She already was quite old and fragile,” says Fori.

    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. One day the matriarch of the Shriram family visited Anand Bhavan. Because of Fori’s ivory complexion and accent, the lady thought she was from Kashmir. Back home, she told everyone about the young Kashmiri Panditani of the Nehru family.

    Soon Fori met a “great soul” at Ananda Bhavan. Mohandas Gandhi was a great pillar of support to the Nehrus and a regular visitor to Anand Bhavan. “People melted on seeing the Mahatma,” she says. Gandhi 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.

    After Independence, Fori shouldered many tough responsibilities. On the day Gandhi was assassinated, Jawaharlal Nehru asked her to escort foreign dignitaries to the place where the Mahatma’s body lay. She was a member of the Emergency Committee to handle Partition victims. Her task included making arrangements for Muslims leaving northern India in trains to Pakistan. One day came the news that all passengers on a train she had sent a day earlier had been slaughtered. Shaken, she did not send another train for the next seven days.

    Fori had already experienced the Holocaust as it had affected her family in Europe. Yad Vashem, the museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the slaughter of Jewish people by the Nazis, has the names of her family members. Her mother, Regina, escaped from the Nazis and lived with her in India in the late 1930s.

    Fori’s brother Joseph Friedmann was an officer in the Hungarian army. A fellow officer let him hide in his house when the Germans came looking for him. After the war, he fled the communist Hungary to Australia, where he lived till his death a few years ago.

    The Partition brought many women from western Punjab to Delhi. Most of them were gifted with embroidery and knitting skills. Jawaharlal Nehru thought their energies should be channelled into creating the new India. Fori and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay started working on it. They set up a refugee women’s welfare organisation in an evacuee property in Delhi. Soon the All India Handicrafts Board was born.

    Fori and Pupul Jayakar worked together on handicrafts for decades till Indira Gandhi took them under her wings. Over time, Jayakar became known as the cultural czarina because of her work in the field and Fori’s work was forgotten because she chose to be silent.

    Fori’s relationship with Indira Gandhi has been a subject of interest for Indira’s biographers. The deep friendship was more evident than ever on June 23, 1980 as Fori stood by Indira as she dealt with the death of her son Sanjay in an air crash. Fori spent the night at 1 Safdarjung Road as Indira walked around aimlessly. About two decades earlier, Fori had helped Indira cope with the loss of her husband, Feroze Gandhi.

    The bond between the two, however, remains an enigma. During the Emergency, B.K. Nehru was advised by his friends to stay quiet not to anger Indira. But Fori spoke to her on excesses like forced sterilisation. When a family member brought home the brutality of her policy, Indira broke down. By all accounts, the only person within the extended Nehru clan who was close to Indira was Fori.

    Apart from their mutual interest in handicrafts and Indian textiles, Fori and Indira bonded over global affairs. 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.

    During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, Indira Gandhi travelled to the US. Johnson was bowled over by her. At a dinner hosted by B.K. Nehru and Fori in honour of Indira, Johnson dropped in unannounced. Dinner time approached but the president refused to leave, leading to a protocol crisis as the dinner was not meant for him. Finally, Fori, in her unique way, asked, “Mr President, why don’t you join us for dinner?” Johnson readily agreed. Fori promptly dropped one of the guests to accommodate him and averted a crisis.

    Both Fori and Indira connected with the Jewish elite of New York. One such left-leaning Jewish public figure, Dorothy Norman, was a lifelong friend of Indira. Fori’s friends list is pretty long. When she turned 101, philanthropist and stock market wizard George Soros flew in a chartered jet to Chandigarh. In the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger and B.K. Nehru started a track II initiative to improve the India-US relationship that had nosedived after the US sent the Seventh Fleet to the Bay of Bengal during the Indo-Pak war in 1971. Though Kissinger called Indira names after the war, he had a cordial relationship with B.K. Nehru and Fori. The back-channel diplomacy of the Indira Gandhi era stretched from the family of the Prime Minister to the top US diplomat.

    Though a non-practising Jew in a Hindu household, Fori always took note of the Indian Jewish population and kept close contact with them. When Gilbert was working on his book, she advised him to contact Lt Gen. J.F.R. Jacob, a Jew who was then the governor of Punjab. Jacob met Fori for the first time in Shillong’s Raj Bhavan in early 1970s. It was in Shillong that Indira confessed to Jacob her weakness for the succulent yellow cells of jackfruit.

    Jacob is famous in Israel for his services in the 1971 war and World War II. It was his battle against the Nazis that endeared him to Fori.
    Fori has 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. She would only say, “Good evening, Mr Ambassador,” whenever she met him. She has told Gilbert that she has a feeling of guilt that she was safe in the Nehru household while her family and friends were being herded to gas chambers.

    While researching for this story, THE WEEK contacted the Israel embassy in New Delhi, and Galit Hoffman, former spokesperson for the embassy, checked the records and found that Fori was indeed the oldest Jewish woman in the world. The oldest Jewish man is a Russian.

    Fori’s life has been shaped by the painful incidents around her. A day before our meeting, she saw a television programme on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. She was in the US then. Three people she considered close to her were assassinated. “They killed the Mahatma,” she says gesturing towards her heart, and grieves on the assassinations of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. “I do not know what has happened to this world. There is so much violence all around,” she says.

    It was her love for crafts that saved her. Her dining space has three Xorais (pronounced horais), a traditional handicraft, from the Majuli island in the Brahmaputra of Assam. Assamese give Xorais to those they respect. “Whether she was in Kashmir or the northeast, she would bring suitcases filled with craft products to me and ask for helping the crafts people,” says Brij Bhasin, former director of the Cottage Emporium.

    Fori’s interest in the northeat remains undiminished. On finding out that this correspondent is a Bengali with roots in Tripura, she says, “Oh! Mr Bhattacherjee! You are a Bengali, that means you are a trouble-maker in that region.” The next moment she expresses satisfaction over the improving situation in the region. She says that people of India, whether in Kasauli or in Kohima, never want anything that is unfair. “They just desire good governance. Northeast requires it and so do the rest of us.”

    As it is time to leave, Fori extends her right hand, with two diamond rings glinting in the dim light of the evening. I shake the hands and ask her what she is going to do after I leave. “Ah, plenty of work to do. Have to catch up with the world news on TV. Did you think I would be a vegetable?” she says with mock anger.

    I leave thinking Judaic God, who advised: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse: therefore choose life....”
    Fori Nehru, the oldest of the Nehru family and the oldest Jewish woman in the world, has clearly chosen life for all times to come.

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