NANDINI MEHTA WAS BORN ON the 4th of June 1917, in Mirzapur, a small town on the banks of the river Ganga, just 67 kilometres from Benaras, now Varanasi. At the time, the area was part of the United Provinces (UP). Both her parents, Vinayak and Iravati, were Nagar Brahmins from Surat, Gujarat. Vinayak’s father Nandshanker Mehta was a learned schoolteacher, who wrote the Gujarati novel Karan Gehlo. His mother was known to everyone as Motaba.

Iravati’s father was Thakorebhai, a successful barrister, and her mother Kiki was a strong, vocal woman, who in her later years became a municipal corporator. The two families were friends. When Kiki was pregnant with Iravati, Nandshanker had joked with her “If you have a daughter, we would like her to wed our son Vinayak”. And indeed, they did marry in 1907, when Iravati was 16 and Vinayak 23.

Vinayak studied at Cambridge and after his return joined the prestigious Indian Civil Service under the British, choosing the United Provinces as his cadre. He and his bride went on his first posting to Allahabad, at which time they became friends with and grew close to the Nehru family.

They lost their first and second children, who were probably stillborn. Then came their son Kumaril, called Kumi. In fact, all their children had nicknames. After Kumi was Purnima, who was called Moon, then Premlata (Pupul), Nandini (Nancy), and Amarganga (Amru). Four girls and one boy.

Beautiful Nandini was the darling of the family. Iravati would proudly say, “When Nandini was wheeled in a pram, people would stop and stare. ‘Who is this beautiful Greek child?’ they would ask”.

Nandini adored her father, describing him as a tall, wheat- complexioned man. She would plead with him, “Please daddy, shave your moustache. It hides your handsome face”. She was also deeply attached to her mother Iravati, who was worldly, astute, and extremely caring and affectionate. Iravati was the deeply respected matriarch of her home. Though she was not highly educated, she was extremely bright and perceptive, with an innate gut-feeling about issues. Her husband would often ask her to read his files and write her critical notes in the margin.

With great nostalgia, Nandini would tell her children about the halcyon days of her childhood. During his tenure as an administrator for the British, Vinayak was posted in different places: Allahabad, Lucknow, Bikaner, Kashmir. The family always travelled with him and lived in large, colonial bungalows with outhouses, tennis courts, beautiful gardens, sometimes a rose garden as well, with pansies, sweet peas, dahlias laid out by the previous memsahib. They had a huge staff, all in uniform; men with turbans and the crest VM. And there were ponies and dogs too.

When she was reminiscing, Nandini would talk of how she felt sad when she saw the punkhawalla, who was usually blind, sitting on the balcony, a rope attached to his toes, moving a large fan to cool the house. She would often sit next to him listening as he narrated folk tales. On summer nights, they all slept under the stars, their beds in a row, with the chowkidar and dogs keeping guard.

In the winter months, Vinayak would sometimes tour his province and the whole family would camp with him. The staff went ahead and put up the tents: the bedrooms, the golkamara (drawing room), the toilets, and the kitchen. Usually they camped in a wooded area or near a stream. The children had an Irish governess, Miss McGonigal, who travelled with them so their education would not suffer. When they lived in Kashmir, Vinayak toured distant villages on horseback in the morning, and in the afternoon, he would sit in the garden of their Srinagar home to hear the pleas of villagers and dispense justice.

In her parents’ home Iravati had eaten neither tomatoes nor watermelon, as their colour was said to be suggestive of and resemble meat. However, in her marital home they were all non- vegetarian and rather Anglicized. They would eat Gujarati food for lunch, but dinner was Western cuisine: buttered quails, artichokes, candied fruits, roasts, and port or sherry. The family felt the need to be westernized or the white memsahibs would not socialize with them. They spoke Gujarati at home, but English otherwise. The girls wore frocks, long socks, Mary Jane shoes, and bows in their hair. The children were fed at 7 p.m., separately, sometimes a stew (pish-pash) with pieces of meat floating in it. From the time she was a child, Nandini disliked meat, and would quietly pass the bits to the dogs, sitting eagerly at her feet under the table.

In Nandini’s childhood home everyone was treated with deep respect and affection. Whenever Vinayak met his children he would embrace them with a bear hug and endearments: “My darlings” he would often say. This was unusual for the Nagar community they came from. In that era, very few men openly expressed their love for their daughters, and physical displays and expressions of affection were considered a no-no.

In her later years, Nandini would often recall her father’s rich voice and how he sang with “deep-throated ease”. Early each morning their home would resonate with his singing. She remembered how often he would break into laughter. “Several times a day,” Nandini’s diary says, “with his hands on his waist, head thrown back, he would laugh loudly, his belly shaking with laughter”.

Nandini often told her children and grandchildren that she grew up in an environment where no one spoke a harsh word to anyone else. It was a life filled with friends, books, socializing, and the occasional party. There was an extensive library in the house, and the love for art and painting was nurtured and encouraged. There was no talk of making money, no moralizing, no long lectures. In the afternoons, friends often came over for tea, scones, and thin cucumber sandwiches. There was much laughter and joy. Years later, Iravati would speak of how deeply she had loved her husband. She would relate how he always lovingly called her “My dear”, never expressing anger or using harsh or negative words.

Nandini was close to all her siblings and loved them deeply. Though she was a rather quiet child in her teens, in her younger days she had been quite the tomboy. Her sister Pupul would laugh and recount how Nandini once pinned her to a wall. “From that day I affectionately started calling her ‘Ghodi’,” she said. She was “A wild colt, with great inward strength”. In later years, when Nandini was in dire financial straits, it was Pupul who helped her, as she might have her own daughter.

Nandini loved winters in the UP. The way the slanting sunshine at dusk threw strange lights on the peepul and tamarind trees; the star-filled night skies; the whole family sitting at the fireplace. While her siblings preferred to laze in bed, Nandini accompanied her father on his morning walks. With great fondness, she remembered being awakened early by her father for a walk through the quiet countryside. Cork flowers lay like a carpet under their feet, the wild winter flowers were also ablaze, the perfume in the air infusing their bodies. Birds twittered. One moment they flashed before them in a frenzy of activity, chattering and calling, and the next moment they disappeared, deep into the green foliage. The morning sky was a startling blue, cloudless and fresh. Some people passed them, peasants, labourers, hurrying to their work. Some rode bicycles, and stopped and saluted when they saw Vinayak.

Sometimes they passed people precariously carrying the night soil on their heads, to empty it out. Hurrying, they kept their eyes downcast. They did not salute the sahib, but walked on, leaving a stench in the air. Where did they go? Nandini wondered. It troubled and upset her that whenever she encountered these workers she did not know what to do, how to react or greet them, what to say. She was sorry that they had to do this job. It was an era in which there were no drainage systems, and the thunderboxes used by the well-off were emptied by these sweepers. She felt very strongly about this, and often brought it up with her father, asking him to bring about some change.

Nandini and her sister Amru regularly enjoyed riding on ponies, the cold wind blowing on their faces. The two sisters would sit together and write in their diaries nearly every day—a practice Nandini restarted many years later in Bombay.

In the summer months, when the plains of northern India grew intensely hot, the memsahibs and top officials, their wives and staff, all moved to Nainital. Vinayak and Iravati rented a large colonial house and the family, staff, and pets settled there for the summer months. Amru and Nandini attended a local convent school, which was several kilometers away. They would walk there, with the peons carrying their bags.

In the winter season, wherever they lived, there were lots of festivities and dances, fancy dress balls, and plays to attend.
Many of Iravati’s relatives visited her when they lived in Kashmir, in a lovely house on the Bund, often staying for over two months. They were not interested in sightseeing or Dal Lake. They liked sitting on the veranda, arguing and gossiping while enjoying the delicious food that came out of their hosts’ kitchen.

Every year at Christmastime, Nandini’s father took 15 days leave and the whole family would travel to Surat. Her grandfather, black cap on his head, would receive them at the station. The holidays were spent meeting relatives who called on them, resting, playing, or chatting. Iravati would show off her high heels, her modern hairstyle, and brown fur overcoat. Her crotchety uncle once reprimanded her, “Please remove that coat when you ride in your carriage in the narrow streets of Surat,” he said, “All the dogs bark when they see this strange animal!” But Iravati was hardly one to be deterred. She was the perfect mem.

The family would go on picnics in the fields, where millet was harvested, roasted on open fires, then threshed and eaten with green chutney, cucumber, and sakherdana (rock sugar). While in Gujarat, the family would also travel to Dumas, where Vinayak had a family home called Nandanvan near the beach. It was a lovely, village-style house, the floors coated with cow dung, the yard filled with fruit trees of guava, chikoo, almond, and mango, and water drawn from a well. The Mehta children and their cousins would bathe and splash in the sea, and go for long walks on the deserted beaches. They shared rooms, sleeping on mattresses lined up on the floor, and enjoyed marvellous meals.

According to Nandini, during those holidays her father became a different man. He ceased to be an ICS administrator. He wore dhotis, sat in the garden, and laughed with everyone. She wrote that looking back she could not remember a single incident of tension, jealousy, or stress between any of the siblings or cousins during those holidays. “We all shared naturally, there was no other way to function.” Such were the golden years of Nandini’s childhood, a time filled with joy and love.

In one of her diaries, Nandini records, “When I look back as far as I can see, my eyes and heart searching in dim places, some events stand out. I am a girl of five, we lived in the United Provinces and my parents are leaving for Europe for six months. I recall my despair, standing on the pier, clutching my little sister’s hand, our grandparents standing beside us, imagining the large ship taking my family away.”

For six months, while Vinayak and Iravati were in Europe, the children went to live with their maternal grandparents in Surat. Nandini remembered the house and the time spent there well. They were a very close family, but she recalled the conflict between her and her grandmother Kiki who she called Ba. “I was very attached to Rewabai (my ayah) and Ba could not bear that. I remember being scolded, deprived of some pleasures, but I remained adamant about my affections for Bai,” she wrote. Kiki finally dismissed the lady because she did not want Nandini to have such deep affection for her. “I used to run away to Vanita Vishram (a woman’s home where my beloved Bai lived), which was nearby. I remember only feeling comforted when sitting on her lap and being told that my mother would come back soon,” Nandini said.

The days spent away from her parents were difficult for Nandini. Kiki would sometimes threaten to lock the strong-willed Nandini in a small, dark room. This usually happened if Kiki criticized Vinayak, and little Nandini argued fiercely to defend her father.

Nandini’s grandmother was a typical Nagar Brahmin of Surat; the puja room and kitchen were her domain. Nandini recalls her sitting and playing the dilruba and singing, “Oh mother, in my next birth, find me a widower, as second wives are always happier”. All this well within earshot of her husband. But Thakorebhai (Dadaji) had heard this dirge so often, he continued to sit on his swing, ignoring his wife’s laments.

Despite the disagreements, Nandini recalls with affection the phaeton rides in the evenings with her grandparents. She would be perched up near the driver, while Amru, who was Ba’s favourite grandchild, sat with Ba and Dadaji. They would stop at Rangeels and Mohammed’s shop, which were the highlights of the day, with their rows of bottles filled with sparkling sweets.

Thakorebhai was a successful government pleader and a great admirer of the British. Though he did not believe in kowtowing to them to rise in life, he greatly admired their qualities of administration and justice. He was all for the glory of the Empire. Nandini would laugh when she described how while having dinner in Surat, if “God Save the King” came on the radio, her grandfather would make everyone stand up and salute King George V thousands of miles away.

As was common in the late 1800s, her grandparents had been married when they were very young. In fact, Ba was just nine at the time. Ba loved describing to her grandchildren an incident that occurred when her husband and she first travelled together. They were on a train when Kiki asked him to buy her some chivda being sold at the station. Thakorebhai had initially refused. Then noticing her unhappy look, he had relented, and gone out and bought some. Kiki had apparently flung the chivda out of the window. Thakorebhai perhaps realised early on in the marriage the temperament of the woman he had married.

In her later years, Ba was the leader of her community. She was domineering and tough, and held the post of a local municipal corporator. Although she was just four-and-a-half feet tall, she was fiercely aggressive. If something displeased her greatly, she would have a hysterical fit and then say all that she wanted to, including things she would not dare vocalise in normal everyday situations.

Nandini grew into a rather reserved and somewhat introverted young lady. Her beauty blossomed with adolescence, but she was totally unaware of how others noticed her perfectly chiselled face. Iravati would, in later years, proudly narrate this incident: “We were posted in Allahabad, and the young Jawaharlal Nehru had come over to talk to Vinayak. At that moment Nandini peeped into their room. Jawahar stopped and asked “Mehtasahib yeh nihayat sunder ladki kaun hai?” (Who is this exceedingly beautiful girl?).

Nandini’s parents were unconventional in many ways. They never performed the traditional puja, nor did they claim to be religious in the narrow sense of the word. But they were spiritual. Vinayak was a man of deep learning. Iravati was a great social worker,generous to a fault, and a devoted wife and mother. She was greatly encouraged by Vinayak who helped her set up a home for destitute children and women in the holy city of Benaras. For her work she was given the Kaisar-i-Hind Gold Medal for Public Service in India in 1928.

In Nandini’s diary, she says,“When I saw my mother and father together I thought the world would be the same—that all men were gentle and kind like my father”.

However, the Mehtas’ unconventional, modern lifestyle did not mean that they were completely immune to the cultural forces at play around them. In 1936, when Nandini was 17, her father asked her if he should write to Sir Chunilal V. Mehta, owner of Century Mills in Bombay, to enquire whether he would consider an alliance between the two families. Nandini and her sisters were all single at the time, but Vinayak felt that she was the most suitable of the girls. She was uppermost in his mind when the letter was written. Pupul was studying abroad at the time. Nandini took his suggestion as a big joke and helped her father compose the letter.

Sir CV, as he was called, replied positively; he seemed very keen. He suggested that he and his wife meet the family first. At the time Vinayak was revenue minister in Kashmir. So Sir CV asked Vinayak to arrange a houseboat for him, where he came and stayed for over two months. He seemed thoroughly impressed with the family. Coming from the vaniya or trader community himself, he especially liked the idea that they were Brahmins and very “cultured”. While in Kashmir, Sir CV was at Vinayak’s house every day, enjoying meals and playing bridge or tennis with the family (though shy Nandini played none of these games). Sir CV must have observed the atmosphere the children were brought up in. There was dignity and harmony; and there was nothing that the girls were not allowed to do. There were no don’ts, no fears, no authoritarian rules, no rigid laws they had to follow. The parents and children were like dear friends, and they were free and happy.

Once he was back in Bombay, Sir CV wrote to Vinayak to say that he was keen on his son Bhagwan marrying the older sister Pupul, who he had not met, but knew was due back from her studies in England. But Pupul was already engaged to a barrister called Manmohan Jayakar, who she had met at university. Vinayak wrote back to Sir CV explaining this, and suggesting that Bhagwan marry Nandini.
Nandini as a young girl in the United Provinces (left), and as a teenager with her mother Iravati (top right); A portrait of Nandini’s father Vinayak as a young man (bottom).
Nandini and her sister Amru, in their late teens in this picture, were close in age. They did a lot together: going to school, horse riding, writing in their diaries (above). A portrait of Nandini aged about 20 (left).