Journalist Sat Paul Sahni’s first book of photographs was published this year. An almirah full of slides still remains, as do despatches from four wars
It was still not light that April morning in 1990 when Prem Sahni left to board the bus to Srinagar, her hair covered with a scarf, tucked behind her ears the way Muslim women wear it. She hadn’t told anybody of her journey, especially not her children, but she had to go. The days were already warm in Jammu and the Sahnis had only packed woolens when they made their annual move from Srinagar in 1989. It was the first summer of the insurgency in the Valley, but still, she thought, you need clothes to wear. Besides, there was something else. Late in the evening, when she crept into her two-storied bungalow, their old Muslim help Ahmad Khan was waiting tensely with the curtains pulled tightly across and lights switched carefully off. There was work to do and she had only a few hours at most. But there in the gloaming, her home bleak in the light of candles, Prem Sahni started crying. The telephone rang, a number of times, but she let it ring into the night. When she gathered herself, she went to the attic first. Her husband Sat Paul kept his slides there, she knew, but not much more. She packed all the slides and negatives she could find, 22 cartons of them, and his cameras. She packed some clothes, too, though for herself she took just some saris. Blouses and petticoats, she thought, could be made in Jammu too. Early on the third day, she left in an Army truck, sitting next to the driver, their dog Priya on her lap.
“I shouted when I found out,” says Navneet, her son. “My friend had been shot down before my eyes, barely a month ago.”
Thank God for her courage. Because have you ever really seen our first prime minister like this?
Some of the photographs that Sahni retrieved of her husband Sati (as he was called popularly) have now been published in the form of a book, Nehru’s Kashmir, while a Godrej almirah worth of slides remains unopened. “My father selected and captioned every image for this book. He worked for months on it. It was the last thing he did,” says Navneet.
Sat Paul Sahni died on 18 October 2010, having seen the layouts of the pages and approved the quality of paper to be used in the book.
In his 18 years of tailing Nehru in Kashmir, he took countless images with his much-loved Roliflex and clearly had charmed access. In his introduction to the book, Sahni writes, ‘I became a familiar face in the Nehru household and was accepted as such by his entourage, personal physician and security officer. In those days, there was no need for the strict and all-pervading security that exists today. Those were the days of charismatic and popular leaders… Another factor in my favour was my good relationship with Nehru’s security officer, Gopi Krishan Handoo.’ He had promised Nehru he wouldn’t publish the photographs during his (Nehru’s) lifetime. He kept his word, and as it happened, extended it to his own lifetime as well.
Many other things remain too. Like Sahni’s despatches of four wars: the Pakistani invasion of 1947-48, the war with China in 1962, the Indo-Pak war in 1965 and the Bangladesh liberation in 1971. In fact, the book Sahni had originally approached the publisher with was ‘Tales of a War Correspondent’. Publisher Shobit Arya responded with interest, but later decided to hold it back when he saw these photographs. Sahni was that rare journalist, as much at ease with the typewriter as with the camera. His first job was with Indian News Chronicle which hired him as a Kashmir correspondent. But even before this, he had filed despatches for World War II under the name Aspy (his first two initials spelt out) for the BBC, Reuters and Time magazine. But of these, the family have no record, all that remains is the story recounted many years later in Delhi. “There were two drawers I didn’t open, he told me much later. Those had more slides,” says Prem, her alert eyes suddenly distant.
Sati Sahni himself could never return to his home in Srinagar. A Punjabi by birth, he was Kashmiri by affinity. He spent nearly his entire career working in Kashmir and was, implausibly enough, close to both Dr Karan Singh and Dr Farooq Abdullah. He authored four books on Kashmir before this book of images.
BG Verghese, well-known journalist and information advisor to Indira Gandhi, knew him from 1951. “I had just joined The Times of India, and he was our Kashmir correspondent. He was known as quite the resource there and I worked with him several times. He could speak through both words and photographs, though I do feel his photos will outlast his writing.”
What makes Sahni’s images so precious is this: the Nehru we’ve seen overwhelmingly so far is that man in the crisp achkan, sharp sherwani (or the Nehru jacket) and most often, the Gandhi topi: the man who takes decisions. We’ve read of his fondness for his daughter, but even with her and the family, he is still Nehru the statesman, guiding India’s ‘tryst with destiny’. An exception is that unforgettable image by Henri Cartier-Bresson, where he is bending over with laughter with Edwina Mountbatten at the Rashtrapati Bhavan while Lord Louis Mountbatten looks ahead, a little alone. There, for once, you see just a man cracking up, his eyes alight. Yet perhaps, here too he is the one in charge. It clearly is a joke Nehru had cracked, isn’t it? (Incidentally, Cartier-Bresson gifted Sahni his first roll of colour film.)
In recent years, though, surprises have surfaced. When Aditya Arya published the boxes of the invaluable images Kulwant Roy had left him as the book History in the Making:The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy , we got a glimpse of Nehru’s legs in a pair of comically baggy shorts. The caption reads, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru with Congress volunteers in New Delhi, 1938.’
The archives at the Alkazi Collection of Photography and Nehru Memorial Museum and Library throw up a couple of delightful surprises. A photo by Homai Vyarawalla has Nehru wearing a cat’s mask at his grandson Sanjay’s birthday party, flanked by Krishna Menon and Jai Dorde. A photo by photographer KL Nursey in a Congress party album has a very young Nehru seated next to his bespectacled wife Kamla—a silent, awkward couple. Or perhaps it was just that kind of day.
And then there are Sahni’s images. Each comes with a fat caption, the sum of which was provided by Sahni himself. In the photo on the first page, Nehru is skiing on Nagin Lake in Srinagar, 1951. On this occasion, Sahni was both photographer and motor boat driver, and just as Nehru was captured, the boat tilted and Nehru fell into the lake. He had been swimming all day and was too exhausted to climb into the boat, so Sahni had to bring the boat around to pull him in. From the houseboat visible behind, Lal Bahadur Shastri and ‘Prime Minister’ of Kashmir Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad watched in horror.
In the first photograph on this page, we see a bare-chested Nehru paddling on Nagin Lake in Srinagar. This too was taken in 1951, and Nehru at 62, writes Sahni, ‘was as fit as any youngster could be. The secret of this youthful spirit was believed to be a result of exercise and yoga.’ The second image of Nehru by the stream has a somewhat unrecognisably attired Nehru playing with stones at the Sindhu Nala in Sonmarg after a morning walk. Another poignant portrait of solitude has him resting after an early morning swim in the lake. The gift of photography is the glimpse of intimacy, the moment of startling proximity. It is sharing the reverie of the lone man on the ledge, listening to the silence of the quiet man by the river.
Shorn of his sharp sherwani and crisp achkan, as he is in a number of Sahni’s photographs, Nehru seems somehow relieved of the burden of world statesmanship. At times, he is charismatic and imperial, and rather good looking too. And at others, he is just a tall, thin, frail man, a bit tired perhaps. You’ve seen that man here and there, travelling on the Metro, climbing a stairway. And you know he makes mistakes too.