Some memories of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, in honor of the museum and archivists


Exactly a year ago, in the third week of January of 2020, I was scanning the collections of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi. In the early 1980s, I first came into contact with the rich archival wealth of NMML, and from 1988 to 1994, when I was living in Delhi, I dug it up. In those years, I spent several days every week at NMML and sifted through collections of personal documents related to the big (and small) personalities of modern Indian history and was deeply immersed in old newspapers.

In 1994 I moved to Bangalore. After this, my daily visits to NMML stopped, and then I could have a few trips there every year. Usually in January, April, September, and November, to avoid the heat of summer and the stickiness of monsoon. In New Delhi, I used to stay for a week or ten days at someplace from where I could go to NMML on foot. As soon as it opens at nine o'clock in the morning, I reach the manuscripts room, occupy a desk adjacent to the window, and organize my files and work throughout the day. I would work there till five o'clock in the evening with two short breaks for tea apart from lunch break and then reach there in the morning the next day.

I have worked in dozens of museums around the world, but NMML has always been my favorite place to research. There are (or were) many reasons for this - the seating arrangement, the tree-covered complex behind the three idols where there is rich bird-life; A lot of primary material in every aspect related to our history; Capable and helping staff; Scheduled or unexpected meetings with scholars coming to work there. During the last twenty-five years, I have made at least four and sometimes even five visits to this pilgrimage of historical researchers every year. When I was there last January, I had no idea that 2020 was going to be different. An epidemic struck and then I was confined to South India for almost a whole year. Even if I had reached New Delhi by flight, NMML would have been closed.

Nevertheless, the museum I love was with me throughout the year. I was finalizing a book on foreigners who took part in the freedom struggle, based on the first research conducted at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. In the summer and autumn of 2020, I read the draft chapters of the biography of socialist leader George Fernandez written by Rahul Ramagundam and the biography written by Abhishek Chaudhary of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a BJP icon. I also had several rounds of long talks with Akshay Mukul, who is working on a new biography of Jayaprakash Narayan.

These three book projects have four things in common. First, when published, these will be the larger and possibly decisive biographies of all concerned. Secondly, these books are about important (and controversial) historical figures, which should give them a large readership. Thirdly, the people whose lives these three books focus on were all (at various times irreconcilably) anti-Congress party and its best leader Jawaharlal Nehru. Fourthly, the imagination, research, or writing of any of these books would not have been possible without access to the rare and rich material in the museum, which is named after the common political opponents of Fernandez, Vajpayee, and JP.

Although NMML is named after Nehru, it has never been biased in its orientation. That is why the biographers of JP, Fernandez, and Vajpayee had to do a lot of research here. Similarly, biographers of anti-Congress (and anti-Nehru) other important politicians like Shyamaprasad Mukherjee and C Rajagopalachari. Unlike other Indian institutions, NMML is fortunate to have people who make it. Its first two directors BR Nanda and Ravindra Kumar were brilliant scholars as well as brilliant administrators. Nanda and Kumar worked with a team of brilliant archivists, collecting manuscripts and newspapers from across the country and cataloging them, and making them available to researchers. Thousands of books and dissertations have been written based on NMML collections over several decades. If you want to do any serious work on any aspect of modern Indian history, it would have to come here. Then be it native or foreign, young, elderly or middle-aged, whether it is social historian, economic historian, cultural historian, historian of science, film historian or historian of media or sports, student of feminism or environmentalism or socialism or sectarianism, His research started from NMML and often ended there.

Not to be disrespectful to the other men and women who built the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, I would like to say that the person most closely connected with its feelings and its character was scholar Dr. Haridev Sharma. This historian, who hails from Punjab, joined it a few days after its founding in 1966 and worked here for almost three and a half decades. Most of the important collections of NMML were due to the skill, enterprise, and selfless service of Haridev Sharma.

I am fortunate to be able to take direct advantage of Dr. Sharma's work and his knowledge. Haridev Ji always wore the white kurta pajamas of Khadi. He used to come to the office with his scooter and strongly denied the government transport facility.