Indira grew up as the only child with her mother at Anand Bhavan, a large family estate in Allahabad. She got a baby brother in November, 1924 who unfortunately died after two days of birth.
When Indira was about two years old, her parents joined the Indian Independence Movement with Mohandas K. Gandhi. The Nehru home was often a meeting place for those involved in the independence movement, creating an atypical environment for an only child.
Even though Indira was spoilt by her family, she described her childhood as ’insecure’.
Indira was four years old when her grandfather, Motilal and father, Jawaharlal were jailed for the first time. Snippet 2: “She sat in Motilal’s lap as the court went through the ritual of trial, and she was inconsolable when both were taken away to the prison and she had to return home without them…That after a while her mother was taken away almost as often as her father strongly accentuated her grief“ Snippet 3:She was barely four when, following the arrest and conviction of Motilal and Jawaharlal, the police paid their first visit to the house to confiscate some movable property. Watching this infuriated little Indira and with tiny fists clenched she charged at the police inspector and screamed, “You can’t take them away, they are ours!“ Snippet 4: When Indira was about 5 years of age, the Nehrus had burnt down all their British goods- clothes draperies etc. Later she was reminded by a family friend that the doll she held so closely to her chest was a British doll. For several days the child dealt with internal conflict as to what was the right thing to do- eventually she arranged a bonfire and burnt the doll that was so dear to her. Talking about the incident later, Indira said, “I do remember how I felt. I felt as if I was murdering someone.“
As Indira grew up, her play with dolls increasingly mirrored the political scenario of that time. Interestingly, the doll demonstrations always won, leaving British authorities retrieving in confusion. But the period of such games and fantasies was remarkably brief. She was eager to do something real.
By 1924, Gandhi developed the ’Charkha’ or spinning wheel. Indira soon acquired a wheel of her own and religiously spun coarse yarn on it.
Indira had also organized a Bal Charkha Sangh where tiny children learnt to spin and weave. In fact, Bal Charkha Sangh was the children’s section of Gandhi Charkha Sangh.
She was about twelve years old when she created the Vanara Sena (literally: Army of Monkeys) movement for young girls and boys. At the inaugural meeting of the Sena, over a thousand boys and girls showed up. The elders seemed to laugh at the Sena, but that did not discourage her. The group played a small but notable role in the Indian Independence Movement. They not only relieved the elders of the routine chores, but also acted as the messengers of important information.
In the early 1930s, Indira smuggled an important document that outlined the plans for a major revolutionary initiative, from her father's house in her schoolbag. Her father's house was under police surveillance at the time and she told them that she was late for school and would be punished if she got delayed any further.
Motilal sent her to school in 1924, enrolling her at St. Cecilia’s run by three British spinsters. Although St. Cecilia’s was a private school and not a government one, Jawaharlal saw an all British staff as reason enough for violation of the Congress’ boycott of all things foreign at that time. Indira was therefore withdrawn from the school and was taught by Indian tutors at home until matriculation in 1934.
By 1926, Kamala had become so severely ill that doctors encouraged the Nehru family to go to Switzerland to consult specialists in Geneva. Once they arrived, Jawaharlal enrolled Indira in the Ecole Internationale in Geneva. The eight year old Indira traversed Geneva by herself and it was there that she developed an independent spirit. She got a chance to expand her world view with visits to Paris, London and Berlin along with attending several different schools.
On most mornings, Jawaharlal walked with her to the school and would return in the late afternoon to escort her home. When the school closed for winter holidays, Indira joined her father on the ski slopes where both learnt to ski. Shy and withdrawn in the beginning, Indira overcame her hesitation quickly.
In 1927, the family returned to India. Indira then joined St. Mary’s Convent School in Allahabad.
She was also a student at Modern School in Delhi, the Ecole Nouvelle in Bex and the People’s Own School in Poona and Bombay.