In 1931, Motilal Nehru passed away. After the death of his father, Jawaharlal was free
to give Indira the type of education he wanted. Indira was moved to Poona, to become a
day boarder at the People’s Own School. For her, it was quite a change from the
comforts of Anand Bhawan.
Indira, then nearly fourteen, was the oldest among the boarders and was therefore made
responsible for some young students. Despite the love she received from the owners of
the school, she was unable to cope with such responsibilities and found respite in
lonely tears shed in the privacy of her bed at night.
While attending the school in Poona, Indira had an opportunity to get closer to Mahatma
Gandhi. She used to visit him at Yervada Prison on weekends. She witnessed his ’fast
unto death’ in jail for the protection of Harijans. This had a great impact on her
as she learned the power of passive resistance. Indira observed the power possessed by
someone who was essentially legally and physically powerless. She reformulated this
method by “refusing to speak rather than to eat“.
From 1934 to 1935, Indira studied in Shantiniketan. She rose long before daybreak,
joined students in the open for a general assembly, sang hymns etc. Classes were taken
in natural surroundings. Shantiniketan also encouraged meditating twice daily.
This idyllic setting or peace and tranquillity was something Indira yearned for. She had
always been amidst crowds, noise, conflict and violence. More than the peaceful
atmosphere she encountered there, for the first time in her life, Indira had the
companionship of people her age.
At Shantiniketan, she was taught Tagore’s verses through which she developed a
fascination for him. “In a way, Tagore was the first person whom I consciously
regarded as a great man“, she remembered. A bond of affection grew between them.
She took to Manipuri dance and attained sufficient proficiency in it to be praised even
With Kamala Nehru’s deteriorating health, Indira had to leave Shantiniketan in
1935. Tagore wrote to her father, “It is with a heavy heart we bade farewell to
Indira, for she was such an asset in our place. I have watched her very closely and felt
admiration for the way you have brought her up…“
After her mother’s death in 1936, Indira joined Somerville College, Oxford. At
Oxford, she did well in history, political science and economics, but her grades in
Latin (a compulsory subject) remained poor.
She was the most famous student but a reluctant leader. She was heavily involved in many
political activities. She gathered volunteers for certain events, boycotted Japanese
goods at Oxford when Japan attacked China, organized a benefit performance to raise
money for medical aid in China and even auctioned one of her bracelets to raise money
for the Republican cause in the Spanish civil War.
During her first year at Oxford, the principal wrote to Nehru telling him that doctors
felt she should spend the winter away from Oxford. Her physical strength did not match
her spirits and even slight exposure to the cold could make her ill.
In 1939, Indira caught a chill that developed into pleurisy. She had to make repeated
trips to Switzerland to recover, disrupting her studies. She was being treated there in
1940, when the Nazi armies rapidly conquered Europe.
Indira tried to return to England through Portugal but was left stranded for nearly two
months. She managed to enter England in early 1941 and from there returned to India
without completing her studies at Oxford.
Around this time in Indira’s life, there began a series of letters between her
father and her, many of which were a lesson in personal courage. Nehru, on his daughter’s
thirteenth birthday wrote to her, “Never do anything in secret or anything that
you would wish to hide. For the desire to hide anything means that you are afraid, and
fear is a bad thing and unworthy of you.“
Indira came in contact with important personalities from an early age. But in the
presence of celebrities, she seldom allowed herself to be overwhelmed. In fact, she
subjected them to a critical, independent appraisal, often disagreeing with what they