International: Against Indignity

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The new president of the United Nations General Assembly walked serenely to the dais, fussed through her handbag for her glasses and a pencil, then spoke to the hall full of delegates in a soft, lilting voice. "I regard your choice," she said, "as a tribute to my country.''

For 27 bitter years, India's handsome Madame Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, with her brother, Jawaharlal Nehru, fought for her country's dignity against what she called "the indignities imposed in the name of a white civilization." Yet she was brought up amid the regalia of the society she grew to fight. At her Brahman father's palatial Allahabad home, there were English governesses and gardens, dogs and Dresden, pony carts, and even porridge in the morning. Vijaya Lakshmi, who was born in August 1900, could write English before she was five, but she could not speak her own Hindi until she was nine. Her father, a wealthy, pro-British lawyer, would allow Indian food to be served only once a week, and was pleased when his daughter got an English nickname, "Nan." Accustomed to the comfortable acceptance of imperial British rule, she showed little of her political ire in those youthful days. "A stylish affair," she wrote after seeing a 1915 Congress party rally. "One wore one's prettiest clothes and had a good time meeting people . . . and going to parties."

Wellesley & Jail. But when Mahatma Gandhi came, the entire family Nehru joined his nonviolent rebellion, organized strikes, whipped up civil disobedience against the British raj—and often went to jail. Vijaya Lakshmi served three terms, two years and eight months, on a food allowance of 19¢ per day. Her husband, Ranjit Pandit, a lawyer and Sanskrit scholar, spent about ten years in jail and died in 1944 from its ill effects.

Between jail terms Vijaya Lakshmi raised three daughters. The two eldest, one of whom had served a jail term for anti-British activities, went to Wellesley; all three are now married to Indian government officials. Vijaya Lakshmi also put in years of public service (the Allahabad Education Committee, the United Provinces State Legislative Assembly, the All-India Women's Conference). In 1937, she became India's first woman minister in the first British-supervised Congress provincial government. In 1944, she toured the U.S. to counter British propaganda against Indian independence, and did it so effectively that she was sent back for another U.S. tour in 1945. In 1946, she led India's delegation to the U.N.

Aloofness. "I am a person with terrible ambitions," she once confessed. "Nothing seems to satisfy me." When independence came and her brother was elected India's leader, Madame Pandit became ambassador to Moscow, and from there spoke many kind words about the sociological success of Joseph Stalin & Co. She went on to Washington as ambassador and there, as in Moscow, maintained what she called "a certain aloofness" toward the cold war. Her soft-colored saris and blue-tinted grey hair gradually grew as familiar at diplomatic conclaves as the male diplomat's dark suit and black Homburg. In 1952 she returned to India and ran for Parliament, was overwhelmingly elected.

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