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9 November 2011

Miguel Serrano: In Nehru's India (Pt. 1)

Cecilia Valdés Urrutia
(Translated by Alex Kurtagic)

Editor's Note: The following is an interview with Miguel Serrano, originally published in El Mercurio, in Santiago, Chile on 18 October 1998. The interview appeared as one piece, but we have broken it into two parts. What follows is part one. Part two will follow in a day or so.

Like few and no other Chilean, Miguel Serrano walked around and worked in India (1953-1962) almost like a member of Prime Minister Nehru’s family. He interned himself in their lives, their beliefs, and India’s millenarian culture. His relationship with Indira Gandhi transcended national borders. For the first time he tells, here and in the third volume of his memoirs, something about the truth of his intimate closeness to her. Likewise he reveals aspects of his friendship with notable figures, like Professor Carl Gustav Jung, who hosted him, towards the end of his days, when he almost no longer spoke to anyone, and who prefaced one of his books, an event never before seen. Serrano also talks about his close contact with Hermann Hesse and many others, like Arnold Toynbee and the Dalai Lama.

Contrary to what many may believe, with great delicacy and sensibility, and his deep sky-blue eyes, the renowned writer Miguel Serrano left all controversial topics (like his esoteric conception of Hitlerism) out of the present encounter. He focused, instead, on one of the great values he believes in: friendship. That which he held with some of the personages that are already part of the pages of history.

With Nehru

Your relationship with Nehru, India’s Prime Minister, was it very special?

Yes. He was a very reserved, introverted person, who did not easily open himself to anyone. He was not like that with me. It was perhaps due to my spontaneity and lack of diplomatic experience. How did that happen? I never treated political matters with him. They noticed—Indians are like that—that I was genuinely interested in the person, in their world: in the ideas, in the tradition, in the history, in the religion, in the philosophy of India. Thus they opened up and gave me all their support.

How did your [first] encounter with Jawaharlal Nehru take place?

I met him when I presented my credentials. In him the defects and qualities of Indian man manifested themselves intensely. They are very difficult and mistrustful people at first, perhaps because of what they have suffered, imperialism and conquests. Nehru was a man whom diplomats were not allowed to see, save exceptionally. Often he did not open his mouth, regarding what they spoke about as piffle. Nehru, in addition, never looked at you in the eye. Indians consider it imprudent, a lack of respect, to look someone in the eye, and in this they resemble the pre-Columbian Indians of our America: they don’t look, they see the essential. Nehru was like that at first. Upon presenting my credentials, when I spoke about saltpetre and copper he showed no interest at all. But at one point I said something that a diplomat would have never allowed himself: ‘Your Excellency, in your visage there is the sadness of the world, perhaps like a trace of the suffering of humanity’. Nehru was touched. He closed his eyes. The chief of protocol grew uneasy, but not Nehru. From that moment on he distinguished me from the rest and I was not yet an ambassador, only someone in charge of business.

You say that Nehru ‘was a poet of life’.

He was truly a poet. It is enough to read excerpts from his will to realise. The way in which he refers to the rivers in India: it is an enormous poesy to the Ganges river. The regions he loved so much, the cities, the nature, the farmers, India’s great tradition. It is the testament of a great poet. In his desk drawer they found, in addition, a beautiful poem by Robert Frost, which he often read.

And Nehru, like you, greatly admired Carl Jung . . .

He admired him and read him. And it was Nehru that I first told of the death of Professor Jung. When I learnt about it, I immediately spoke to his secretary, and he told me that Nehru was not in that day because he was leaving for the valley of the gods… I got in my car and arrived at the airport at the moment when Nehru was boarding the aeroplane. They let me through, I told him, and he said to me, greatly affected: What can I do? He asked me to go on his behalf to the Ministry of External Affairs and to speak to the Foreign Secretary so that he may send on his behalf a telegram to Jung’s family. I did so. And when I later travelled to Zurich, Jung’s closest collaborator, an Englishwoman, and his secretary, told me that they had been very touched by Nehru’s telegram.

When did Indira, Nehru’s daughter, appear in your life?

At one point I desired to obtain India’s support for Chile, for the presidency of the United Nations. I resorted to him. My wife and children were returning to Chile, so I went with them and left them waiting outside. I told Nehru. He had them come in. My daughter had brought for him a great bouquet of flowers. It cheered him up greatly and he did not tire of patting my son. That same afternoon, during a homage ceremony to Burma’s Prime Minister, Nehru, with an enormous smile, presented me as Ambassador (I was not yet so) and later told me that he gave the bouquet of flowers to his daughter, Indira. There began a new relationship with Nehru.

But, How did you grow close to Indira?

I had noticed that Nehru’s heart was his daughter, and his grandchildren. And the matter developed all on its own. When Claudio Arrau’s representative sent me a telegram from New York asking me to have Arrau invited to India, he was still in the process of making himself known in the world. India’s Minister of Culture was a princess from Kapurthala, but again I bypassed protocol and went directly to ask for an audience with Gandhi’s daughter, who held no position in politics. It was she who ran Nehru’s house. But I already knew that Indira loved Western classical music, very different from that of India. She received me, very flattered. And she solved all my problems. I managed to get Arrau to hold a free concert for the victims. There our relationship began, little by little. Later I invited his children during the new year, Rajiv (who was later Prime Minister) to play with my children. Later Indira held a costume party and I sent my elder son, Cristián, dressed as a nurse and with bearing a small chamber pot. Thus it all wove itself and arrived at a greater relationship . . .

The Truth with Indira

You, who came to know Indira Gandhi so well, what would you say is the centre of fascination with her personality?

You can ask Gabriel Valdés in Chile: they brought in Indira in an official visit and said: one feels the urge to kiss her hands. Nevertheless, Indira could also be like her father: to enter silence, without a way to get her out of it. If she wanted to be unpleasant, she was the most unpleasant. She had a very special beauty, with a fine body, slender, fragile, with a wonderful skin, a very unique smile and a deep gaze. She was of a very ancient beauty, with a very great feminine charm, which occurs in women from India, as in the mystical Anandamayi, who I believe spoke about God with such coquetry that no one could stop believing in Him. Indira had, in addition, a great sense of humour. I have told of when I presented to her Roberto Rossellini, who at that time was in poor relations with Ingrid Bergman and caused a Sikh’s wife to fall in love with him—from a warrior tribe in India, who were, at bottom, the ones who killed Indira, because they were the body of protection she had. Rossellini sought to get this woman out of India, on the pretext of a film, and Indira asked me what I thought what was happening with her. I asked Rossellini and I told her what he said: nothing. But upon leaving India that woman was expecting a child. When I next encountered Indira, ashamed, she told me, laughing: don’t worry, I know Italians well . . .

You say about Indira that you have ‘always admired her courage in facing life and her feelings, without regard for convention, or what rumours may come’.

For the first time I tell something about my true relationship with Indira. Because in Chile this matter ran and ran and when she was officially invited they did not want to bring me along out of that prudery thing… The radicals and even Allende himself would have brought me along for that same reason. But Chile had already been swept by a rumour of which the culprit was Carlos Basallo, former Under-Secretary of Foreign Relations, who was witness when Indira invited me to a dinner for the Emperor of Ethiopia, and I called her afterwards so that she may invite him. That, Basallo was not able to believe. He arrived in Chile saying that Chile’s Ambassador in India had a very particular relationship with Nehru’s daughter. The rumour also reached other parts of the world, even Russia. But there is more, and that is why I say that Indira took no care at all, because civil servants in India and even his son Rajiv realised that between Indira and I there was something very great. It is true there was one. But from there to . . . It is all delicately stated in my memoirs.

You confess ‘it was I who took care of her, but she imposed her affection for me on her country and the world’.

That’s correct. Like when he immediately received Margarita Ducci, because she had sent her a letter. And she granted her an audience, in the midst travelling, in order to ask her about my life and to tell her why I had not written to her in so long… Between us that so subtle and at the same time so eternal thing took place. Because relationships with the Indians are established in the realm of the impersonal, beyond the personal. It so happens that because they believe in reincarnation, they think that this relationship is not only of today, but also from before and for tomorrow, for always. Thus they will not give up something like that, out of fear of what people may say . . . But she was a woman for an eternal love, ‘not for a carnal passion, not for a love that becomes corrupt and passes. Love, not Liebe. And that love I could not give her, I had already given it…’ [as he relates in his book].

Serrano’s relationship with Nehru’s family was such that following his mission in India, upon attending the tragic funerals of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, they sought to place him next to the Nehru family. The chief of Eternal Affairs in India said: ‘You cannot imagine what Ambassador Serrano was for us during the 1950s. He was like a member of this family’.

   This was in 1953.

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