The Prime Minister’s flower.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Both Jawaharlal Nehru and Babur shared a passion for the rose. The first Mughal emperor not only composed a poem on gul, Persian for rose, but also made sure the word was part of his daughters’ names. The first prime minister was democratic enough to spare his family—he just tucked the flower into the third button of his sherwani.
Nehru started wearing a red rose in the 1940s. A representation of one such flower can be seen (see the top photo) in a glass display case at Delhi’s Teen Murti Bhavan, Nehru’s last home, which was converted to a museum dedicated to his life and work after his death in 1964.
“The iconography of the red rose was not unambiguous,” historian Benjamin Zachariah tells us in his book Nehru. “Nehru’s own propensity for aestheticism might have been presented there, in the form of the daily rose he selected from his gardens at his home, Teen Murti Bhavan, to wear in his buttonhole. The red rose may have been a symbol of love, intended to stand either for Nehru’s love for India, or the sometimes perplexing love many Indians had for the man who came to be called ‘Panditji’—an honorific connected with religion and caste that he himself hated. Or it might merely be the fate of a political leader to be reduced to an icon: Winston Churchill to his cigar…. ”
On his last visit to the US in 1961, Nehru was invited for lunch by president John F. Kennedy to his wife Jacqueline’s childhood home, Hammersmith Farm, Newport. The glamorous first lady got her daughter Caroline to pick a rose from their garden to present to the Indian guest.
The gardens of Teen Murti Bhavan, Delhi, have roses to this day.
In Nehru, In His Own Words: His Replies To Various Questions, a series of conversations with Nehru, the interviewer, Ramnarayan Chaudhary, asked the prime minister about the sartorial accessory:
“Chaudhary: One (question) I have often intended to ask you—why do you always wear a red rose?
Nehru: There is nothing special about it.
Chaudhary: Nothing special?
Nehru: No. I began wearing it casually 10 to 15 years back. And I like a deep red, not faint.”
Two years after Nehru’s death, his daughter defeated the powerful Morarjii Desai in the battle to lead the ruling Congress parliamentary party. As the new prime minister designate emerged from Parliament, the cheering crowd roared, “Lal gulab (red rose) zindabad.” The same year, film-maker, novelist and journalist Khwaja Ahmad Abbas came out with Indira Gandhi’s biography, subtitled Return Of the Red Rose.