KASAULI — This year's assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh will miss the vote of the Nehru-Gandhi family's first 'videshi bahu.'
She remained apolitical in her 105-plus life. Be it parliamentary or assembly elections, she was not only among the early ones to vote but also exhorted others to exercise their right to franchise.
She was Shobha Magdolna Friedmann Nehru or Shobha Nehru, who spent most of her lifetime in Fair View, the single-story British-era villa built in typical hill architecture style with smoke-emitting chimneys, in this picturesque and tranquil resort hill town. Old-timers recall she was, in fact, more Indian than most as she would not just be the first one to vote but also coax others to appropriately use their right to franchise.
The oldest resident of Kasauli and the oldest living member of one of the famous political families in India, popularly known as Aunty Fori, passed away at the age of 108 this April.
"In every election, Mrs. Nehru was among the first to reach the polling booth well ahead of the start of the polling," Devinder Kumar Gupta, an old Kasauli resident who runs a provision store right in front of the 150-year-old Christ Church, told IANS.
He said she always preferred to cast her vote in each election, including for the local civic body.
"As a mark of respect to her stature and age, the locals too preferred she would be the first to cast her vote," said Gupta, who was closely associated with her.
"But she always preferred to stay away from political affairs despite her close affiliations with the Gandhi family," he said, adding, "she normally introduced me by saying: He's is my BJP friend."
"Have you voted?" Aunty Fori would enquire of every voter at the polling booth.
Christened Shobha Nehru after the marriage, the Hungarian Jew who narrowly escaped the Holocaust was married to the late Indian diplomat Braj Kumar Nehru in 1935, who was closely related to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and nearly succeeded Dag Hammarskjold as the United Nations' Secretary General.
Locals recall how the Nehru's Fair View bungalow remained the center of political and social activity for decades.
The couple purchased the cottage in the late 1980s.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi regularly headed to this hill station to meet his elderly aunt, who always preferred to dress in saris, and he did so to attend her last rites too. He was one of the pallbearers. On her part, Auntie Fori grieved beside the bodies of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
Now an eerie silence largely prevails in the cottage.
Of course, there's a septuagenarian caretaker – younger than the cottage – and his questioning glances tell you that the visitors are rare now, even before he utters anything.
"After the death of 'memsaab,' visitors have stopped visiting here," caretaker Dhani Ram told this visiting IANS correspondent.
He said earlier visitors, friends and well-wishers would regularly come here to enquire about Aunty Fori's well-being.
Ram said the 'memsaab' always remained excited about casting her vote.
"In every election, Gupta-ji used to accompany her to the polling booth."
"After casting the vote, she used to mobilize others, especially women, to go and cast their votes. She used to say: 'We are the lucky ones to get this opportunity. Don't waste your time and opportunity. Go and get your man elected'," an emotional Ram recalled.
The last time she cast her vote was in the 2014 general elections. Before that she also voted in the 2012 state assembly elections.
After the death of her husband, Aunty Fory, who turned 108 Dec. 5, 2016, rarely traveled out of this town owing to her deep emotions with this place and her love for the local environment and greenery.
"Even if she had to travel out of Kasauli, she preferred to return in a day or two. Till her death, she was quite active with her social work," Ram, the second generation working in this cottage, said.
After the death of her husband, Aunty Fori, whose life has been portrayed by historian Martin Gilbert in his book “Letters to Auntie Fori: The 5,000-Year History of the Jewish People and Their Faith,” she was involved more in social work.
Another old-timer, Jeewan Thakur, recalled how she was curious to know about geopolitical developments despite a vision loss in the last one-and-a-half-years of her life.
Whenever I got the opportunity to interact with her, she used to talk at length about the ongoing global developments, be it terror attacks by extremists or socio-economic or climate change issues. She was also much concerned about the deteriorating local environment," he said.
One of India's most distinguished civil servants of post-independent India and later governor of Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat, her husband died in 2001. He was 92.
A former chairman of The Tribune Trust, Nehru, in his autobiography, “Nice Guys Finish Second” wrote: "We got married on the 25th of January 1935. It is a remarkable tribute to my wife that she absorbed with incredible grace and unbelievable success that cultural shock that she was bound to suffer."
"How could their beautiful and lovely daughter marry a black man in a distant country of which they know nothing, and who, by his own confession, belonged to a family of jailbirds," he wrote.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)