I am sure this remarkable 102-year-old woman would never approve of the heading I have given to this story. Not long ago, I took a British friend to meet her at her house in Kasauli, an old quaint Indian town in the lower Himalayas. Fori smiled when she was told by my friend that his mother was “old” and in her early eighties. “You know at that age I was quite frisky,” she said, and we all had a hearty laugh.
Born Magdolna Friedmann on December 5, 1908, in Budapest (Hungary), Fori is always at ease in the company of diverse people. As Indian ambassador’s wife in Washington, she was friends with the Kennedys, Johnsons, Kissingers and the powerful American Jewish lobby…In her 102 years, she has seen both the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Independence, the Partition, the Mahatma, the Nehru-Gandhis and everything that shaped modern India.
Fori’s fascinating life journey has been captured in a nice article written by Kallol Bhattacherjee in The Week magazine.
As luck would have it, Fori escaped the horrors of Nazi era as she moved to India to marry into the famous Nehru family in the 1930s. “Fori had already experienced the Holocaust as it had affected her family in Europe. Yad Vashem, the museum in Jerusalem to commemorate the slaughter of Jewish people by the Nazis, has the names of her family members. Her mother, Regina, escaped from the Nazis and lived with her in India in the late 1930s…
“Fori’s real name is not known even to some of her close friends. She was born Magdolna Friedmann on December 5, 1908, in Budapest. Her parents, Regina and Armin Friedmann, called her ‘Dundi’, meaning fat girl in Hungarian-Yiddish. The ill-treatment of the Jewish population in Europe prompted her father to change the family name to Forbath. Magdolna Forbath got the nickname Fori in school and it stuck.
“Fori’s parents had a family business of toys and furniture. In 1928, when she was 20, the notorious ‘numerus clausus’ of Hungary did not allow her to continue her education in Budapest. This meant the university would not admit any more Jewish students on that particular year once the quota for them was over. Her parents sent her to France and then to England for further education.
“In England, in 1930, Fori took note of B.K. Nehru, a fellow student. A romance began…In 1934, Fori boarded Lloyd Triestino SS Victoria for India…India, however, was full of culture shocks…
“In 1935, Fori married B.K. Nehru and became Shobha Nehru, though she continued to be called Fori… Soon Fori met a ‘great soul’ at Ananda Bhavan. Mohandas Gandhi was a great pillar of support to the Nehrus and a regular visitor to Anand Bhavan. ‘People melted on seeing the Mahatma,’ Fori says. Gandhi inspired her to learn more about India’s rich handicrafts sector. She looked for a larger opportunity to practise the Mahatma’s principles that did not come to her as a prominent ICS officer’s wife. Fori’s collection of Gandhi memorabilia is spectacular.
“After (India’s) Independence, Fori shouldered many tough responsibilities. On the day Gandhi was assassinated, (India’s first prime minister) Jawaharlal Nehru asked her to escort foreign dignitaries to the place where the Mahatma’s body lay. She was a member of the Emergency Committee to handle Partition victims. Her task included making arrangements for Muslims leaving northern India in trains to Pakistan. One day came the news that all passengers on a train she had sent a day earlier had been slaughtered. Shaken, she did not send another train for the next seven days…
“The Partition (in 1947) brought many women from western Punjab to Delhi. Most of them were gifted with embroidery and knitting skills. Jawaharlal Nehru thought their energies should be channelled into creating the new India. Fori and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay started working on it. They set up a refugee women’s welfare organisation in an evacuee property in Delhi. Soon the All India Handicrafts Board was born…
“…During the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, (prime minister) Indira Gandhi travelled to the US. Johnson was bowled over by her. At a dinner hosted by (ambassador) B.K. Nehru and Fori in honour of Indira, Johnson dropped in unannounced. Dinner time approached but the president refused to leave, leading to a protocol crisis as the dinner was not meant for him. Finally, Fori, in her unique way, asked, ‘Mr President, why don’t you join us for dinner?’ Johnson readily agreed. Fori promptly dropped…”
(Photo above shows Fori with her husband, Braj Kumar Nehru, at their wedding in 1935)
PS: I must make a mention of Fori’s great hospitality. Once I went to Kasauli when her husband was alive. The couple treated me to an excellent feast that included Hungarian Goulash and a mouth-watering souffle served as a dessert…
Swaraaj Chauhan describes his two-decade-long stint as a full-time journalist as eventful, purposeful, and full of joy and excitement. In 1993 he could foresee a different work culture appearing on the horizon, and decided to devote full time to teaching journalism (also, partly, with a desire to give back to the community from where he had enriched himself so much.)
Alongside, he worked for about a year in 1993 for the US State Department’s SPAN magazine, a nearly five-decade-old art and culture monthly magazine promoting US-India relations. It gave him an excellent opportunity to learn about things American, plus the pleasure of playing tennis in the lavish American embassy compound in the heart of New Delhi.
In !995 he joined WWF-India as a full-time media and environment education consultant and worked there for five years travelling a great deal, including to Husum in Germany as a part of the international team to formulate WWF’s Eco-tourism policy.
He taught journalism to honors students in a college affiliated to the University of Delhi, as also at the prestigious Indian Institute of Mass Communication where he lectured on “Development Journalism” to mid-career journalists/Information officers from the SAARC, African, East European and Latin American countries, for eight years.
In 2004 the BBC World Service Trust (BBC WST) selected him as a Trainer/Mentor for India under a European Union project. In 2008/09 He completed another European Union-funded project for the BBC WST related to Disaster Management and media coverage in two eastern States in India — West Bengal and Orissa.
Last year, he spent a couple of months in Australia and enjoyed trekking, and also taught for a while at the University of South Australia.
Recently, he was appointed as a Member of the Board of Studies at Chitkara University in Chandigarh, a beautiful city in North India designed by the famous Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier. He also teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students there.
He loves trekking, especially in the hills, and never misses an opportunity to play a game of tennis. The Western and Indian classical music are always within his reach for instant relaxation.
And last, but not least, is his firm belief in the power of the positive thought to heal oneself and others.