SIX THOUSAND feet above sea level is heaven in a tropical climate, a respite from the searing heat and the peaceful setting for some of my fondest memories of India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Today marks the day of his birth, and there is no more fitting time to nurture the memory of a man whose influence acted among nations much like the pure mountain air he loved so dearly. It was my privilege to cross paths with him soon after India gained her independence in 1947. I had moved to the Blue Mountains, called Nilgiris, with my family when he arrived for a visit with his daughter, Indira.
That range held a powerful attraction for those of us sensitive to nature. It was a magnet for me from the days of my childhood. When framed with gold from frequent bamboo forest fires, the mountains would fairly glow in the night darkness.
Nehru drew energy from these South Indian heights amid the lush plant life. There, occasional explosions of wildflowers thrilled the hearts of those who courted the beauty of the hills.
The simple pleasure that had come to mean most to this powerful figure was time amid nature with his daughter and grandchildren. Our knowledge of this endeared him to us and bound this Western-educated lawyer to his people in our shared reverence for centuries of ancestral ties.
Nehru was much more than a politician to the people of India. He was the brilliant son of a prosperous lawyer who turned his back on an assured future, who spurned the promise of luxury and prestige to struggle in the trenches with Mahatma Gandhi for Indian freedom from British imperialism.
During the days of his visit to the Nilgiris, my mother and I were honored with accounts of Nehru's warmth for his family. We could hardly believe our ears when Anna Ornsholdt, Nehru's family governess, told us this serious world leader would often play the clown with grandsons.
But no tale was more charming and reflective of these family bonds than the story of Mahatma Gandhi's efforts to win the Nehrus to his cause.
We could easily identify with the anguish of the elder Nehru, Motilal, as he approached the Mahatma in alarm over the grave sacrifices that his son was preparing to make. Our delight knew no limits at Gandhi's daring liberty with the powerful lawyer who asked that his son be spared the suffering in prison and be encouraged to pursue his career. ``I want not only your son, but I want you too,'' the Mahatma replied.
He got them. Not just the son and the father, but also the mother and the daughters and the sons-in-law. They braved years in prison with a dedication that personified the strength that ended the injustice of colonial rule.
The loyalty to the land and the people of India was the backbone of Nehru's leadership. His historic address on the eve of freedom was more than a passionate speech. We knew that his words had been forged through heavy trials and privation on our behalf.
``At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awaken to life and freedom,'' he said on that night. ``A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed finds utterance.''
Yet he did not rest on the laurels of victory. It was a mark of his genius that even at that moment he issued a call to duty and reminded us what Gandhi had taught - that freedom did not come without responsibility.
Nehru was the embodiment of that responsibility, a force for peace on the world scene and a man who searched always for ways to bring countries together no matter the difficulty and disappointments.
``I think if we banish fear, if we have confidence, ... we may take risks of trust rather than risk violent language, violent actions and in the end war,'' he told the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.
He was no Pollyanna, certainly not gullible enough ``to think that all problems will fade away simply if we feel good,'' as he put it. He was a realist who witnessed the strength and dignity engendered by bringing together the newly independent nations in conferences in Delhi and Bandung in Indonesia.
His efforts to create a non-aligned Asia were often misunderstood in the emotional pitch of the Cold War, and he suffered heavily from China's invasion of India, a betrayal by the very country he had worked so hard to embrace. But he understood with his heart that the only way to gain the respect of other nations was to have respect for them, to trust them to all possible lengths even when they disappointed and attacked him.
He knew only a man of loyalty could inspire loyalty, and he had the kind of endurance to bear with the lapses of countries just as he would have borne failings of his nearest relative, not with naiv'et'e but with faith.
This was the lesson Gandhi taught Nehru in its fullness, and the example lives still. The worst failure of trust is the inability to do so. Nehru understood that faith breeds success even in disappointment. The record of his trust lives still, a beacon to the power of goodness for those with the courage to follow its light.