NEW DELHI, Aug 3: They've been asked this question so many times that it is difficult to imagine how they still manage to be gracious about it.
Sometimes, it's even tempting to believe that Countess Patricia Mountbatten and Lord Brabourne have mastered the art of fielding that one question that keeps following them like a persistent shadow.
Was there anything sexual about Jawaharlal Nehru's intense relationship with Edwina Mountbatten?
``They had a deep love for each other, but it was at the spiritual level, at the intellectual level,'' Countess Mountbatten says without the least hint of irritation in her even voice. But Lord Brabourne, producer of the film classics Murder on the Orient Express and Passage to India, who as Chairman of the Broadlands Trust is custodian of the many passionate letters Nehru exchanged with Edwina (the letters Nehru would read again and again, and ``lose myself in dreamland''), doesn't mince words.
``Philip Ziegler and Janet Morgan (biographers of Louis Mountbatten and Edwina respectively) are the only two people who have seen the letters apart from the two families, and neither of them thinks there was anything physical,'' says Lord Brabourne, who, as ADC to his future father-in-law, had his first glimpses of Nehru when he had come visiting Indian troops in Singapore in 1946. (The couple were in New Delhi, the city they had first visited together during Christmas 1947, for the premiere of the BBC World series, The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story.)
Continuing in his disarming way, Lord Brabourne repeats that there was ``nothing sinister'' in the decision taken by the two families to keep the letters, whose copies they had swapped and read, out of public gaze. ``Mrs Gandhi had wanted it to be that way because many of the people whom her father wrote about in those letters were still alive. She did not want to embarrass them,'' says the man who had once enjoyed Nehru's prolonged hospitality at Teen Murti House when he was down with the flu while shooting Harry Black and the Tiger in 1958 (``He would come to my room every evening and talk for what seemed like ages'').
Even as one is drawn to infer that Nehru, his guard down, might have made comments on his contemporaries that should send historians into a tizzy, Lord Brabourne adds emphatically: ``These letters are not other people's business.''
But what about clearing the air once and for all? ``We're discussing what to do,'' is the reply, to which the Countess adds: ``You've got to wait for the right time to do these things.''
``Their relationship was conducted in the open, within everyone's sight,'' Lord Brabourne continues, recalling how Broadlands, the Mountbatten country house, used to be Nehru's first stop whenever he visited England (in the days when he was High Commissioner in London). ``These used to be occasions when the entire family would gather around Nehru at the dinner table.''
The bond, the Countess speculates, may have arisen out of a certain sense of loneliness both Nehru and her mother shared. Perhaps, it had something to do with their childhood. Nehru had spent his formative years away from the family in an unfamiliar setting; Edwina, too, had been packed off to a boarding school by her stepmother. ``My mother had an unhappy childhood; there wasn't much of love and understanding in it,'' the Countess recalls.But there's a note of regret as the daughter says with a sigh, ``She was too young to die.''
Edwina Mountbatten was 57, when she died after a heart attack in North Borneo on February 21, 1960. Beside her bed was a sheaf of Nehru's letters, which she read every night.
A little less than two decades later, on August 27, 1979, Louis Mountbatten was blown to a macabre death by an IRA bomb, both the Countess and the Lord survived the attack, but not before seeing one of their twin sons and the Lord's mother being consumed by the explosion.
If they've survived the terrible tragedy, it is because of what the Countess describes as the ``feeling of friendship'' the name Mountbatten evokes the world over. Like the letters, it's not an easy legacy to live with.