Saturday, June 1, 2013

A Review of India Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann

One of the benefits of reading history is that you don’t have to be an academic historian to succeed in the field. Indeed, from Herodotus and Thucydides to Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle, Parkman, and Henry Adams, up through many successful and worthwhile practitioners writing today, we have a wealth of non-academic historians who enlighten and entertain us with graceful prose. (I realize one might argue about Adams, since he taught Medieval History at Harvard for a while, but I don’t believe that his major works were written while in the academy or for the academy.) Our move to India led me to discover William Dalrymple, who writes beautifully about contemporary India and the Middle East, as well as having written very highly regarded histories set in India and Afghanistan. In fact, via a piece that he wrote for the wonderful Five Books site, I discovered Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

The title might prove misleading, since the “secret”, as the author notes within her work, was not so much a secret as a little-known or little-discussed (but not completely unnoticed) situation. The “secret” was that the wife of the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, had a love affair with the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Of course, this love affair (the details of intimacy remain unknown) unfolded against the huge historic panorama of Independence and Partition. As Dalrymple notes in his remarks about Von Tunzelmann, in focusing on these three actors, she tells the immensely complicated story of Independence and Partition in manner that provides a sense of the immensity of the problems and undertakings without enmeshing us in details that would overwhelm most readers. In addition to focusing on the triangle formed by the Mountbattens and Nehru, she also deals deftly with other significant players such as Gandhi, Jinnah, and Patel in India, and with Churchill, Attlee, and others back in Britain. 

Von Tunzelmann does an excellent job of setting the scene for the momentous events of Independence and Partition by first establishing the biographies of the main players. Lord Mountbatten, for instance, is from a German family that married into the British aristocracy. Mountbatten, known to friends like such as two British kings and Noel Coward, as “Dickie”, appears in some ways the embodiment of an upper-class British twit. His naval career is in some ways a disaster (such as running a ship aground and having one sunk from underneath him), but it nevertheless leads him to the position of Allied Commander for Southeast Asia during WWII. While inept in some ways, and enamored of pomp, circumstance, genealogies, and medals, he’s also quite charming and persuasive. And, lest you think him a poor cuckold, his marriage to Lady Mountbatten, Edwina, is an “open marriage” from near the beginning. Both carried on rather open affairs and had a complex relationship, to say the least. Edwina, especially in her youth, couldn’t help reminding me of Princess Diana: a rather repressed young woman whose marriage to a much more sedate man seems to have released a rather marked free-spiritedness. But like Lady Di (after demotion), Edwina found a serious and very successful calling helping out in London during the Blitz and maintaining a very active, hands-on roll in India and Pakistan dealing with the human misery found here both before and after Partition. The third person of our triumvirate, Nehru, had morphed from a young, Indian-British dandy (Cambridge and all) into a national leader. He underwent an arranged marriage and never seemed very happy about it. His wife, an apparently pious woman in contrast to his militant (if publicly restrained) atheism, died relatively young, so that Nehru was a widower at the time he came to know Edwina in the mid-1940s. 

Von Tunzelmann keeps her narrative moving, weaving the personal lives of the Mountbattens and Nehru together to meet in the momentous years of 1947 and 1948 and then apart again. In addition, she keeps the big picture in focus. Her passing remarks and judgments, such as how Gandhi’s peculiarities, irrelevancies, and standing in world opinion alternately retarded and forwarded the cause of independence and Hindu-Moslem relations, leaves one wanting more, but not at all disatistfied. (Gandhi’s life and role in all of this, of course, fills volumes.) She also remarks on the irony that I noticed immediately upon coming to India: Gandhi’s likeness adorns all denominations of rupee notes. A rather ironic honor for an ascetic who thought all India should follow his austere example. 

Von Tunzelmann writes with a light but perceptive hand. She deftly manages the many facts, or where evidence lacks, caution and restraint marks her prose. She also displays a light sense of irony appropriately deployed. In this description of the Indian Assembly at the turn of midnight that marked Independence, she writes: 

            As the chimes sounded and the unexpected blast from a conch shell startled the delegates in the chamber of the Constituent Assembly, a nation that had struggled for so many years, and sacrificed so much, was freed at last from the shackles of empire.
            Yes, Britain was finally free. 

She’s not being cute or coy here: her narrative has established the draining demands of Empire upon the war-impoverished Brits such that most—except Churchill and a few other die-hards—realized and wanted desperately to unload the burden that India and Empire represented. 

If one enjoys reading a history that interweaves the personal into the grant narratives of empires, nations, and peoples, as many a great novel as done, then you can’t expect to find a more engrossing account of the extraordinary people and events portrayed here. An outstanding work. 

Interesting note: The cover photos on my copy of the book purchased here in India shows the Mountbattens standing together with Gandhi; in the U.S. editions, they are pictured on the cover with Nehru, who's laughing. 

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