Book review: Indian Summer – the Secret History of the End of an Empire

Book review: Indian Summer – the Secret History of the End of an Empire

IndiaGBnews publisher Ben Pinnington reviews Alex Von Tunzelmann’s book Indian Summer – the Secret History of the End of an Empire giving a five * rating to a riveting, if punishing, portrait of India’s violent Independence and partition with Pakistan.

Alex Von Tunzelmann’s book Indian Summer – the Secret History of the End of an Empire (pocket books 2007) examines the period leading up to Indian Independence on 15 August 1947, and its immediate aftermath, through the prism of Louis and Edwina Mountbatten the last Viceroy and Vicereine of British India. It is thorough, insightful, exciting and punishing. The facts of this tumultuous period, that saw India erupt into sectarian conflict, are laid bare. Post World War Two India is a ticking time bomb and the British want out.  Independence, and partition, are the catalyst for anarchy that had been brewing for decades. There is no escaping the violence and brutality that saw between 200,000 to one million people slaughtered, while between 10-15 million people would become displaced causing one of the worst refugee crises of the 20th Century.  The author concedes no-one knows how many died, given the sheer chaos tearing through a country home to 400 million people. Within hours of independence the newly partitioned Punjab ignites, with 70,000 Muslims arriving from India in Lahore in four days. The rest of the year sees the Punjab burn in what the author describes as one of the vilest episodes in the whole of history as Sikhs and Muslims avenge each other in monstrous acts of tit for tat violence. Fathers are burned alive, mothers thrown in front of trains their daughters torn away raped and branded and their sons hacked apart begging for their lives. Train massacres, mass suicides, attacks on the sick and dying in hospitals, disease ridden refugee camps, the scenes are unbearable – India is hell on earth. By September 1947 the violence spreads to Delhi a tender box of angry Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims. 600,000 people go on the rampage leaving a reported 10,000 Muslims dead.   The British can hardly hold their head up given the barbarous acts of the likes of General Dyer who instigated the massacre at Amritsar in 1919, actions which fuelled the fire of the independence movement.   While India wheels uncontrollably towards disaster the portraits of the main players are carefully painted onto a canvas of what becomes a very personal set of stories and relationships. The strengths and flaws of the bickering Mountbattens, the lonely, idealist firebrand Nehru, the pedantic, pious and great Gandhi, the suspicious, strained and isolated Jinnah are exposed for history to judge.

gandi mountbatten

The author does not hold back in her withering criticism of ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten who she depicts as an irritating youth, an incompetent naval officer and later Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia during the war, and generally vainglorious and accident prone.  Von Tunzelmann does not hesitate to twist the knife when Dickie is appointed to the role of Supreme Commander by Churchill, another target for scorn while perhaps surprisingly, given her unsparing style, Attlee escapes censure despite being the man who curiously appoints Mountbatten as Viceroy and neglects to send troops to police partition despite dire warnings from respected British diplomats in India.   A roll call of military top brass are quoted when Mountbatten is made Supreme Allied Commander during the war including Montgomery and the First Sea Lord Admiral Cunningham who says: “I think most people in the Service have just laughed.” One of many dismissive anecdotes recalls Dickie installing himself in Kandy, Ceylon 2000 miles from the front line as Supreme Allied Commander devising man-power heavy operations against the Japanese, plans which were only set to be quashed by more capable chiefs of staff when finished. Yet for all the derision and fun poking at hapless Dickie there is an almost remarkable about turn when Von Tunzelmann defends his record on partition – the most serious stain on his reputation. Three main arguments are put forward that are worth recounting first, Mountbatten is accused of ignoring the particular problem of the Sikhs who were disgruntled by his plan and capable of organising military action. Second, he is accused of failing to use British troops to stop trouble once it started and third he rushed through the transfer of power so fast that preparations made for the effects of partition were inadequate.

On the Sikhs the author reports that Mountbatten had in fact consulted widely among Sikhs, neutral Governors and decided against imprisoning its leaders, because it would make matters worse. He also raised the Sikh problem with London who offered no extra reinforcements.

On the point of deploying more British soldiers both future Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the British Army were firmly against this.

On the particularly contentious point of rushing partition the author believes any delay or subduing of the problems in the Punjab would only have postponed the inevitable and risked spreading discontent from the Punjab to wider parts of India. She quotes Mountbatten’s successor Rajagopalachari said: “if the Viceroy had not transferred power when he did there could well have been no power to transfer.” The problem was compounded by the fact Britain was also on its knees financially after the war and did not have the resources to fund such an operation.

Edwina and Nehru
Edwina and Nehru

Edwina, meanwhile, is the enigma wrapped inside the story. In stark contrast to her husband, Edwina excites the author with her energy, intellect and political manoeuvring. A 1920s IT girl who inherits a massive fortune Edwina’s young life revolves around ‘organising parties, attending parties and recovering from parties’. Her personal life is so colourful it is already making the news even in the era of a tame deferential media as she appears to crash from one affair to another. When she arrives in India as Vicereine in 1947, by then in her forties, it is against her will – an evidently very strong one. Apparently sullen on the journey at the disruption of being made Vicereine to 400m people, when she arrives in India the author suggests she retreats to a bathroom with a plate of food and the suspicions of an eating disorder are hushed up. But if Edwina was a tortured spoilt soul arriving in India the events were to be her making. The author clearly believes Edwina falls into a deep love with the soon to be Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, this is in contrast to other historians Lawrence James (the Making of the British Raj) who records the affair, judging by their letters as a school girl crush on an older man. More seriously James considers their relationship ‘crass misconduct’ and ‘a disastrous intrusion of private passion in public life’. Nehru is described as a high caste Harrow educated public school boy ‘too Indian for Britain and too British for India’. Widowed and charismatic Nehru is lonely and under enormous pressure and Edwina arrives like a saviour to him a muse and a political sounding board. It is evident theirs was a meeting of minds, humour and ideas – their passionate ‘love’ would endure for the rest of their lives. Edwina finds the vacuum in her life finally filled with emergency relief work – a role she took to during the war. She flourishes as she tours the country tirelessly, sometimes with Nehru and Mountbatten, sometimes without either visiting dangerous violent refugee camps, disease ridden hospitals and in the height of partition violence actually takes on a mob in Dehli calling their bluff with rocks and bullets flying round her. Nehru is similarly fearless frequently plunging into danger on the streets remonstrating with protestors. However, their affair was dangerous and calls into question the judgement of all concerned considering the trouble that could have been caused between Pakistan and India if it was perceived the Viceroy was being lobbied by the Vicerene to support India due to a clandestine affair with Nehru who was also locked into mutual loathing with Jinnah. The fact that Edwina was so willing to disregard Dickie again for another man reflects light into her character, as is the insight that she would throw tantrums if her daughters Pamela and Patricia met their father without her knowledge to such an extent that they arranged to meet Dickie in secret. But for all Edwina’s flaws this is a sympathetic character portrait of a woman who had everything but struggled to find happiness until she met Nehru and submerged herself in the immensity of India. Edwina continued to meet Nehru and visit India frequently until her death. Perhaps typically of her drive the night before she died she had felt ill but insisted on attending events. When she was found dead letters she had been reading were blown across the room – the only possessions that mattered to one of the richest women on earth were letters from Nehru.

The Mountbattens and Jinnah
The Mountbattens and Jinnah

Gandhi is another who forms a strong bond with Edwina though this is not extended to her husband. Gandhi is portrayed in more complex terms than his simplistic hallowed modern image. His excessively pious nature grates on some and he revels in causing maximum disruption to the British – Churchill clearly dislikes him. Jinnah too is not quite what he may appear. The author describes him as one of the most successful politicians of the 20th century rekindling political Islam, with all of its implications for today, even though he was not especially Islamic in his lifestyle.

A tremendous read, written with great pace and verve.  There is a lot more to savour in this very fine piece of work.

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