Book Review, Gandhi, India, Indian Politics, Narendra Modi, Review

Book Review : Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

I rewrote the Review for a magazine, which I think is better than the original review. I am publishing it here in my blog.

The book Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire is written by Alex von Tunzelmann, a British historian. Tunzelmann was educated in Brighton and at University College, Oxford. She has contributed to The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman, The Truth About Markets by John Kay, Does Education Matter? by Alison Wolf, and Not on the Label by Felicity Lawrence. She has been recognized as a Financial Times Young Business Writer of the Year. Most recently she has collaborated with Jeremy Paxman on his book, On Royalty. Recently, she has begun writing a weekly column for The Guardian entitled “Reel history”, in which she discusses and rates popular films for their historical accuracy. India Summer is her first book and was released in 2007. Red Heat. Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean, 2011, covers the relationship of the United States with Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti during the time of the Cold War.

Indian Summer focuses on that period of Indian history when India was fighting a war of its own which had been clouded by the much larger war going on in the world. Our traditional understanding of Indian history is dominated by left – leaning narratives. Most of the books which deal with the ‘Modern History’ of India, usually gains speed with the Battle of Plassey of 1757 which seals the question of Anglo- French rivalry in India. The Battle of Buxar which takes place 7 years later establishes the British as one among top powers in Indian subcontinent. This narrative of Indian history meanders through various ups and downs involving 1st War of Indian Independence in 1857, jumping next to the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885, the Moderate – Extremist tussle, the Surat split of Congress, the 1916 merger and Lucknow pact, arrival of Gandhi, the Non-cooperation Movement of 1922, Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930, the passing of Government of India act 1935 and subsequent formation of Congress governments in various provinces, the Second World War and Quit India Movement, Arrival of Mountbatten, Partition and finally Independence. Nearly 190 years of history is compressed into books of some 500 pages long and is passed off as a thorough look at the various aspects of history; when the authors and readers themselves know that it is an impossible task to capture in a single book, even the various strands of our national movement, leave alone the entire duration from the arrival of British to their exit. It is one of the reasons, why the division of Indian history into ancient, medieval and modern, following the standard western practice, makes little sense.

Especially glossed over are those final years of Independence when readers are overwhelmed by the countless number of frantic attempts by both the Indian and British sides to reach an amiable solution to the question of Independence and the then elephant in the room, Partition. Hence we see a series of solutions following one after the other in quick succession: August Offer, Cripps Mission, Rajagopalachari Formula, Desai – Liaqat Pact, Wavell plan, Cabinet Mission and finally the Mountbatten Plan which eventually gets converted into Indian Independence Act 1947. But the amount of painful discussions gone into them, the thought process that went behind the decision, the names of those invisible men and women who held the strings of the political puppets, remain unacknowledged and rightly so. After all, the traditional historians are only trying to present the important milestones of our national movement and not write an encyclopaedia. It’s a different fact that those who were indeed entrusted by the government to write encyclopaedias only siphoned off the funds and later turned up empty handed with flimsy excuses. The curious case of how these very researchers ended up publishing many history books on their own is detailed in ‘Eminent Historians’ by the inimitable Arun Shourie.

One of the more famous accounts of those final days is given in the book Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, which is more of a hagiography of Mountbatten than a serious attempt at chronicling the history.

Among such books, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, with a better access to resources and a relatively novel attempt at narrating the final days of Independence, does stand out. The book is different from others of the same genre in such a way that it is less about a historical period and more about some of the key personalities – namely India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the last viceroy of India Louis Mountbatten and his wife Edwina Mountbatten – who shaped those crucial moments of our Independence movement. The author narrates incidents from the protagonists’ early days, leading up to the moment of their meeting, the influences they had on each other, how it continued to influence them even post  Independence and how all this inadvertently shaped India’s destiny.

Indian Summer is one of those new kinds of history books that tries to present nuggets of tinnient information interspersed along with the actual narrative. Hence we find that during the First War of Indian Independence in 1857, a police constable Gangadhar Nehru and his wife Indrani who were fleeing Delhi, were almost caught because their daughter looked as pale as an English girl; that Winston Churchill had suggested to have Gandhi-ji “bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and let the viceroy sit on the back of a giant elephant and trample the Mahatma into the dirt.”; that Annie Besant had identified Prince Edward as the re-incarnation of Akbar and that the young prince “was not over-pleased at the idea of having been a black man” and so on.

As a side track history, Tunzelmann has also recorded the Mountbattens’ activities in London. Louis Mountbatten, known as Dickie to his friends, had been the right hand of Edward VIII. Tunzlemann recounts what an appalling disaster a young Edward’s India visit had been in the 1920s. One is reminded of the Downton Abbey scene where it is told “The Prince did splendidly, sir. He was so popular wherever he went” when in reality the tour was a mess wherever he went – Bombay, UP, Delhi, Madras. Tunzelmann says ‘the prince‘s tour had revealed the acute unpopularity of the British in India.’

Departing from the usual historians, Tunzelmann focuses on some of the key female personas of those times – a Lady Macbethesque Fatima Jinnah; the lovelorn Padmaja Naidu, who had smashed the portrait of Edwina on finding out that a visit by Jawaharlal, apparently to propose to her did not turn out quite the way she wanted it to be; the calm, composed and responsible first female Cabinet minister Amrit Kaur; and of course Edwina Mountbatten, who, in a way, is the protagonist of the book.  She writes “Women were prominent in Indian politics, a trend which Edwina Mountbatten, along with many Indian women, attributed to Gandhism. Nonviolence, passive resistance and boycotts were all tactics which could be practiced by women without breaking social conventions. As a result, there were more powerful women in India‘s Congress than there were in Britain‘s Labour Party or in the United States‘ Democratic Party at the time”

But the author loses the plot when it comes to certain details regarding other Indian leaders. It may be because they do not have personalities as colourful as Nehru and the Mountbattens; but much attention has not been given to the details about Bose and Patel. Hence Bose is described as a right-wing leader while Patel is projected as a Hindutva leader who would have been bad choice as the Prime Minister. When contacted, she responded that she stands by her views on Patel and Bose. She also soft-pedals the role played by Pakistan in the Kashmir issue, with the general tone of her writing suggesting that some-how it was the well-intentioned budding nation of Pakistan that was wronged by the arrogant new power India under the strong-man Home Minister Patel, with Nehru unable to do anything since his hands were tied because of public pressure. But then again, her chapter on Kashmir is well worth a read since it explains the circumstances from a British point-of-view and gives some justification for referring the issue to United Nations. The final chapter also seems unnecessary; meandering into territories which do not suit the general setting of the book.

A book which shares similar topic with Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer is Ramachandra Guha’s voluminous India After Gandhi. Though Guha’s book is a work on the Independent India, topics such as Partition, Kashmir, the influence of Mountbatten, consolidation of Princely states are dealt in both, albeit with varying levels of indulgence. Indian Summer has a slight flair for theatrics while India After Gandhi uses a more tempered language, though it is amusing to note that Guha does not mind peddling half – truths about the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his ‘magisterial work’ . Hence while Guha stops with how the Dewan of Travancore Sir C P Ramaswamy Aiyer ‘used to launch an excoriating attack on Gandhi’, Tunzelmann doesn’t mince any words and quotes the Dewan that he had files which contained cuttings to prove that Gandhi was a dangerous sex maniac who could not keep his hands off  young girls. Like India Since Independence by Bipan Chandra, Tunzelmann doesn’t try to present a picture perfect situation and treads the dangerous territory of the internal lives of Nehru and Mountbatten. She leaves the more bromide way of chronicling to other historians and livens up the whole exercise using trinkets of amusing anecdotes. For example we see how Jinnah deliberately turned up late for a party thrown up Mountbatten. When asked about it, he replied ― “My boy do you think I would come to this damn man‘s party on time? I purposely came late to show him I despise him.”; how when the Maharaja of Jodhpur met the ever so percipient V P Menon, he had “pulled out a pistol concealed behind the nib of a very large fountain pen and screamed that he would ―shoot him down like a dog if he betrayed the starving people of Jodhpur.”

Indian Summer, in fact, is not so much of an extended gossip column as has been advertised in many places. It mainly speaks about the fears, aspirations, indecisiveness and hopes of Mountbatten, Edwina, Nehru, Jinnah and Gandhi during the beginning of a new era in the world’s history. It is a decent effort, but none the less, admirable.


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