Book Review, Gandhi, India, Indian Politics, Politics, Review

Thoughts on ” Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire “

Edwina Mountbatten, Louis Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WERE TWO NATIONS. ONE WAS A vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.

Thus begins Alex Von Tunzelmann’s amusing work Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire , chronicling the final days of Indian Independence. The book’s cover shows the first Prime Minister enjoying the twinkle in the last Vicerine’s eyes, while a sharply dressed last Viceroy looks the other way. That pretty much sums up the gossip rendered via the book.

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 departure 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”

Edwina, dressed for the coronation of George VI, 1937
Edwina, dressed for the coronation of George VI, 1937

Edwina comes across as the archetypical heroine struggling with her internal conflicts. She is temerarious, she is magnanimous in charity, a lone rebel in her high society filled with a nimiety of princoxes, she is a passionate lover. Tunzelmann sets aside a considerable portion of the book in psycho-analysing her and her relations with various men including our first Prime Minister while simultaneously showcasing how the Vicerine outshined her husband in issues related to administration and relief work. The author points out how, when Lady Mountbatten noticed that the a refugee hospital camp was devoid of lamps, she had struggled to obtain one from the brigadier in New Delhi; how she took special care to pass the Nursing Council Bill before Partition through lobbying; how her friendship with Nehru boosted her left-leaning political beliefs; how Edwina had “trudged for hours around the grim hovels in which many thousands of the city‘s poor lived” and so on.

At the same time, the author, whose flair for dramatic theatrics is visible throughout the pages, gives rivetting details of Nehru and Edwina’s complex relationship. I leave here a lone paragraph so as not to play a spoil sport. “There is an intriguing tale told by S. S. Pirzada, later foreign minister of Pakistan, that Jinnah had been handed a small collection of letters that had been written by Edwina and Jawahar. ―Dickie will be out tonight—come after 10:00 o‘clock, said one of Edwina‘s. Another revealed, ―You forgot your handkerchief and before Dickie could spot it I covered it up. A third said, ―I have fond memories of Simla—riding and your touch.

The drama doesn’t end with just this curious romance, but inevitably extends to the power politics of the time. The issues of freedom and dominion formation has been explained in a more bromide, but none the less, academic manner in Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. Tunzelmann has livened 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.”. Interestingly, she has also included the infamous comment by Travancore Diwan C P Ramaswamy Aiyer when he had met Mountbatten, 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.

As a side track history, Tunzelmann has also tracked the Mountbatten’s 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 disaster wherever he went – Bombay, UP, Delhi, Madras. Tunzelmann says ‘the prince‘s tour had revealed the acute unpopularity of the British in India.’

Indian readers may be amused to know that the Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Queen Elizabeth II, is the nephew of Mountbatten and that he chiselled the Duke’s life into what it is now. There is also an interesting note about the later life of the Mountbatten, where a military coup by Mountbatten against the then Labour Government of Harold Wilson was stymied only because of the intervention of Queen Elizabeth, who was greatly influenced by Mountbatten in turn during her formative years. In fact, Prince Charles considered Mountbatten like a father figure to the extent that when Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA, he had written in his journal that he had lost a “combined grand-father, great uncle, father, brother and friend. Life will never be the same now that he has gone”.

Winston Churchill comes across as a pervicacious blimp and rightly so. An adequate amount of space has been provided to the minimal yet important role Churchill played during the 1940s. In fact, there is ineluctable evidence to show that Jinnah had an active support of Churchill and it was only through Churchill that Jinnah could have been controlled. In more than one instance, it is shown how Jinnah took the advice of Churchill and toned down his demands, thereby making thing easier for the British. On the other side, Mountbatten had a profound influence on Jawaharlal Nehru, and continued to have it, many years post independence, to the extent that when Nehru passed away the British High Commission in Delhi complained ― Now that Nehru is gone we shall no longer have the enormously valuable access to the India Government‘s inner councils which Lord Mountbatten‘s personal friendship with him gave us at crucial moments.

Nehru with Kennedys
Kennedys’ India Visit

Nehru and the Mountbattens shared a very complex relation from what it seems. Louis Mountbatten had immense admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru as a liberal leader and in turn Nehru felt that Mountbatten was India’s true friend in Britain. In a cinematic twist, both the men were madly in love with the same woman – Edwina. In hindsight it can be said that Mountbatten’s love for her was much more intense because he allowed her to carry on the affair with Jawaharlal Nehru and actively facilitated it, by suddenly coming up with reasons to leave home for long hours especially when Nehru visited the Mountbatten residence. Nehru on the other hand, had always been able to find love in almost every corner except in his wife. The author gives an interesting anecdote about Nehru’s US visit in 1961. “Kennedy brought up a range of topics which usually interested Nehru very much—Berlin, Vietnam, nuclear testing, Indo-Pakistani relations—and yet the Indian premier seemed out of sorts and could not be induced to grunt out more than a sentence or two in reply. That evening Nehru dined with Kennedy. During the dinner, Nehru eased up considerably—not least, noted Galbraith, because he ―had sat between Mrs. Kennedy and her sister and with the light of love in his eyes. The rest of the trip went without a hitch.”

But the author loses the plot when it comes to certain details regarding other Indian leaders. It may be perhaps they do not have as colourful personalities like 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. 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.

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 curate’s egg of an effort, but none the less, admirable. I end this review with one of the more lachrymal episodes of the book.

At 7:30 the next morning, the Turners‘ secretary knocked on Edwina‘s door. There was no reply. She opened it to see the Countess Mountbatten of Burma lying on the bed. Her body was already cold. She had suffered heart failure a few hours before. Still one of the world‘s richest women, she had had no splendid possessions with her; only a pile of old letters on the bedside table. She must have been reading them when she died, for a few, having fluttered from her hands, were strewn across her bed. They were all from Jawaharlal Nehru.

Edwina had a horror of being interred in the claustrophobic family vault at Romsey Abbey and had asked her husband to bury her ―in a sack at sea. HMS Wakeful was offered by the Admiralty and sailed from Portsmouth. The coffin was discharged into the waves from beneath a Union Jack. Mountbatten, in tears, kissed a wreath of flowers before throwing it into the sea. The Wakeful was escorted by an Indian frigate, the Trishul. Jawaharlal Nehru had sent it all the way to the English Channel, just to cast a wreath of marigolds into the waves after Edwina‘s coffin.