India then and now: Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann and The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux

October 17, 2007 at 5:09 pm (books, History)

indian-summer.jpg The full title of the book by Alex Von Tunzelmann is Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. I don’t know enough about the tumultuous history of India in the twentieth century to be able to say exactly what secrets Von Tunzelmann has revealed here. Surely the intriguing story of the love shared by Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten is more or less common knowledge to those who are familiar with this era in British and Indian history. Indeed, one of the book’s chief strengths is the fascinating portrait Von Tunzelmann paints of Nehru, Lady Mountbatten, and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy. (As of 1947 , his official title was Earl Mountbatten of Burma, but he continued to be known to all his friends and family as Dickie.)

mountbatten-wedding.jpg mountbatten_installation_as_viceroy.jpg nehru36.jpg

[From left to right: the Mountbattens’ wedding portrait, Lord Louis Mountbatten’s investiture as Viceroy, and Nehru. Dickie had an abiding passion for ceremonials, protocol, and genealogy.]

These three people, caught in the vortex of one of the twentieth centuries most crucial, chaotic moments, established a rare equilibrium in what, on the face of it, appears to have been a classic love triangle, with Edwina, as that irreverent wag/Harvard mathematician Tom Lehrer would have put it, as the hypotenuse. Both men adored her, and she, them, but not equally. Nehru was quite obviously the love of her life. She loved Dickie after her fashion, but they fought a great deal and were apart much of the time. Dickie, meanwhile, had tremendous regard and affection for Nehru; the feeling was apparently mutual. To what extent, if any, the powerful mutual attraction between Edwina and Nehru progressed to a sexually consummated passion, we will probably never know. In the 1940’s and ’50’s, this kind of secret could still be kept. Von Tunzelmann quotes copiously from a vast number of letters still remaining in the archives. All three of these individuals were immensely complicated; true, history happened to them, but they helped to shape it as well.

nehru_edwina_mountbatten_070411.jpg

The crosscurrents buffeting the subcontinent during the run-up to independence were primarily the result of the mistrust and resentment that the Sikhs, the Muslims, and the Hindus felt toward one another. These feelings, unfortunately, were exacerbated by the British policy of designating communities according to religious identity, a habit of mind not widely shared by the Indians themselves up until that time. I knew there was a bloodbath following “freedom at midnight,” but I never understood what caused it. I understand the reasons better now, but still not completely. This is in no way the author’s fault; it is just an enormously difficult and complex subject to get your mind around. I was surprised to learn that there was also plenty of deadly insurrection in the years prior to independence. Von Tunzelmann describes acts of almost unimaginable savagery that occurred both before and after August 15, 1947, the date on which Britain relinquished its Indian empire. Those sections of the book were tough to get through.

gandhi_studio_1931.jpg There is, of course, one more towering figure, the most famous of all those who are inextricably associated with these events: Mohandas Ghandi. I don’t know if Von Tunzelmann revealed any hitherto unknown secrets about the Mahatma, but I confess I was surprised by the depiction of him in the earlier part of the book. His religious asceticism caused him to be obstructive rather than helpful in numerous situations. The adjective “stiff-necked” came to mind on several occasions. It wasn’t until independence became imminent that Ghandi rose in stature to become an iconic presence on the scene. His fasts were sometimes the only force that could bring about a cessation of violence. It was following one of these fasts, in January of 1948 that he was shot and killed by a Hindu extremist who thought he was being insufficiently tough on Muslims. At the time of his death, Ghandi was near despair over all the violence and bloodshed. He was in his late seventies and had become frail as a result of his abstemious mode of living. He probably would not have lived much longer – he was being supported on either side by two of his grandnieces at the moment of his assassination. This makes the act itself seem especially brutal.

nehru_gandhi_1942.jpg Nehru had had his differences with Ghandi, but he loved him anyway and recognized his greatness. This part of what he said on that dark day in January in an address to the nation on All-India Radio: “‘The light has gone out from our lives and there is darkness everywhere. And I do not know what to tell you and how to say it.'” His voice was trembling. But then, as Von Tunzelmann observes, “…he did know how to say it, and he said it beautifully: ‘The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light.The light that has illumined this country for these many, many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later that light will still be seen in this country, and the world will see it, and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate present; it represented the living, eternal truths reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom.'”

jinnah.jpg Another crucial presence on the scene was Ghandi’s Muslim counterpart Muhammed Ali Jinnah. Jinnah’s great cause was the fight for a homeland for his fellow Muslims. Amidst great bloodshed, Pakistan was born, but it was not destined to have the secular governance that Jinnah had espoused for it.

There is much more to this story than what I have summarized above. (Among the other surprises on offer – surprising, at least to me – was the unflattering portrait of Winston Churchill, who bluntly declared his hatred for Indians and further stated: “They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”) At the book’s conclusion, Von Tunzelmann takes the reader up to India in the present day. The changes wrought by the passage of fifty years are, of course, astounding. This made it particularly instructive for me to be reading this book in tandem with Paul Theroux’s The Elephanta Suite, which I have recently reviewed.

Indian Summer contains a tremendous amount of detail about the historical period that is its subject . I did bog down midway, and I began to wonder if I could stick it out. I’m glad I did: the pace picked up again, and toward the end I did not want to put the book down. When I finally finished it, I could not help but feel the seismic resonance of the events that took place between its covers. This is not only a complex tale, but one full of drama, encompassing the depths of man’s inhumanity to man all the way to the heights of idealism, determination, and above all, courage.

2 Comments

  1. Joe Wright tiene un nuevo proyecto llamado “Indian summer” | OcioWatch said,

    […] Vía: Joe Wright dirigirá la adaptación del libro “Indian summer” | Foto: robertarood […]

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] seven portraits of married life in London literary circles, 1910-1939 – Katie Roiphe Indian Summer: the secret history of the end of an empire – Alex von Tunzelmann Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: madness, murder, and the collision of […]

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