THE BOOKSHELF: INDIAN SUMMER.

The publisher kindly (thanks, Jason!) sent me a copy of Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, and I have finally gotten around to reading it (taking a break from Russian history). It’s a very enjoyable read, and anyone who’s interested in the subject (which I have been since reading Midnight’s Children many years ago) should get hold of it—the author has read a great many sources from every point of view (and this is a topic that inspires fiery partisanship) and produced an impartial and engaging account. She hooked me from the opening paragraph:

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, semifeudal 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.

And there are linguistically interesting sidelights; when she mentions Indira Nehru’s marriage to Feroze Gandhy, for example, she provides a footnote on his change of spelling to Gandhi: “Gandhi with an i means ‘grocer’ and is commonly found in Gujarati Hindus of the Modh Bania caste, such as MKG. The Parsi surname has a different root and is usually spelled Gandhy or Ghandy. Feroze’s sister, Tehmina Gandhy, continued to use the original spelling.”
But it’s certainly not the only book you’d want to read on the subject. The author’s focus is divided between the historical events and the personalities involved, in the first place Lord and Lady Mountbatten and just behind them Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. (The only one who comes out of it well is Edwina Mountbatten, who exhibited what can only be called heroism under the stress of tragic events; the others all leave a very bad impression, especially Gandhi.) This makes sense not only from a marketing perspective but from a historical one, since this is one of those historical turning points heavily determined by the personalities involved, but the all-important balance is tilted more heavily toward the personalities than I would prefer, and the attention given to frivolities like fancy dress and the details of people’s weddings means that far more important matters are occasionally swept under the rug. The most serious problem, in my view, is the downplaying of the mass violence that occurred before the famous horrors of Partition. There is not a word, for instance, about the massacres in Bihar in the first week of November 1946, in which thousands of Muslims were killed. For the view from below, the level on which the millions of people whose lives were disrupted by the machinations and follies of the powerful, you will need to consult other books. (I haven’t seen them, but it looks like the books reviewed by Siddhartha Deb in the January 1 LRB would be excellent reading along those lines; unfortunately, only a teaser paragraph is available at that link, but at least the titles and authors are there and can be investigated elsewhere.)

Comments

  1. Sounds great and I’ve ordered it. I hope the paperback has all the pictures, which, according to amazon uk reviews, are good. For myself, I must say I’m quite interested in the personalities and look forward to learning more about Jinnah. I can’t understand all the amazon people being so surprised about Nehru’s & Lady Mountbatten’s affair,even I knew about that thirty years ago. I hope the book explains that Mountbatten was gay; surely this isn’t secret information any longer, and it goes some way to explaining their seemingly happy marriage.

  2. Sounds great and I’ve ordered it. I hope the paperback has all the pictures, which, according to amazon uk reviews, are good. For myself, I must say I’m quite interested in the personalities and look forward to learning more about Jinnah. I can’t understand all the amazon people being so surprised about Nehru’s & Lady Mountbatten’s affair,even I knew about that thirty years ago. I hope the book explains that Mountbatten was gay; surely this isn’t secret information any longer, and it goes some way to explaining their seemingly happy marriage.

  3. and the attention given to frivolities like fancy dress and the details of people’s weddings means that far more important matters are occasionally swept under the rug
    In Narayan’s prose retelling of the Ramayana he mentions that the original includes several thousand verses detailing such minutiae in connection with a single celebration. Perhaps von Tunzelmann was inspired by that epic? 🙂
    the others all leave a very bad impression, especially Gandhi
    I long ago came to the conclusion that MK was no Mahatma. The extent of his efforts to suppress the political enfranchisement of the Dalits being one example of his often-downplayed Hindu fundamentalist streak.
    On a brighter note THANK YOU for the pointer to Amrit Rai’s “A House Divided” – it is everything I hoped for and more. A really fascinating and fun read.

  4. (The only one who comes out of it well is Edwina Mountbatten…
    I’ve *heard* that partition was rushed, and thus bungled, by Mountbatten to get Edwina away from the affair, because among other things the affair was politically unwise.

  5. I’ve *heard* that partition was rushed
    Those who could escape it certainly rushed to do so. My family were living in Karachi by then and they booked passage on 2 ships, one bound for London, the other Auckland. The plan was – whichever gets to Karachi and leaves again first, that’s the one they would take. Thus I came to be.

  6. I’ve *heard* that partition was rushed, and thus bungled, by Mountbatten to get Edwina away from the affair, because among other things the affair was politically unwise.
    No, certainly not; Mountbatten was perfectly happy (well, relatively speaking; obviously he’d have preferred that she love him the way he loved her) for Edwina to be having an affair with Nehru, because he was no threat (it being unthinkable for the Father of India to run off with an Englishwoman), unlike the many other affairs she’d flaunted, some of which caused her to threaten to leave him, which he found an unthinkable prospect. (When Nehru came to England after independence, Mountbatten gallantly went hunting so the pair could spend time together.) He seems to have genuinely believed that the sooner Partition came the better, and there are those who agree with that point of view; as I say, there had been growing violence for over a year, and the longer the process took the worse it might have been. It’s appalling, of course, that he was able to impose a date singlehandedly on the basis of his own whim, but many things about British rule in India and the way it ended are appalling.
    I hope the book explains that Mountbatten was gay
    No, and he doesn’t seem to have been. She says:
    “He was also obliged to spend some time fending off rumors about guardsmen when, in 1975, his name was whispered in connection with an expose in the Daily Mirror about gay orgies at the Life Guards’ barracks in London. ‘I might have been accused of many things in my life but hardly of the act of homosexuality,’ he wrote indignantly in his diary.”
    She says in a footnote: “Both DM’s official biographer, Philip Ziegler, and his harshest critic, Andrew Roberts, have concluded that the rumors of homosexuality were untrue.” Trust me, Von Tunzelmann carries no water for Mountbatten, so I believe her conclusion on this matter.

  7. Coincidentally I read my first Salman Rushdie book just two days ago: Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I loved it, and have been reading it aloud to my wife and wondering what his other books are like. I think I will have to get my hands on Midnight’s Children next.

  8. That opening para is very odd. Not the point that India was vastly bigger and richer than England – of course that’s true (and surely no secret). But why say that England was “riven by religious factionalism” while Hindu India was ruled as part of a Moslem Empire? Why say that India was “culturally unified” when it was England that, to a good approximation, spoke one language, and India that was riven by caste? Can that para really have been written in good faith?

  9. And in one short paragraph der Graf pummels me with evidence of my own immense ignorance. Dunning-Kruger is merciless.

  10. clodhopper says:

    WE all see events through the filters of our own failings.
    Thus we must attempt to change the lens that we ogle the world around.

  11. Can that para really have been written in good faith?
    Come, come, it’s overstatement for ironic emphasis. This is a work of popular history, not a Doktorarbeit; she’s making an important point in a clever and amusing way.

  12. Meh, I don’t know. Churchill (whom I’ve only just taken an interest in, I was put off years ago by his hostility towards Irish nationalism: gods walked among us back then, though, and Churchill was one, and what is astonishing is that he ended up leading a democracy when it mattered) described India, about 1930, as being a geographical term, as reasonable a national entity as the equator.
    Which is correct; a Rajasthani peasant who marries his daughter to the Quran has about as much in common with a Parsi businessman in Bombay as he has with a Yakut in Siberia or a Guaraní in rural Paraguay. The backbone of the unified, common culture of modern India and of modern Pakistan has been the civil service and the army as shaped by Britain—without Britain, it would probably have been France that shaped them, but I doubt it would have been India.
    But you say that now, in the hearing of an Indian (or a Pakistani) nationalist, and you’ll be greeted with hostility or ridicule. There’s already too much confusion on this, I don’t think it helpful or positive for von Tunzelmann to contribute to it.

  13. Churchill is one of the many villains of this story. And I repeat, the opening paragraph is not meant to be a compendious explication of Indian and British history and culture. You are taking it far too seriously.

  14. Graham Asher says:

    The opening paragraph is absurd. Overstatement for ironic emphasis is one thing; this is a combination of astounding ignorance and deliberate provocation, no doubt as an amuse-gueule for the anglophobic American market. Someone who can write a sentence like that, whether ironically or not (or as I suspect, just borrowing a tired old trope) is not capable of writing a book worth reading.

  15. Sheesh. Well, dismiss a book on the basis of one paragraph if you like. You might consider, though, that if the book as a whole showed “astounding ignorance and deliberate provocation,” I probably would have noticed and mentioned it. Were your national toes perhaps stepped on?

  16. mollymooly says:

    the anglophobic American market

    not to mention the anglophobic English market

  17. Instead of becoming outraged, Outraged of Tunbridge Wells, you lot should take Language’s link to the book at Amazon. There, you can read the next two paragraphs of the first chapter, in which she explains the context of her comparison. She is talking about 1577, you silly boys. Ha, ha, ha!

  18. Instead of becoming outraged, Outraged of Tunbridge Wells, you lot should take Language’s link to the book at Amazon. There, you can read the next two paragraphs of the first chapter, in which she explains the context of her comparison. She is talking about 1577, you silly boys. Ha, ha, ha!

  19. ‘I might have been accused of many things in my life but hardly of the act of homosexuality,’ he wrote indignantly in his diary.
    Though I cannot prove that Mountbatten was bi- or gay, that comment is clearly disingenuous, see Noel Coward’s letter, here.

  20. ‘I might have been accused of many things in my life but hardly of the act of homosexuality,’ he wrote indignantly in his diary.
    Though I cannot prove that Mountbatten was bi- or gay, that comment is clearly disingenuous, see Noel Coward’s letter, here.

  21. She is talking about 1577, you silly boys.
    Oh, jeez, I should have mentioned that, shouldn’t I?
    *smacks self on forehead*

  22. David Marjanović says:

    “The act of homosexuality” isn’t the same as the orientation… just saying.

  23. And rumors are not the same as evidence.

  24. Rumours aren’t evidence; they’re much harder to cover up; though he would have presumably tried to do so, as a member of the military & very minor royalty, in an age when homosexuality was illegal. There’s ‘evidence’ of hetro behavior (2 daughters), but I’ve never heard any rumour that he was hetro, and in this case I trust the (very many) rumours over the evidence.

  25. clodhopper says:

    Bu****y was punishable by death and rape was usually forgotten or ‘shuved ‘ under the bed.
    It was always about the rule maker and the enforcer.

  26. “The act of homosexuality” isn’t the same as the orientation… just saying.
    Did the concept of homosexuality as an “orientation” exist in those days? Just wondering…

  27. Well, yes. Don’t forget polari. But I was surprised by Noel Coward’s letter to see that it would have reached the Mountbattens. They were less stayed than one would think from their backgrounds, though.

  28. Coward was a close friend of Dickie’s, and the latter clearly had no problem with homosexuals and enjoyed their company/ambience. That is not, it should be unnecessary to point out, the same as being homosexual, even in “orientation.” I repeat, there is no evidence Mountbatten was gay, and a biographer who would presumably have been delighted to say he was concluded he wasn’t. There is nothing, it should be unnecessary to point out, wrong with being gay, but I deplore the current fad for assimilating every conceivable historical figure to the confraternity. No, Lincoln wasn’t gay, for heaven’s sake, and I see no reason to think Mountbatten was either. Don’t believe everything you read in the Daily Mail.

  29. John Emerson says:

    Hat is really defensive on this question. You have to ask why.

  30. Uh-oh! Nobody expects the Committee of Public Safety!
    *flees*

  31. So now you don’t think Lincoln was gay either?

  32. So now you don’t think Lincoln was gay either?

  33. Next Hat will be claiming that even Shakespeare wasn’t … naaah, nobody could be that backward-looking.

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