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.)