Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann [A Review]

Alex Von Tunzelmann’s account of the independence and partitioning of British India did not meet my expectations. It was far, far greater than that. Hopefully, its strengths will overcome some shortcomings in marketing as it is a history that deserves to endure.

Cover image of Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann

Alex Von Tunzelmann’s book has four key strengths – style, depth, balance and breadth.

I keep returning to the opening:

In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organised and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe 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.

This was 1577 when the British and India first met, and Von Tunzelmann proceeds to plot the essence of the mutually-assisted demise of Mughal India with the rise of the British Empire and then the subsequent destruction of the Empire with the establishment of a newly independent India and Pakistan 370 years later. It is a story as tragic as it is beautiful, as horrifying as it is inspiring and as historical as it is contemporary. No matter how many novels and histories are written on the subject it will never be enough, as none can capture all of its elements, such is the complexity and epic scale.

Unlike other books on the topic of Indian independence, Von Tunzelmann also discusses the racist, exploitive and critically flawed philosophy behind colonialism in general and the British management of India in particular. It is not a simple picture, the leaders of princely states and those regions with more autonomy also bear considerable responsibility. The details are shocking, such as the man-made famines created to feed allied troops in the two world wars.

But the focus of this book is on the end of British India. The scale of the events does not diminish the size of the characters involved – Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten; Nehru, Patel and Gandhi; Jinnah; Churchill and Atlee; the Maharajah of Kashmir and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Their strengths and failings, principles, eccentricities and egos have as much a bearing on the turn of events and the fates of the masses of people they were trying to represent and manipulate.

It took me far longer to read this book than I expected given my interest in the subject, how well researched and written it is and my tendency to race through good non-fiction in quick time. But each chapter packs considerable punch. Detailed and at times incendiary, I varied between being unable to put it down and having to pause and consider, reflect and brood on what I had absorbed. The book’s meticulous detail pulled me into the depths and I kept having to come up for air. This is not light reading, but it should not intimidate the uninitiated either.

Unlike some previous historians, Von Tunzelmann maintains a difficult balance of controversial material.

Von Tunzelmann does not shy away from having strong opinions, but she supports these ably with reason, evidence and balance. One who comes off the worst in her book is Dickie Mountbatten – the man whose own navy called him ‘the master of disaster’. If ever there was a case to show that so-called good breeding should not translate to automatic ascension to positions of authority, it is the career of Mountbatten. Von Tunzelmann does not grant Mountbatten much respite in a detailed account of his many failures, some of which cost many lives.

If Mountbatten has escaped as severe a censure in the past it may be due to some of his defining qualities; namely his charm, his inflated sense of self-importance and taking an exorbitant interest in the management of his legacy. Von Tunzelmann also takes issue with Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre who she refers to as Mountbatten’s ‘pet historians’. Their book, Freedom at Midnight, is probably the most popular book on the partition of British India.

But Von Tunzelmann is not prejudiced in her assessment. Indeed she comes strongly to Mountbatten’s defence in the area for which he is most criticised – that he rushed the partitioning of India, ignored the interests of the Sikh minority on which partition had a disastrous effect and failed to respond to the resulting crisis. Von Tunzelmann provides a detailed, well-reasoned, five-page defence of Mountbatten.

Von Tunzelmann convincingly demonstrates that, without the benefit of hindsight, Mountbatten rightly ignored the realistically impossible; in deciding between unpalatable alternatives, he chose courses that incurred the least destruction; he followed the advice of those who knew better or in whose interests he was charged to act; and where he did act it is difficult to argue that he could have done more. She also argues that the criticisms are based on faulty assumptions, the key one being the assumption that Mountbatten had the resources – time, money, men, arms, and public support – at his disposal to have acted otherwise. Altogether it is hard to see that the tragedy could have been avoided given the starting conditions and the interests involved.

Churchill is another whose reputation suffers in the book. When otherwise there was a clear mandate to move towards Indian independence, Churchill and a few of his cronies stood in everyone’s way. In fact, frankly, he comes off a little racist. But Churchill had to endure questioning of his position by Roosevelt at a time when the American public was in support of Indian independence and against participation in the European war. Churchill also participated in a secret correspondence with Jinnah, the influence of which may have been substantial.

This is one of the strengths of this book over others that cover the same period. While most books focus entirely on events within India and between Indian leaders and the British Government, Von Tunzelmann also considers the influence of the wider international context of American opinion and the formation of Cold War frontiers following the Second World War.

The most common criticism of Indian Summer is that it is too ‘gossipy’. I have three things to say to this; it is over-simplistic, it is mostly untrue and it is not unexpected.

I say the criticism is over-simplistic, because it ignores how history works. The path of history can be a bit like observing the course of a river from orbit as it makes its journey to the sea under the influence of gravity – a weak, long-range but undeniable force. Similarly, history can be seen as following an inevitable path guided by glacial changes in economics, demographics, scientific and technical advances. No individual or group, no matter how great and influential, can hope to stand against this force for long. Even those in tune with progression may have little impact if the world is not ready for it.

That being said, a river does not follow a clear, obvious path to the sea, but takes turns and deviations around obstacles and can make dramatic increases in flow or slow to a crawl. While long-term change may be inevitable, in the short-term individuals can have significant influence in how things turn out.

Influential people in history often turn out to be delightfully or tragically flawed. Often both. It is the historians task to examine these key individuals, their backgrounds, influences, prejudices and motivations. Some are progressive agents for change fighting against old traditions, others are conservatives fighting against inevitable change. Some are self-interested and some fight on behalf of others. All become all too human on closer examination. Naturally many are influenced, easily or otherwise, by others in their circle. All this is especially true of politics. Evidence of individuals being influenced by others they are intimate with, in private meetings and conversations, behind closed doors, should be included in a thorough history where possible and relevant and it is not ‘gossipy’ to do so!

The reason it may seem gossipy to some in this particular history is because two of the major players – Lord Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru – were both in love with the same woman – Edwina Mountbatten. But it is not gossipy to examine this ménage á trois and its potential impact on history.

Consider an extraordinary passage to be found in the middle of the book. Dickie Mountbatten had succeeded in getting his plan for the transfer of power approved by the British government. Feeling confident and that his relationship with Nehru had made a good start, he shared the details of the then secret plan with Nehru ahead of schedule. It had a disastrous effect as Nehru went from shocked to ‘white with rage’ at the plan. Soon, British Prime Minister Atlee was also unimpressed as his cabinet had been led to believe that Nehru would support the plan. Dickie was summoned back to London to explain himself and responded by threatening to resign. It is at this point that Edwina steps in. After calming down her husband she managed to get Nehru to make a concession regarding dominion status for India – something that had been unacceptable to Congress since 1930 and particularly to Nehru who was behind that policy. As Von Tunzelmann says “It is clear demonstration of Edwina’s extraordinary intimacy with Jawaharlal Nehru and her influence over policy”.

Secondly, I say the criticism is untrue. For the most part, the non-political goings on behind closed doors is restrained in Indian Summer and is included when the details are relevant. I am therefore surprised that other reviewers have made such a big deal of the private details of the relationships involved. The bulk of the book is a powerful account of events and repercussions, evidence and interpretations, biographies and characters.

I say ‘mostly’ untrue because I concede there were a couple of places where I did feel it got a little ‘gossipy’. The first is following Gandhi’s assassination, where Von Tunzelmann digresses to update us on the status of the Mountbatten’s troubled marriage. I found it ill-timed for such a solemn moment in the history and not as relevant as other intrigues. But then, she is, to her credit, not as sentimental as a reader like myself might be. The second occasion was during the final two chapters, which I did not find as dense as the rest of the book and perhaps could have been shortened and/or made into an epilogue.

Finally, I think the ‘gossipy’ criticism is understandable as the book seems to have been marketed as such and perhaps some readers failed to shake off this expectation as I have. Its subtitle is after all “The Secret History of the End of an Empire”. The cover picture depicts a moment not for the press cameras – Nehru and Edwina enjoying a joke, clearly in the comfort of an intimate relationship, while Dickie tries not to look like an awkward third wheel. It would be disappointing if it turns out this book was deliberately marketed to be a steamy, scandalous, sexy history in order to sell, for it is a far more robust and respectable book than that.

What doesn’t help is the rumour that there were thoughts of making a film based on the book – with Hugh Grant and Cate Blanchet as the Mountbattens. Ugh!

Admittedly I picked up the book expecting it to be a gossipy, behind-the-scenes history to supplement the more rigorous Freedom at Midnight. I was wrong on all counts and found Indian Summer worthy of coinciding with Freedom at Midnight if not surpassing it. Comparing the two I find Indian summer to be more academic, balanced and thorough than Freedom at Midnight, while being no less enjoyable, and deserves to be read by anyone wishing to gain an insight into a crucial point in twentieth century history.

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