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Book Review – Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex Von Tunzelmann

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This first book by a 30-year-old Oxford historian is full of scorching insanity and shimmering evil. London and Delhi, Buckingham Palace and Birla House are the settings for its dramatic narrative where the consequences would exceed the worst nightmares.

Indian Summer follows a now-fashionable school of history writing where dates and numbers are considered slightly less important than details like what the kings ate and the queens wore. Be seduced by a beautiful British heiress whose craving for profound love distracts her from the attractions of a glamorous husband to the intellectual charms of an Indian Prime Minister. A Shakespeare-quoting lawyer breaks up a country by scaring fellow Muslims of Hindu dominion; a half-naked fakir breaks up marriages by persuading the wives to renounce sex. Underneath echoes the birth pangs of two infant nations whose dream of independence gets distorted into a nightmare of terror.

This is a book about the other side of Midnight.

On the stroke of midnight, on August 15th, 1947 as "clock hands joined palms in respectful greetings", a 57-year-old handsome man with soulful eyes and readymade smile stood up to utter, in pin drop silence, the most memorable lines of his life: "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny. And now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge; not wholly or in full, but substantially. At the stroke of midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom."

The speaker was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. A lonely Cambridge-educated widower who could never bring himself to love his ailing uneducated wife, Nehru was besotted with Edwina Mountbatten. She was the restless spouse of India's last British viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten. With Britain surrendering the jewel of its crown, Edwina would soon leave Delhi with her husband and go away from Nehru, because "duty has to be put before desire." Their intimacy would grow stronger. Exchanging letters for the rest of their lives, Edwina would confess of not being “interested in sex as sex” while Nehru would send her photographs of erotic sculptures of Konark’s Sun Temple.

However, during that fateful summer the highbrow love pair rolled in the hay even as dark forces crept in. While these two romantics drank tea, discussed socialist ideas and stayed up late all alone, a ghastly dance of passion unfolded in the unromantic world of the subcontinent. A fiery hate was heated up to sear this ancient land forever. The consequent fire helped turn many mortals into immortals – Nehru, Jinnah, and Mountbatten being the more prominent beneficiaries.

It all started in August when the monsoon was ending, humidity was high and the simmering heat smothered the air. India had just earned its freedom after making a final dig through a snake pit of bruised egos, nasty politicking and shortsighted perspectives of its native leaders.

Tall and slender Muhammad Ali Jinnah, a barrister who daily smoked fifty Craven A cigarettes, ended up smoking out India in pursuit of a homeland for its Muslims. One of the best-dressed men in the British Empire (according to the New York Times), his suave persona perhaps envied the magic spell that a mere loin-clothed man named Mohandas Gandhi had so effortlessly cast upon the fellow Indians. Early in his political career, Jinnah was a foremost proponent of the Hindu-Muslim unity but stung by Gandhi's Hindu spiritualism, he demanded Pakistan – whatever the cost.

The cost proved to be so high that its magnitude went beyond the power of comprehension. Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a clueless British lawyer, who had never before experienced the horrible Indian summer, was appointed to draw the boundaries. He did so nervously while sweating in his high ceiling bungalow in the grounds of the Viceroy's House. Once the job was finished, he caught the first flight to home. He had inkling that the new lines would soon unleash a holocaust.

Sir Radcliffe’s instincts were not misplaced. When Pakistan came crying into the world, Hindus and Sikhs celebrated its birth by butchering Muslims who returned the favor with equal fervor. Streets were littered with corpses; raped women had their breasts branded with their rapists’ names; children were burned alive. Vultures following the miles-long refugee caravans – millions were forced to migrate to Pakistan; equal millions to India – waited for the people to fall and die. In one instance in Delhi, rioters stormed into a high school where students were writing their matriculation examinations. Muslim boys were separated from the rest, taken into another room, and slaughtered like goats.

The mutual hatred was so sincere in spirit that when the suffering Punjabi Hindu women, lucky to have crossed into India alive, saw Muslim mothers lying dead with dead babies clasped in their arms, they openly rejoiced with delight – ecstasy in the sweet stench of revenge.

About Mayank Austen Soofi

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!