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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.

Not even the Viceroy's household could feign an indifference to the tragedy. A ceremonial banquet hosted for a visiting dignitary during that period consisted of cabbage-water, slices of Spam with potatoes, biscuits and small pieces of cheese. Edwina's kitchen had no need to exercise rationing but it did. More concerned than her viceroy husband, she would visit the refugee camps, arrange for medicines, and fearlessly confront the killer mobs. Meanwhile her intimacy with Nehru strengthened as they witnessed the horrors – both were often seen with hands held together while surveying smoldering villages and rotting bodies. If Garcia Marquez had written this book, the title would have been Love in the Time of Massacres.

Millions were murdered that summer but the important deaths took place with the onset of the winter.

One chilly January afternoon in Delhi, a Hindu fanatic who decided Gandhi was too soft on Muslims, shoot at him at pointblank range with a Beretta pistol. As he fell down on the ground, this old man who preached non-violence, advocated celibacy, and abhorred alcohol had his values rubbished in dust. His people were killing each other; his greatest disciple Nehru was flamboyantly un-celibate; and his son Harilal attended the funeral in a drunken state.

Seven months later, on 9/11, Jinnah, who missed becoming a martyr due to several failed assassination attempts, succumbed to tuberculosis. His last word was Allah.

Now fast forward to 1960. Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who conducted her extra-marital affair with grace and dignity, not least because of her supportive husband, died during a tour in Borneo. Nehru's letters were found strewn across her deathbed. Her husband, the poor Lord Mountbatten, lived to see his name linked to gay orgies (once he was discovered with a male photographer attempting to remove his trousers) before being blown to bits by a bomb planted by the Irish terrorists.

Finally, Nehru, the only hero in the book, broken-hearted after Edwina's death and shattered in the aftermath of India’s spectacular defeat in the 1962 China war, died of heart attack – 15 years after making his midnight speech.

With him gone, the drama ended and an era concluded. To this day countless millions mourn for Gandhi, Jinnah, and Nehru but not for countless millions who were killed that Indian summer. Perhaps Stalin was right – the death of one man is tragedy; the death of millions is statistic.

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