Sunday, 22 May 2011

Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer

Alex von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007) is an extraordinarily well-written account of how between 1946 - 1948 Britain parted from 400 million out of the 500 million subjects of the British Empire and how the two new Dominions of India and Pakistan - independent states with a Commonwealth fig-leaf - came into being.

I read through its 370 pages with ease and absorption. That I read it in the week of the Queen and Prince Philip's visit to the Republic of Ireland added an unexpected twist.

On 27 August 1979, the IRA blew up a private fishing boat, Shadow V, at Mullaghmore, Sligo - in the Republic of Ireland. The explosion instantly killed three people in the boat: a local man, Paul Maxwell; a teenager, Nicholas Knatchbull, son of Patricia Mountbatten and her husband Lord Brabourne; and Nicholas's grandfather(Patricia's father), Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Lord Brabourne's mother died later of her injuries and Patricia Mountbatten spent weeks on a life support machine (von Tunzelmann, pages 365 - 366).

Earl Mountbatten of Burma ("Dickie") was Prince Philip's uncle and had always been close to him, as also to Prince Charles who treated him as an Honorary Grandfather. When Mountbatten was born in 1900 he was 49th in line to the Throne (von T., page 40)

This was the closest the IRA got to killing members of the Royal Family.

But in killing Mountbatten, they killed someone whose extraordinary life not only included war time service against Nazi Germany (much sympathised with in the old clerical-fascist Republic of Ireland) but who was also entrusted by the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee with transferring Imperial power in India and Pakistan to local governments. Mountbatten - and his wife Edwina even more so - was an anti-colonialist.

He was also a remarkably brave man, and his wife, [the Countess] Edwina Mountbatten, at least equally so. Extraordinary bravery also distnguished the principal Indian figures with whom they engaged, Gandhi and Nehru.

These were people (Gandhi excepted) who thought that the way to deal with a riot was to commandeer a jeep, head for the riot, drive into it, stop the jeep and climb on its bonnet and tell people - thousands of them and often armed - to go home. Von Tunzelmann's book is full of stories of the Mountbattens and Nehru doing things which no modern politician or official(Mountbatten was Viceroy of India) would even be allowed to think about. If they did, they would be strong armed away by their security detail.

The only modern equivalent I can think of is that of Prime Minister Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank in Moscow rallyng opposition to the attempted coup against President Gorbachev.

Edwina Mountbatten is the heroine of von Tunzelmann's book. Anecdote upon anecdote piles up the case for secular sainthood. (And - Gandhi apart - these were secular people: Nehru was adamant throughout his life that the secular path was the only one which could protect India from inter-communal strife).

I have not really engaged with modern Indian history before, thinking it rather dull. But von Tunzlemann tells a riveting story.

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