A Change in the Political Climate

By Joanne Collings,
a Washington freelance writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007


The Secret History of the End of an Empire

By Alex von Tunzelmann

Henry Holt. 401 pp. $30

For those who enjoy gossip about British royalty but also have a serious interest in history, "Indian Summer," by Alex von Tunzelmann, will be welcome. It removes the veil from the colorful personalities and events behind India's independence and partition with Pakistan, exploring the eccentricities and peccadilloes of the subcontinent's last British rulers and first democratic leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi. Disturbing parallels to the U.S. entanglement in Iraq are apparent, although von Tunzelmann never addresses them directly.

It's clear from "Indian Summer" that you do not have to be English to be eccentric, though it helps. Of the main players on von Tunzelmann's stage, only Edwina Mountbatten, wife of Britain's last viceroy in India, was English by blood and breeding, and she comes across as the least quirky.

Gandhi, the future proponent of nonviolent resistance, studied law in London. Nehru, the first prime minister of a free India, went to Harrow and Cambridge. Both were changed by their experiences in England, albeit in different ways: Gandhi grew in political awareness and religious conviction, two processes he could never quite integrate. Nehru more easily reconciled the divergent parts of his upbringing. He could, von Tunzelmann writes, "enjoy his European refinements without compromising his Indian identity."

Britain's final viceroy, Louis Mountbatten (Dickie to his family), was born a prince, but four people "would have had to die, abdicate, or marry Catholics in order for him to become king." More fatefully, he was of German extraction, just like his distant relative, George V, then occupying the British throne. When World War I began, the decision was made to cull the royal family of Germans, and Dickie's father, Prince Louis of Battenberg and the First Sea Lord of the Royal Navy, lost both job and title, becoming Louis Mountbatten, Marquess of Milford Haven. "Henceforth," von Tunzelmann writes, "Battenberg [was just] a cake."

Still, his royal connections helped the younger Mountbatten to become the last viceroy of Burma, the man in charge of overseeing the birth of an independent India. He was at Cambridge with the two younger British princes, Albert and Henry, and in 1921, he accompanied David, the prince of Wales and then-heir to the throne, on a tour of the empire. During his travels, Dickie corresponded with Edwina Ashley, a young woman with an impeccable pedigree, soon to become one of the world's richest women.

The Mountbattens had an extraordinarily complex relationship, but neither ever seriously considered ending it. Both had affairs, despite Dickie's obsession with Edwina and Edwina's jealousy of other women in Dickie's life, including their own daughters. India, in its birth throes, was the perfect place for them. Dickie could enjoy his love of ceremony and uniforms. Edwina, to whom money meant little personally, found ample outlet for her charitable impulses, which allowed her to get her hands dirty and to wear comfortable shoes on occasion.

Dickie's duties and Edwina's interests inevitably involved them with Gandhi and Nehru. Von Tunzelmann believes that "few political figures have been so widely misunderstood as Gandhi." She argues that, while Gandhi's apparent socialism attracted many followers, including Nehru, his views were more grounded in religious beliefs than is commonly understood. Gandhi wanted independence, but he also wanted India to earn it, so he often seemed to behave in opposition to his stated goal. For him, the personal was political; not many supporters, Nehru included, could sign on for the degree of voluntary deprivation he advocated.

Yet Nehru and Gandhi were good friends, and Nehru more than earned his place as a liberator. He also found a place in Edwina Mountbatten's heart. Their relationship was one Dickie would subtly facilitate, and it lasted the rest of Edwina's life. Whether it was physically intimate has been debated; von Tunzelmann believes it was.

The author moves easily between these stories, as well as that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the man who would lead Pakistan. She makes the connections and keeps track of every part of the story while moving it all forward. She has a wicked wit: After quoting a less than complimentary comment about Dickie by his cousin David, a serial dater of married women, she observes that it was made "with the haughtiness that only the pot can muster for the kettle."

The royals do not come off well here; neither does Winston Churchill. And there is a painful contrast between the unspeakable violence erupting throughout the country and Mountbatten's obsession with titles, flags and ceremony. While Edwina toiled "an average of eighteen hours a day, Dickie still seemed to be able to fit in riding, exercise, genealogy, and regular massages," von Tunzelmann acidly notes.

The British have been blamed for letting India go before the country was fully prepared. Many aspects of independence -- such as allowing provinces and princely states to decide whether to join India or Pakistan, and the failure to resolve the issue of Kashmir -- led to continuing violence, much of it over religious differences.

Today, partition is sometimes touted as the solution to Iraq's future, with the Iraqis deciding how to split once the United States is largely gone. Von Tunzelmann, a first-time British author who writes with authority and confidence, provides in "Indian Summer" an unspoken warning against such an idea, unless it is thoroughly and adequately planned.

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