Need a passage to India but cannot afford the ticket? Try spending $18.00 for the paperback version of Indian Summer (2007), which chronicles the ignoble end of the British Empire in India. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann (a she, by the way), in her very first book, puts together an often-fascinating portrait of the lives of the people that shaped India and Pakistan and the British overlords who saw it through its violent transition from colony to independent nation.
Through her voluminous research, von Tunzelmann takes us into the intimate life of Mohandas Gandhi, the famous pacifist whose nonviolent fasts could move empires. Gandhi though turns out to be something of an ancillary character. He is explored in depth, but von Tunzelmann turns most of her attention on the handsome Louis Mountbatten and his lovely and amazing wife Edwina Mountbatten. In his time, Louis Mountbatten was known as “Dickie”. Today he is best known as the paternal grandfather of Prince Charles, and the father of Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip. Dickie and Edwina lived oversized lives, which for a few years took them to India, with Dickie as its last viceroy and its first governor-general. Dickie’s unenviable job was to withdraw British forces from India, which had been bled dry from the Second World War, and which could simply no longer afford its empire. He had to do this while peacefully creating two new countries and without igniting a war between the new countries of India and Pakistan. Principally he had to arbitrate between two ardent nationalists, Jawahalar Nehru, who was to become India’s first prime minister and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who would have the same honor leading the new country of Pakistan.
To say Dickie found his job challenging would be an understatement. Imagine trying to come to find consensus between polarizing figures like Grover Norquist and Michael Moore. Nehru and Jinnah of course were but one of many characters influencing the birth of these new nations. The process was gloriously messy and certain to leave a bad taste in any viceroy’s mouth. Dickie’s career had been more mediocre than exceptional, but his oversized ego and noble blood led him to think he had the gift of succeeding in anything he did.
Dickie did have certain powerful assets, principally his charming wife Edwina, who could become friends with virtually anyone and if the gentleman was sufficiently interesting, lovers as well. Dickie married Edwina in part for her fortune, but they were not married too long before they realized they were temperamentally unsuited for each other. Dickie was devoted and simple minded. Edwina was sociable, brilliant, full of enormous energy and polyamorous to boot. She found little compunction to live her life by established rules. Her enormous wealth ensured she would not have to do so anyhow. Nor after a while did Dickie seem to mind. He found that to love Edwina he had to give her space to be who she was. This meant that through most of their marriage, they lived chaste lives, sometimes together but often apart, while Edwina frequently played the field. Dickie seemed to be born without the jealousy gene and appeared grateful for any time they could have together when they did not fight, which was often.
Anyone suspecting Edwina of being a trollop would be mistaken. She was quite discriminatory with who she slept with and with the right man she could be an extraordinary partner and lover. She preferred the exotic lover to the ordinary kind, which partially explains why shortly after meeting Nehru their relationship blossomed from good friend to lover. Through their extraordinary correspondence, much of it preserved and parsed over by von Tunzelmann, we learn that Edwina and Nehru’s both saw each other as the central love of their lives. They were never happier than when they were together, although those times were often fleeting.
The book thus is part soap opera and part history but mostly a page-turner. If you had to pick one character for whom this book is really about, it is Edwina Mountbatten. It is hard to finish the book and not see Edwina as one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century. She was fully liberated far before it was acceptable. She had boundless energy and boundless compassion, most of it for the poorest and most wretched among us. Moreover, she was absolutely fearless. Von Tunzelmann walks us through numerous occasions, particularly during the violent partition that created India and Pakistan, when Edwina daily put her own life in danger trying to sort through the unfolding human tragedy of nearly unfathomable proportions. Millions died because of wars associated with the partition. Edwina could often be found in refugee camps organizing aid, tending to the wounded, ministering the spiritually bereft, and even sorting through the piles of bodies found on the sides of the road. While some would be shocked by her libidinous love life, unquestionably she was a woman of great love and character. Women of any age looking for a woman to admire would have a hard time finding a better example than Edwina Mountbatten. She lived an authentic and fully engaged life on her own terms. Despite her enormous wealth, she connected more with the common person than Fidel Castro did with the humble Cuban. I hope that someday Hollywood (or Bollywood) will do her story justice on the screen.
Yes, this book is indeed a passage to India, and you are along for the ride a midst often fascinating and controversial characters. You can be thousands of miles away and still feel the heat of New Delhi on a one hundred seventeen degree summer day. You also learn in great detail about the many factions and political tensions in India and Pakistan, and the horrible political violence that occurred in Kashmir and elsewhere. It is sad to see so many of these tensions still abound today, as witnessed most recently in the Mumbai terrorist attacks that murdered hundreds of innocents.
To make sense of the present, it helps to understand the past. Von Tunzelmann performs an admirable service by explaining the genesis of Indian and Pakistan quagmire, as well as the end of the British Empire, in a fascinating and intimate way. Since she is young, I hope she can give us many more histories like this in the years ahead. I will likely be first in line to purchase them.