INDIAN SUMMER: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE END OF AN EMPIRE by Alex Von Tunzelmann (Henry Holt), 416 pages, $36.99 cloth. Rating: NNNNN
Last week’s killing of Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan’s leading opposition leader and presidential candidate, is the latest tragedy for a country born in violence that has known little peace in the ensuing 60 years.
Decades of military dictatorships, sectarian strife and systemic corruption followed the tenure of Pakistan’s first governor-general, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who sought to found a moderate democratic Muslim nation.
Jinnah and the emergence of Pakistan, Britain’s quitting of the Indian Subcontinent and the cataclysmic events surrounding the partition of India form part of the epic story told brilliantly by Alex Von Tunzelmann in Indian Summer.
Historical giants weave in and out of the years of high drama leading up to the British forces’ withdrawal from India in 1947. But Von Tunzelmann reveals, often with comical verve, that many of those giants were grossly flawed.
She portrays Mohandas Gandhi, the guru of non-violent resistance, as a zealot whose uncompromising puritanism probably delayed Indian home rule by two decades. His flattering statements about Hitler’s bloodless victories at the start of World War II make your skin crawl.
Still, his fasts and moral leadership helped quell some of the most vicious violence between Muslims and Hindus in the wake of the end of the British Raj.
At the centre of this wonderful book is a strange ménage à trois involving future Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Louis Mountbatten, Britain’s eccentric viceroy who was given the job of overseeing the end of the empire, and his activist wife, Edwina.
All three had their personal shortcomings and sometimes exercised devastatingly poor judgment, but their love for India and each other saw them through extraordinary tensions. Tragically, Pakistan’s current chaos leaves the relationship between the two nations unclear.
A great read and a fine backgrounder to today’s headlines.