Sunset, sunrise: The dramatic birth of modern India
At the cusp of Britain's exit and the rise of Indian independence there was unlikely leadership and untimely love
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Nehru comes out of "Indian Summer" as the true hero. Von Tunzelmann's attitude toward the two leaders can best be summed up in the following statement: "Nehru saw social and economic hardship as a cause of suffering, and therefore wanted to end it. Gandhi saw hardship as noble and righteous, and therefore wanted to spread the blessings of poverty and humility to all people."Skip to next paragraph
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Von Tunzelmann also seems rather fond of Edwina, who transformed herself from a promiscuous socialite in the 1920s to a tireless humanitarian during World War II and the unrest in India. The Mountbattens had an unusually fraught marriage: Dickie was devoted to Edwina, but it quickly became clear she would never be faithful to him. Pragmatically, he quietly supported her affairs with a series of men, including Nehru. (He also had a mistress of his own.) For her part, Edwina was ferociously jealous of Dickie's relationships with other women, including their own daughters.
But von Tunzelmann argues that Nehru and Edwina were the great loves of each other's lives, and that in India Edwina found greater fulfillment than at any other time in her life. "The heiress to millions had never been happier than when she was working in the hot, rough, and filthy refugee camps that had been set up across the riot-scarred Punjab."
India also seemed to bring out the best in her husband. Certainly, nothing in his earlier career would have indicated that he would have been a liberal champion of Asian self-rule or, frankly, anything but a feckless bumbler.
During World War II, Mountbatten thoroughly earned his nickname as "master of disaster." He was prone to ramming his ship into other British vessels and his hare-brained schemes included an aircraft carrier molded from an iceberg. Von Tunzelmann makes the most of this rich material, which would be funny if so many young men weren't being killed. But she defends Mountbatten against charges that he deserved a court martial for the speed with which he conducted Britain's exit strategy from the subcontinent.
"There is no reason to think that the slow-boiling of communal tempers under martial law for an extra nine months would have reconciled everybody to live happily ever after," she writes. And as for the charge that he should have beefed up British troop presence to stem the violence, well, "he could not magic soldiers out of thin air."
Observers of modern international politics will see some obvious parallels to Iraq of today. Von Tunzelmann herself does not make this explicit.
While the chapters on the partition of India and the subsequent riots are some of the strongest in the book, the narrative of "Indian Summer" does have a few hiccups. The beginning, as von Tunzelmann jumps between her characters in India and Britain, can seem a little disjointed. Nehru's early years are especially frustrating, since a reader doesn't get to see his rise to power or his first meetings with Gandhi, whom Nehru revered as a second father despite their differences about religion.
But once World War II arrives, the book hits its stride in much the same way that the war helped Edwina discover a purpose for her abundant energy.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.