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

Today, India is the world's most populous democracy, with a fast-growing economy that stamps Mohandas Gandhi's face on every 10 rupee note. Sixty years ago, it was unclear if the democracy would survive its first year.

After the partition of India in 1947 to create Pakistan and what became Bangladesh, riots erupted as Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims began slaughtering one another. The atrocities lasted for weeks, and while no one knows how many people died, the most commonly cited number is 1 million. The people who had fought for decades to win India's independence from Britain never really got a chance to celebrate the victory achieved on Aug. 15: They were too busy trying to stop the bloodshed.

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, Alex von Tunzelmann's first book, is a sweeping narrative history about the five historic figures at the heart of independence: Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister; Gandhi, the country's spiritual leader; Mohammed Jinnah, founder of the Muslim state of Pakistan; and Louis "Dickie" and Edwina Mountbatten, the glamorous but unlikely couple who had been sent to extricate Britain from its empire.

Complicating matters, the widowed Nehru and Edwina were conducting an affair, von Tunzelmann writes. Had it become widely known, the scandal could have been disastrous for the three countries.

Despite the book's subtitle, it's unclear what's "secret" about this history. Von Tunzelmann is witty, erudite, and thoughtful about her subject, but "Indian Summer" doesn't contain any revelatory discoveries.

As for the dishier topics, while the book jacket goes on breathlessly about the romance between Edwina and Nehru, well, this isn't "The Jewel in the Crown." Von Tunzelmann is too serious a historian to make the affair a central focus of her book, and Edwina and Nehru themselves vowed their work would take precedence over their relationship. With the country ravaged by mobs that targeted women and children, they had other things on their minds than their next tryst.

Von Tunzelmann is an opinionated and sardonic writer, and is perfectly willing to take on both saints and heroes. Neither Winston Churchill nor Gandhi fares well under her treatment, although they supply her with ample ammunition. When asked to send food during the Bengal famine of 1943 (after Britain had hoovered up the area's grain supplies to support the war), Churchill not only refused but sent a telegram asking, if millions of people were starving, "why Gandhi hadn't died yet." He is also quoted as saying, "I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion."

Gandhi, meanwhile, is portrayed as a terrible father and a supporter of Adolf Hitler. Von Tunzelmann also argues that, had it not been for Gandhi's dithering, India could have been independent as early as the 1920s. "Gandhi's need for spotless moral perfection hamstrung his party's progress. His principal object was to make the Indian people worthy of freedom in the eyes of God. The object of actually achieving freedom ... was secondary."

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."

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.

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