The last book my book group read was Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire. I had suggested it based on my own fascination with India. I started reading fiction about India when I was in high school, with Kamala Markandaya’s Nectar in a Sieve, a revelatory novel for me, a Brooklyn teenager living in a fairly sheltered world. I was hooked and have been reading about India ever since, especially the great novels that deal with the British colonial period and its aftermath. I’ve created a reading list of some of my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles.
So I was especially pleased to re-read Indian Summer for the book group and have a chance to discuss it with friends. Von Tunzelman tells the story of how the British government extricated itself from India after World War II, when the expense of maintaining the Raj was too great. Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, appointed as Viceroy in 1947, was charged with supervising the handover. Mountbatten may not have been the ideal politician for the job, which needed a statesman of Solomonic proportions. India was not a unified country where a transfer of power could occur with the lowering of one flag and the hoisting of another. Partition–the creation of East Pakistan and West Pakistan as Muslim states–which occurred simultaneously with Indian independence, was the signal for an onslaught of horrendous violence between Hindus and Muslims that still poisons relations between the two countries. Did the British haste to settle such a volatile situation create this permanent state of tension between India and Pakistan or was there no way to avoid a fiasco?
Von Tunzelman concentrates on the major characters in this political drama. On the English side, the social climbing, often clueless Mountbatten and his indefatigable wife Edwina, on the other, three very different charismatic Indian statesmen: Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah. So much of what happened is due to the confluence of these five people, who were caught up in a firestorm of political and religious fervor. Von Tunzelman, by blending the factual with the personal, enlivens the historical record and provides insight into the power of individuals to shape history. Indian Summer also reveals the seeds of current problems in this area, Afghanistan included. There’s plenty of food for thought here and a good story, too.