Sunday, August 12, 2007

Salaciousness obscures story of India's independence

Who was Edwina Mountbatten? This is the question you can seek an answer to when you pick up Alex Von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer. For this book's title is a misplaced attempt at reaching the glorious past of the British in India. If Von Tunzelmann's 416-page narrative on the end of the Raj accomplishes anything, it is to awaken readers to the salacious details of the failure of the Mountbatten matrimony.

Do we really need another account of how Partition tore India into two nations whose birth was midwifed by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah?

Nehru was always a moderate, and must be credited for his secular credentials, but does that mean we must look askance at his sins of omission and commission? True, he evolved from being a stiff-upper-lip Englishman into a vigorous grass-roots leader of Indian independence, but this change went unaccompanied by any real empathy for the Indian way.

And what about Gandhi? He was the Mahatma, the noble soul who could do no wrong. But he was also much beholden to his affection for Nehru and this blinded him to the machinations for power that ultimately resulted in bloody conflict.

In Von Tunzelmann's account, there is no mystery unsolved, only a bland rendering of facts and figures. The saga of Indian independence is explained largely by the fraught relationships among the dramatis personae.

Louis "Dickie" Mountbatten was sympathetic, but only when he was not battling his wife's many dalliances. Edwina was all ears, but she had her husband's bisexuality to contend with. Vallabhbhai Patel was mercurial, but he beat the Guptas and the Mauryas in uniting India.

Nehru's relationship with Edwina supposedly created such a bond between Dickie and him that "he appeared to sag at the sight of the alabaster head of Jawaharlal." Is this history, seriously, or am I reading People's list of the 50 sexiest men of the Independence movement?

It would have been eminently better for Von Tunzelmann to have made this into a biography of the Mountbattens because it is in the parts about the couple that the book occasionally picks up. Von Tunzelmann demonstrates an uncomfortably prurient interest in Dickie's sexuality. Sample this:

"In contrast to her intense jealousy toward women, Edwina never showed any sign of the least resentment toward the men in her husband's life. There were quite a number of them; and there have been persistent rumors that he was homosexual. Several of his closest friends were gay ... The fact that Mountbatten was not threatened by gay men does not automatically imply that he himself was gay; it could be taken to signify the opposite. His reaction on being told that one of his servants was gay was characteristically unflustered. 'Of course,' he replied. 'All the best valets are.' "

What Von Tunzelmann falls for is a well-worn trap for Western writers reminiscing on the Gilded Age of the Raj; their out-of-hand dismissal of any non-Congress, non-Gandhi, non-Nehru contributions. Thankfully, Patel gets an honorable mention, if only cursorily.

In the end, the question of what this book aims to achieve must be broached. Surely Von Tunzelmann has an abiding fascination with India, its past and perhaps also its future. This book, though, does no justice to her vision, assuming there is one. What we have here is a shabbily written unengaging portrait of sexual peccadilloes.


From Chicago Sun-Times

Update: Cookie Maini on Romance as historical puzzle


twoforjoy said...

I like this one. calling a spade a spade. I think most foreign authors of the raj era are too taken in by the sexual (or maybe) dynamics of edwina and nehru relationship. I mean if you have nothing new to say why attempt a me too book. good one. I for one usually turn cold at the nehru relationship saga. i think he was a wuss and a shrewd one at that. lethal combination. The best bit was people's list of 50 sexiest independence good one.

Vikram Johri said...

Thanks a ton, twoforjoy!!