Love in the time of Partition
A new play in London about the last days of the Raj deals with the problem of withdrawing from a country — and with Edwina Mountbatten's relationship with Jawarharlal Nehru. Amit Roy meets the playwright, Howard Brenton
On stage: (Left to right) Lucy Black (Lady Edwina Mountbatten), Tom Beard (Cyril Radcliffe), Andrew Havill (Lord Mountbatten); Pic: Catherine Ashmore
Did she or didn't she? Howard Brenton, one of Britain's most distinguished playwrights who has written a new play about the last days of the Raj, says that he is pretty sure that Edwina Mountbatten — being the free-spirited woman that she was — did sleep with Jawaharlal Nehru.
The setting for Drawing the Line is the frenetic six-week period in 1947 when a British judge, Mr Justice Cyril Radcliffe, was sent by the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, to carve out Pakistan from the old India.
Radcliffe was hopelessly ill-equipped for what was an "impossible" task anyway because the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh populations were so mixed up, notes Brenton. Radcliffe had never been to India before and knew nothing about maps.
Drawing the Line, running at Hampstead Theatre in north London until January 11, has an impressive cast: Tom Beard as Cyril Radcliffe, Andrew Havill as Lord Mountbatten, Lucy Black as Lady Mountbatten, Tanveer Ghani as M.K. Gandhi, Silas Carson as Nehru and Paul Bazely as Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
Radcliffe had come out to assist Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, achieve a speedy transfer of power and a British pullout by mid-August 1947. The politics is complicated by Lady Mountbatten's personal relationship with Nehru.
"Edwina Mountbatten was a remarkable woman, a very radical woman, into all kinds of causes, for women's suffrage, women's rights, a very radical personality, with a very good mind," Brenton points out. "And I think Nehru really responded to that," he says.
"It amazed him that he would find it in this English woman who was the wife of the Viceroy," he goes on. "And their work together was extraordinary — they toured (refugee) camps endlessly."
There was no suggestion at that stage that Mountbatten was bisexual, a claim some historians would make later. "I don't think so — Mountbatten had a mistress, she was in England and she did not come out to India — it was a very scratchy marriage."
Was it the case that, in common with so many other members of the English upper classes, Mountbatten and Edwina were happy to have an open marriage?
"I don't think human nature will ever let that work really, and in the end she was loyal to Mountbatten," Brenton speculates. "I have a scene where she says (to Mountbatten), 'You are honourable,' which is a concept which is almost non-existent these days — honour. There was a kind of honour about him that she recognised."
So why is Brenton so sure about the sexual side of her relationship with Nehru?
"As a playwright you have to make your decisions — did they sleep together? I think it is almost certain they did. You have to make up your mind about whether they did have an affair or what the nature of that affair was," Brenton goes on.
At one point in the play, Edwina even talks of divorcing her husband and marrying Nehru, but realises she cannot do so.
Did Mountbatten know what was going on between Edwina and Nehru?
"I am sure he did," Brenton replies.
Howard Brenton at Hampstead Theatre
"When the affair ends in the play they say, 'We are public figures — we must in the end maintain the form.' Both realise this, that when he becomes Prime Minister they have to maintain the form. (Years later) there was this incredible thing about her funeral — the Indian Navy went out (on Nehru's orders) to see her ashes thrown in the Indian Ocean."
Brenton mentions Edwina's relationship with a black bandleader "Hutch" during the 1930s. "She was formidable, she had great sexual appetites and, knowing that, I am sure they had an affair."
The "Hutch" is a reference to Leslie Hutchinson, who spread his favours liberally among women in British high society. In a recent episode of the ITV drama, Downton Abbey, an Englishwoman, Lady Rose MacClare, is shown having a fling with the black American jazz singer Jack Ross. "He definitely must have been based on Hutch," Brenton observes.
A contemporary account describes the first proper encounter between Edwina and Hutch: "Edwina interrupted Hutch playing the piano. She kissed his neck and led him by the hand behind the closed doors of the dining room. There was a shriek, and a few minutes later she returned, straightening her clothes."
Edwina was even thought to have commissioned Cartier to make a jewelled sheath for Hutch's manhood.
For the play, Brenton pored over books of and about the period — including Yasmin Khan's The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan and At Freedom's Door by Malcolm Lyall Darling. But he also exercised the playwright's prerogative.
"You look at photographs or read accounts and diaries and then you try and get into the mindset of the character," he explains. "Then it becomes like a s�ance and they start walking around in your head and you write down what they say. I know it does sound a bit cranky." But then, "I have written a number of history plays," Brenton says.
The play came about by accident. In 2009, Brenton and his wife were holidaying in Kerala on their first trip to India. "There was a young man we met who said, 'I have my grandfather's keys to his house in Lahore'."
A shopkeeper in Cochin said he sourced his fabric from (Pakistani) Kashmir but he could not himself cross the border.
Back home in England, Brenton wondered: "Who drew the border? The answer was extraordinary — the story of my play."
Brenton's analysis is that until 1937 Jinnah would have been satisfied with a "federated" India. But a Conservative government was at that stage unwilling to engage seriously with the question of granting independence to India. During the war, Congress leaders were locked up, leading to, first, Hindu, and then Muslim militancy, so that by 1947 Jinnah wanted only Partition.
Radcliffe is so guilt ridden by what he has done that he burns all his India papers in the garden of his Oxfordshire home, refuses his fee for partitioning India and never again speaks of those experiences. He had given Ferozepur in Punjab to Pakistan but was forced by Mountbatten to reverse his decision for reasons of "realpolitik".
Brenton finds it "shocking" that schoolchildren in Britain are not taught the story of Partition — drawing a line under the British Raj in India.
"It is a crucial time in British history: the beginning of our decolonisation," he points out. "It is not a pretty story but it has created the country we have now in many ways and we should be more aware of it."
He reckons the lessons of decolonisation have not been learnt. "How do you withdraw? We have had this problem three times in this country in the last 10 years: with Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. You intervene or you invade, you support a war on one side which is victorious, then how do you extricate yourself? You have a bloody mess. India was on a vast scale."