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  • Published 10.08.07

Simon & Schuster, $ 25

Sixty years of India’s independence is a publishers’ bonanza. Mountbatten’s daughter, Pamela, has published her memoirs of her days in Delhi when the Union Jack came down. Alex von Tunzelmann revisits the same period and subtitles his book “The Secret History of the End of an Empire”. What is secret about this history is not clear from this book, but it is a good enough publisher’s line to attract the unwary reader.

The underlying assumption of von Tunzelmann’s narrative is that Gandhi, Mountbatten, Jinnah and Nehru made independent India possible. This makes him concentrate on the fateful months after Mountbatten’s arrival in India in March 1947 as Viceroy. This assumption itself is based on yet another assumption: India’s freedom came through parleys between leaders sitting across a negotiating table. The mass movements had little or nothing to do with the attainment of independence. Needless to say, this is too simplistic and one-sided a view of a momentous event that had a prolonged gestation.

Even if one were to accept the very restricted view adopted by von Tunzelmann, one very important person is missing from the dramatis personae. Mountbatten was sent out to India by the then prime minister, Clement Attlee, with a clear and one-point brief. He had to arrange for the withdrawal of the British Empire from India with the least fuss and in the shortest possible time. Attlee had already promised the House of Commons that Britain would be out of India by the middle of 1948. Mountbatten, despite his delusions of grandeur, had no independent decision-making powers. He had to send all proposals to London for clearance. He had charm, and he used it in India to great effect. His wife’s relationship with Nehru helped in the process. (It needs to be noted for the prurient that there is nothing in this book about Nehru’s affair with Edwina which is not already known).

What makes von Tunzelmann’s book a delight to read is his keen eye for detail and his choice of the most telling anecdote. To take a few examples: Who knew that in the middle of Nehru’s famous “tryst with destiny” speech, there was a sudden and alarming honk from the back? It was, it turned out, nothing more than a Hindu member of the Constituent Assembly trying to blow into a conch shell to mark the auspicious occasion. Or that Mountbatten wrote to Vijaylakshmi Pandit (referred throughout the book as Nan, as she was called by her siblings) about the Emergency: “I cannot tell you how infinitely saddened I am at what is being done to the memory of your great brother Jawaharlal. It is a tragedy, of course, that his own daughter, Indu, and that unfortunate young son of hers, Sanjay, should have behaved in such a way during the Emergency, to make it possible for the name of Nehru to be besmirched.”

This is by no means a profound book. It has very little analysis. Nonetheless it is a delightful one, with anecdotes as nuggets embedded in the story. But the apparent frivolity of the story-telling cannot hide the fact that the research is good and solid.