Blogs > Cliopatria > Mayank Austen Soofi: Review of Alex Von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

Aug 14, 2007 6:11 pm

Mayank Austen Soofi: Review of Alex Von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

This first book by a 30-year-old Oxford historian is full of scorching insanity and shimmering evil. London and Delhi, Buckingham Palace and Birla House are the settings for its dramatic narrative where the consequences would exceed the worst nightmares.

Indian Summer follows a now-fashionable school of history writing where dates and numbers are considered slightly less important than details like what the kings ate and the queens wore. Be seduced by a beautiful British heiress whose craving for profound love distracts her from the attractions of a glamorous husband to the intellectual charms of an Indian Prime Minister. A Shakespeare-quoting lawyer breaks up a country by scaring fellow Muslims of Hindu dominion; a half-naked fakir breaks up marriages by persuading the wives to renounce sex. Underneath echoes the birth pangs of two infant nations whose dream of independence gets distorted into a nightmare of terror.

This is a book about the other side of Midnight.

On the stroke of midnight, on August 15th, 1947 as "clock hands joined palms in respectful greetings", a 57-year-old handsome man with soulful eyes and readymade smile stood up to utter, in pin drop silence, the most memorable lines of his life: "Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny. And now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge; not wholly or in full, but substantially. At the stroke of midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom."

The speaker was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India. A lonely Cambridge-educated widower who could never bring himself to love his ailing uneducated wife, Nehru was besotted with Edwina Mountbatten. She was the restless spouse of India's last British viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten. With Britain surrendering the jewel of its crown, Edwina would soon leave Delhi with her husband and go away from Nehru, because "duty has to be put before desire." Their intimacy would grow stronger. Exchanging letters for the rest of their lives, Edwina would confess of not being “interested in sex as sex” while Nehru would send her photographs of erotic sculptures of Konark’s Sun Temple....

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