Alex von Tunzelmann – Indian Summer

IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WERE TWO NATIONS. ONE WAS A vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England.

This is how Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer begins. The book looks at the last few years of the Freedom movement in India from an impartial viewpoint, in many ways reminding me of Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins’ Freedom at Midnight. But I always found Freedom a little white-washed, too eager to steer clear of controversy, and also covering a very narrow period of India’s freedom movement. Specifically the last few years before we attained independence in August 1947 and the horrors it unleashed, culminating in the death of MK Gandhi in 1948. That is why I usually read it along with The Proudest Day, which goes back a little further. Von Tunzelmann mentions that the writers Lapierre and Collins were Mountbatten’s official biographers, which automatically makes me suspicious about the gentlemen’s lack of bias and their facts.


Indian Summer takes a more relaxed, holistic route that begins with the flow of the British into India and establishes how the Raj came about, in broad strokes. But the meat of the story deals with the trajectory of the principals concerned – MK Gandhi, MA Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, including all of their early life stories. The book therefore becomes not just about 1947, but about these protagonists, and how their lives and motivations intertwine over the years, the narrative concluding not with the summer of ’47, as the name of the book would imply, but instead with the demise of the longest-lived one among them, Mountbatten. [ref]And I did not know that Mountbatten died in a bomb explosion in his fishing boat, the explosive planted by IRA terrorists. [/ref]

The writer is not kind towards most of the people she talks about. Mountbatten’s early career makes him sound like the air-headed protagonist of a PG Wodehouse novel – he apparently shoots a British general in the leg accidentally, and causes much mayhem during training exercises for D-Day during World War II. His career in the navy is marked with multiple submarines destroyed, but the magic of being associated with the British aristocracy miraculously sees him through his follies. The list of titles after his name ( KG, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCIE, GCVO, DSO, PC, FRS) sounds incredulous even as you read about his exploits.

Jawaharlal Nehru comes across as much more grounded, despite being from an upper class family and being subject to a deification from the population of India even in the early Congress years of the 1930s that sounds borderline insane. There are also stories of Nehru where he jumps into crowds and starts getting into scraps every time he loses his temper, and he does that a lot, especially in his later years.

Songs were composed in his honour; fantastic stories were told of his valour and bravery. A woman in Madras created a line of toiletries called the ‘Nehru Specialities’, and sent samples to him. His vanity was slightly offended by the ‘most disagreeable picture of mine’ branded on all the bottles, but otherwise he found them amusing and distributed the samples of Nehru Brilliantine, Nehru Pomade, and Nehru Lime Juice & Glycerine among his friends. Pamphleteers and orators called him ‘Bharat Bhushan’ (‘Jewel of India’) and ‘Tyagamurti’ (‘O, Embodiment of Sacrifice’) – nicknames which were gleefully picked up by his family. ‘When Bhai [Brother] came down to breakfast we bowed deeply and asked how the Jewel of India had slept, or if the Embodiment of Sacrifice would like some bacon and eggs,’ remembered Betty. The reaction of the chosen one to all this acclaim was characteristically self-deprecating. ‘It went to my head, intoxicated me a little, and gave me confidence and strength. I became (I imagine so, for it is a difficult task to look at oneself from outside) just a little bit autocratic in my ways, just a shade dictatorial.’

Von Tunzelmann however reserves an abundance of barbs for the future Father of the Nation.

Nehru saw social and economic hardship as a cause of suffering, and therefore wanted to end it; Gandhi saw hardship as noble and righteous, and therefore wanted to spread the blessings of poverty and humility to all people.


On 15 January 1934, a colossal earthquake hit Bihar, a rural province on the Gangetic plain beneath the Himalayas of Nepal. The devastated area stretched from Allahabad to Darjeeling, and from Kathmandu to Patna. The death toll was estimated at 20,000.  Gandhi visited Bihar in March, and spoke to the bereaved, destitute and homeless people. The earthquake, he told them, ‘is a chastisement for your sins’. And the particular sin that he had in mind was the enforcement of Untouchability. Even Gandhi’s closest supporters were horrified. The victims of the earthquake had included poor as well as rich; Untouchables, Muslims and Buddhists as well as caste-Hindus. But Gandhi was explicitly blaming the victims, appropriating a terrible disaster to promote his own religious ideas. Nehru, who had been helping the relief effort in Bihar, read Gandhi’s remarks ‘with a great shock’. But the most effective refutation came from Rabindranath Tagore, long one of the Mahatma’s greatest advocates. Tagore argued caustically that this supposedly ‘divine’ justice, if such it was, constituted the least just form of punishment imaginable.


Gandhi’s position on non-violence was absolute. Aggression could never be returned. He did not believe that women should resist rape, but preferred that they should ‘defeat’ their assailants by remaining passive and silent. Correspondingly, he did not believe that the victims of war should resist attackers by physical force, but rather ought to offer satyagraha – that is, non-compliance with the invaders. ‘If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified,’ he wrote. ‘But I do not believe in any war.’ He advised the British to give up the fight against Hitler and Mussolini: ‘Let them take possession of your beautiful island … allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.’ Furthermore, in one of his most controversial arguments, Gandhi advised the Jews in Germany to offer passive resistance to the Nazi regime – and to give up their own lives as sacrifices.


Almost everyone on the Mission regarded Gandhi as the biggest culprit in holding up negotiations. Sir Francis Fearon Turnbull, a civil servant, was impressed with Gandhi’s clever drafting and legal mind, but not in the least with his attitude. ‘The nasty old man has grasped that he can get what he asks for’, he wrote, ‘& so goes on asking for more & more.’ Wavell, the Viceroy, agreed. ‘Gandhi was the wrecker’, he wrote to the King. Even Lord Pethick-Lawrence, the new Secretary of State for India noted for his mild manners and cruelly nicknamed ‘Pathetic-Lawrence’ on account of them, became exasperated by the Mahatma. He ‘let fly in a way I have never heard him before’, wrote Turnbull. ‘Said he was coming to believe Gandhi did not care whether 2 or 3 million people died & would rather that they should than that he should compromise.’

Since I am allowed one Watchmen reference every few posts, I can safely mention that to me, Gandhi comes across as the Rorschach of the Indian political movement. [ref]That makes Dr Manhattan = Indian Nationalism, who destroyed Rorschach when he got in the way of progress . Stretching this analogy further, Louis Mountbatten = Ozymandias (“I already did it, 10 months too early.”). Nehru is Nite Owl, haunted and ineffectual, but coming into his own with time. Oh dear, I hate myself. [/ref] His inability to compromise and his unyielding moral compass – not to mention his controversial “experiments” –  are all things that draws controversial discussions across living rooms. I am personally willing to be objective about him, just because what he did was so significant and completely unconventional, especially in an era of imperialism, fascism, ethnic genocide, the atomic bomb and two World Wars. [ref]

A Hipster Hitler webcomic exists. Maybe we need a Hipster Gandhi webcomic too? It will be easy to monetize as well.

  • Step one: Make Hipster Gandhi web-comic.
  • Step two: Get banned in India.
  • Step three:….
  • Step four: Profit.

Maybe Step three isn’t even necessary, at all.[/ref]

At the same time, ignoring the demerits of some of his ideas just because he is a near-deity in the country defeats the spirit of the man, and undermines his message. (Just as calling him Gandhiji adds to that saintly, omniscient persona, which I do not believe in) Some of his ideas are horrendous – if you quote them verbatim, they sound not much unlike rural politicians, phony god-men or evangelists in present-day India – or even the USA. Von Tunzelmann does not really say much that we don’t know through the man’s writings, or other writings about him, but there is one aspect of his life that I hadn’t thought about.

Congress was a largely secular and inclusive organization during Motilal Nehru’s prime in the first twenty years of the twentieth century. Though it was the opposite of his intention, the emergence of Gandhi gave confidence to religious chauvinists. While Gandhi himself welcomed those of all faiths, the very fact that he brought spiritual sensibilities to the centre of politics stirred up extreme and divisive passions. Fundamentalist Hindus were rare presences on the political scene before Gandhi. In the wake of Gandhi, though, Hindu nationalists were able to move into the central ground of politics; while organizations like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), dedicated to the formation of a Hindu nation, swelled their ranks from the fringes. This was no slow, invisible political trend: it was happening visibly during the spring and summer of 1947, when holy sadhus clad in saffron robes marched around the streets of Delhi, bellowing forth political slogans.

In case these selective quotes make it appear as if the writer is placing the blame solely on Indians for the religious animosity that exists today, let me be clear that she points an equally harsh finger at the British policy of ‘Divide and Rule’.

Undoubtedly, the raj did plenty to encourage identity politics. The British found it easier to understand their vast domain if they broke it down into manageable chunks, and by the 1930s they had become anxious to ensure that each chunk was given a full and fair hearing. But picking a few random unelected lobbyists, based on what the British thought was a cross-section of Indian varieties, was not a reliable way to represent 400 million people. India’s population could not be divided into neat boxes labelled by religion and cross-referenced with social position. India was an amorphous mass of different cultures, lifestyles, traditions and beliefs. After so many centuries of integration and exchange, these were not distinct, but rippled into each other, creating a web of cultural hybrids and compromises. A Sunni Muslim from the Punjab might have more in common with a Sikh than he did with a Shia Muslim from Bengal; a Shia might regard a Sufi Muslim as a heretic; a Sufi might get on better with a Brahmin Hindu than with a Wahhabi Muslim; a Brahmin might feel more at ease with a European than he would with another Hindu who was an outcaste. When the British started to define ‘communities’ based on religious identity and attach political representation to them, many Indians stopped accepting the diversity of their own thoughts and began to ask themselves in which of the boxes they belonged. At the same time, Indian politicians began to focus on religion as a central part of their policies – defining themselves by what they were, and even more by what they were not.

Any book that talks about the last days of the Raj makes the butterflies in my tummy fly more frenetically, and this one was no exception. The story of the Indo-Pakistan Partition, regardless of the whys, hows and what-the-fucks, is just unbelievably tragic, and that’s an understatement. The missed opportunities, the what-ifs, the botched decisions – they are enough to make a reader want to throw up after every few paragraphs. In the end, all we have are numbers.

In Stalin’s famous words, one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic. In this case, it is not even a particularly good statistic. The very incomprehensibility of what a million horrible and violent deaths might mean, and the impossibility of producing an appropriate response, is perhaps the reason that the events following partition have yielded such a great and moving body of fictional literature and such an inadequate and flimsy factual history. What does it matter to the readers of history today whether there were 200,000 deaths, or 1 million, or 2 million? On that scale, is it possible to feel proportional revulsion, to be five times more upset at 1 million deaths than at 200,000? Few can grasp the awfulness of how it might feel to have their fathers barricaded in their houses and burnt alive, their mothers beaten and thrown off speeding trains, their daughters torn away, raped and branded, their sons held down in full view, screaming and pleading, while a mob armed with rough knives hacked off their hands and feet. All these things happened, and many more like them; not just once, but perhaps a million times. It is not possible to feel sufficient emotion to appreciate this monstrous savagery and suffering. That is the true horror of the events in the Punjab in 1947: one of the vilest episodes in the whole of history, a devastating illustration of the worst excesses to which human beings can succumb. The death toll is just a number.

Finally, the book goes into much, much more detail about the Edwina-Nehru relationship than any other book I have read, and I do not want to read a book devoted to this topic alone, because the urge to sensationalize such a story, to find agendas and conspiracies and increase book-selling statistics is something we recognize all too well, we Upworthy-link-consumers. What I took away from the story is that Louis Mountbatten knew and accepted it. (Look at that cover picture above, at the perfect moment in time that it captures) That Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru were a lady and a gentleman who knew that certain things may be forgiven by the media and the populace, provided decorum is maintained, and the perks of high office aren’t scandalously utilized. Theirs seemed like a beautiful relationship that made both of them happy, one where they treated each other with love and respect. Isn’t that all that is required, from a relationship?

MA Jinnah comes across as a righteous man wronged, far ahead of his time, and yet susceptible to both ego and impetuous decision-making – Direct Action Day, anyone? There is an alternate history waiting to be written somewhere, where Nehru and Jinnah do not see themselves as rivals, and one becomes Governor-General and the other Prime Minister, possibly the most rational duo in 20th century politics. [ref] Or slash fiction. Slash fiction will save the world.[/ref]  What makes me think so? This:

Jinnah’s speech on 11 August made it very clear that he intended Pakistan to be a secular state. ‘You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State,’ he declared, guaranteeing equality in Pakistan for all faiths and communities. He went further still: ‘In course of time all these angularities of the majority and minority communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community – because even as regards Muslims you have Pathans, Punjabis, Shias, Sunnis and so on, and among Hindus you have Brahmins, Vashnavas, Khatris, also Bengalees, Madrasis and so on – will vanish,’ he said. ‘Indeed, if you ask me, this has been the biggest hindrance in the way of India to attain freedom and independence, and but for this we would have been free peoples long, long ago.’40 These were peculiar words from the man who had long hindered independence precisely by reinforcing the division between Hindu and Muslim, and add weight to the theory that Jinnah may have been less serious about Pakistan as a Muslim homeland than as a playing piece. Perhaps, all along, he had pursued not an Islamic state, but rather a non-Hindu-majority state.

And this:

The circumstances changed quickly for, on 11 September 1948, Mohammad Ali Jinnah finally succumbed to his illness. He had been on his way to Karachi. Fatima remembered him speaking in delirium: ‘Kashmir … Give them … the right … to decide … Constitution … I will complete it … soon … Refugees … give them … all assistance … Pakistan.’ According to his doctor, Jinnah saw Liaquat and told him that Pakistan was ‘the biggest blunder of my life’. Further yet, he declared: ‘If now I get an opportunity I will go to Delhi and tell Jawaharlal to forget about the follies of the past and become friends again.’ It is impossible to prove whether Jinnah actually said these words or not; either way, he was to have no further opportunity for a rapprochement. He was taken from the airport to the Governor General’s house in an ambulance, which broke down after four miles on a main road in the middle of a refugee settlement with traffic honking by. The heat sizzled, flies buzzing around the Quaid-e-Azam’s ashen face as Fatima attempted to fan them away. It was an hour before another ambulance could be found. Jinnah was taken back to Government House, where Fatima watched him sleep for about two hours. ‘Oh, Jin,’ she remembered thinking, ‘if they could pump out all my blood, and put it in you, so that you may live.’ He woke one final time and whispered to her ‘Fati, khuda hafiz.… la ilaha il Allah … Mohammad … rasul … Allah.’ His head slumped to the right. He had died with the confession of faith just past his lips.

A wonderful, wonderful book.


One thought on “Alex von Tunzelmann – Indian Summer

  1. db says:

    I remember reading a very fine description of how Nehru would slap people in unruly crowds. Unfortunately, I can’t locate that now.

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