Rating: 4 out of 5
India, the Imperial subcontinent. A day in 1947 was historic, in the most basic meaning of the word, for that imperial subcontinent. The words that Nehru uttered when the dreams of so many millions became true are a reminiscence upon the labour that was needed to make it possible; the crimes and calamities that took place both before and after the same event—India’s independence—were similarly important. Ms von Tunzelmann’s history describes all of this and more.
I thought this was a good history though not excellent. The author had a tendency to over-dramatize, but more importantly much was included here that really didn’t belong. If Edwina Mountbatten’s affairs in the 1940’s were relevant in her position as vicereine, the book did not need to describe her sex life in the 1920’s. Similarly, the especially strong fixation on Mohandas Gandhi’s sex life throughout his life (which potentially is more justified but still sounded unnecessary) were unnecessary. This seems to correspond to the need to sensationalize everything, just so there would be another headline, another tabloid article somewhere, and for subjects that were quite far from the primary topic of the tome, was not needed.
Yet, the author has done her work. I especially enjoyed the rather circumspect examination of Lord Mountbatten’s military career, a perfect example of failing upwards. Similarly enjoyable were the details that the author had uncovered with respect to what the later viceroy was doing at critical moments (for example, designing dress uniforms)—nevertheless, Louis Mountbatten comes through as a generally well-meaning individual. Edwina’s mark is clearly more positive, not being hampered by minutiae of government but focussing on helping the poorer.
Nehru, Gandhi, and Jinnah; the triumvirate whose choices led to August 15th also left a mark. The author’s investigation of Gandhi seemed more honest than purely worshipping him, and I generally liked the straightforward way the author treated him though the accusations of mental illness seem unfounded. Nehru seemed to be Ms von Tunzelmann’s favourite, Jinnah the least so—though in general Jinnah is treated much more superficially in works about India than the other two.
The author’s desire to act out a biography (or four biographies) was shown by the slow ending that left India and Pakistan to its conflicts and instead followed the Mountbattens and Nehru to their end. Meanwhile, Churchill and Attlee were almost wholly ignored even though it is clear that had things been otherwise in Westminster, independence would have likely come about a thoroughly different route than it did.
I’ve listed many small negatives of this book, but on the whole I liked it, and the author’s careful selection of quotes helps drive the narrative forward. The author has her favourites amongst the greats of history, but so do many others—and it doesn’t ruin the feel of the book.