Alex Von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire

51Ap46kW0BL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_It was probably a natural progression for me to slip into Indian Summer after reading The Ruling Caste and Raj not so long ago. As its title suggests, Indian Summer is about the final years of the Raj, i.e., British rule over and occupation of the Indian subcontinent. To most people living in temperate climates, the phrase conjures up a period of warm weather after a hard frost, beautiful and very, very transitory. I think that’s an apt reference to this period in British history. It’s noteworthy and perhaps just a little ironic that this book was released in August 2007, sixty years after the British withdrew from the region.

The subtitle is perhaps a bit harder to explain. Yes, it’s the end of an empire, since once Britain divested herself of India and Pakistan, there wasn’t much left of her colonies. I’m not sure how a history can be secret, if it’s based on documentary evidence and is presented in a commercially-available book. Author Alex Von Tunzelmann offers the justification that she is presenting information heretofore unavailable for public consumption. Her numerous primary sources include records from the Royal Archives used with the express permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as well as from the British National Archives and the National Archives of India. However, it’s not evident from her narrative whether Von Tunzelmann was indeed the first to enjoy access to these documents and if so, why she enjoyed this privilege.

Although Indian Summer is technically a history, it also encompasses considerable biographical material about the key players: Lord Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten and his wife Edwina, who presided over the Raj in as its last British rulers in Dickie’s capacity as Viceroy; Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi, whose very different personalities influenced the emergence of the independent Indian state; and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who argued persuasively and persistently in favor of the “partitioning” that ultimately led to the establishment of both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Von Tunzelmann has done a fine job of writing a very detailed history in an interesting and generally readable style. She makes good use of direct quotes from the correspondence of her main characters and from contemporary news and other official courses. She follows a careful chronological order and makes use of chapter and section headings to guide the reader’s attention among the characters, thereby avoiding the usual pitfalls associated with writing a relatively complex historical work. She also manages successfully to walk the fine line between the significant biases of her sources — no easy task! Her notes on British and Indian proper names (Dickie was Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten, originally His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg; Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was often known as Bapu, “father,” or Mahatma, “great soul”) and brief glossary of common names that appear in the narrative are both very helpful to any reader not totally familiar with Anglo-Indian culture.

I also found her perspective on pre-Raj Indian history refreshing after reading the versions by Gilmour and James. Her opening chapter, “In Their Gratitude our Best Reward,” reminds the reader that India was a “vast, mighty and magnificent empire” when England was still “an undeveloped, semifeudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses” (page 11). Now that’s different! She enlightened me regarding the origin of Pakistan’s name, which represents the initials of the provinces that comprise the country (Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, and Sind with the final syllable from Baluchistan) and means “land of the pure” in Urdu, one of the languages of that region.

Henry Holt has done an equally creditable job of packaging Von Tunzelmann’s work. The book includes a multi-page insert of black and white photographs (a few of these are, alas, undated), extensive endnotes and a separate bibliography (featuring a good mix of primary and secondary source materials), and the obligatory index. I should warn you that all the technical appendices are printed in teeny-weeny type, but you should be accustomed to that by now. I know I am!

Alas, the secrets with which Von Tunzelmann tempts her readers in the subtitle and passim throughout the narrative are those for which she cannot provide more than the barest whiff of documentary evidence. In her Acknowledgements section, she admits that her overtures to the Mountbatten and Nehru-Gandhi families were unsuccessful, so that she was unable to obtain copies of the correspondence between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru to which she obliquely refers on numerous occasions throughout Indian Summer. So the alleged romantic affair between these individuals remains just that: alleged.

Unlike the authors of The Ruling Caste and Raj, both older men with university appointments and extensive publication credits prior to these works, Alex Von Tunzelmann is a first-time author, a relatively young woman (born in 1977) whose dustjacket biosketch only reveals that she was “educated at Oxford and lives in London.” I was able to track down a little more information on her background by Googling her name. It appears that she read history at Oxford (not surprising) and has made her living primarily by doing background research on other people’s books. I look forward to seeing more of her solo work in the future.

(Henry Holt, 2007)


Donna Bird

I am a former lecturer of Sociology at the University of Southern Maine in the beautiful Portland area, where I have lived since 1992.

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