I recently finished reading Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann, about the defining event in twentieth-century Indian history: the country’s 1947 independence from Britain and partition into the two separate nations of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan.
Von Tunzelmann, a young British historian, tells the story of how India went from being a multicultural yet fairly peaceful country to two separate and antagonistic nations through the personalities of five people closely involved in the events: Mohandas K. Gandhi, the Hindu moral and political leader whose nonviolent protests captured the attention of the world; Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, the Anglophile Brahmin from a privileged family who became a hero of the masses and whose vision for his country was resolutely secular, democratic, and socialist; Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League, who initially opposed partition but ultimately became its strongest proponent and Governor General of independent Pakistan; and Louis “Dickie” Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, and his wife, Edwina, who had a troubled personal relationship but a shared desire to see India through to independence.
I first became fascinated with India in junior high school, and I can date my interest in Partition to the tenth grade, when I chose to write a final history paper on the subject rather than focusing on European history as we’d been doing all year. In the paper I explored the events leading up to India’s independence from the British Empire in 1947. In time more than 20 years since, I’ve continued to be fascinated by India, both its lively present and its tumultuous past. Indian Summer offered a chance to learn more, and I enjoyed von Tunzelmann’s fresh take on some of the events and personalities behind Partition. Some of the major players came across as a bit more foolish or ineffective than I was used to seeing them, and von Tunzelmann delights in the occasional absurdity of behavior or personality. She is not above the occasional good gossip. Still, she has clearly done her homework; the book is well researched and impeccably documented. In von Tunzelmann’s telling, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, and the Mountbattens are no longer merely towering historical figures but flawed human beings just like the rest of us. They did the best they could but often misjudged how things would turn out.
Tragically, Indian Summer suggests that there were plenty of occasions when, had India’s leaders behaved differently, the country might well have gone down an entirely different path – perhaps avoiding partition and the devastating communal violence that followed. Still, there were also plenty of situations in which the actions of a single leader positively influenced specific outcomes, such as Gandhi stopping riots through the sheer force of moral leadership or Nehru holding much of India together through his personality and political skills. Both the story of two fledgling nations and a study of how individual actors can influence history, Indian Summer is a compelling book.