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An affair to remember

Alex von Tunzelmann is the author of "Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire."

It is a famous and surprising image of imperial retreat. Against the massive colonnade of Delhi’s Government House, Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India and cousin to the king of England, stands stiffly in his gleaming naval whites. To his left is Jawaharlal Nehru, the man who led the political resistance to the British, creased up with laughter. Nehru’s joke is shared with Mountbatten’s wife, Edwina. The picture was taken by the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1948, just a few months after India and Pakistan had achieved independence from Britain.

Like all the best photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson’s nearly 60-year-old snap of the Mountbattens and Nehru captured more than just a moment. It captured a story. When the Mountbattens arrived in India in March 1947, the country was in a state of intermittent civil war. Relations with Britain were in the dumps, relations between the Indian political parties were disastrous, and all hopes for an amicable settlement that would lead to independence seemed lost. And yet, in under five months, Mountbatten pulled off a cordial exit.

As the photograph suggests, the Mountbattens and Nehru enjoyed a close friendship. As it hints, things went further than that. The intimacy between Nehru and Edwina is hard to miss. Dickie, though, does not appear to be in on their joke. He stares off into the distance, his stance uncharacteristically awkward. A couple of years ago, this photo made the rounds of Indian offices as an e-mail forward. The caption read: “Why Lord Mountbatten left India so fast.” The implication that Mountbatten’s notoriously quick departure had something to do with his wife’s feelings for the Indian prime minister unearthed some premium vintage gossip.

Astonishingly, the gossip was true -- though it remained a closely guarded secret in 1947. The man who led the movement against British rule and who went on to become the first prime minister of independent India had fallen in love with the viceroy’s wife, and she with him. They had been drawn together, Nehru wrote, by “some uncontrollable force.” Though researchers have only been allowed to see a handful of their letters, these emphatically confirm the opinion of family and friends that this was a profound love. As to whether it was also physical, there is, of course, no evidence. Only hints: the occasional story suggesting that they were discovered in an embrace; the occasional photograph of them holding hands.

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The significance of this relationship to history was remarkable. On at least one occasion, the independence process was saved by it. When all others had failed, Edwina persuaded Nehru in May 1947 to accept a period of dominion status for India rather than to hold out for full independence; this meant that India would still be part of the British Commonwealth. On another occasion, the process may nearly have been scuppered by it. The father of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, was allegedly passed a few of Edwina and Nehru’s racier love letters. With impeccable dignity, he returned them, saying, “Caesar’s wife should be above suspicion.” Had Jinnah thought otherwise, he could easily have unleashed the most dramatic scandal of the 20th century.

In today’s upwardly mobile New Delhi, it is bizarre to think that 60 years ago this week the city was more dangerous than modern Baghdad. At the beginning of September 1947, violent attacks on Muslims by Sikhs and Hindus broke out. For a fortnight, Delhi was consumed by rioting. Bombs were thrown. Shops were looted. Thousands clashed in the streets. The overwhelming majority of Delhi’s Muslims fled their homes and had to be housed in makeshift refugee camps. The dead were never counted; popular estimates for that fortnight alone went as high as 30,000.

Amid these terrifying events, Edwina and Nehru went out together -- sometimes without guards -- and attempted to regain control. Nehru chased looters with a stick and rescued two Muslim children from a rooftop during a street fight. Edwina confronted a rioting mob, literally standing between them and a refugee camp they meant to burn down. Under such dramatic circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine how their feelings for each other may have deepened.

Through all of this, Dickie remained in the background, tolerating and even encouraging his wife’s romance. It has been suggested that he used Edwina as a conduit to influence Nehru. In fact, Edwina seems to have exerted more political control over Dickie than he ever did over her. The affair would cause a crisis in their marriage during the First Kashmir War in late 1947, when Edwina became a partisan of India’s cause against Pakistan. A few months later, though, Dickie was writing warmly to his daughter about how his wife and Nehru were “so sweet together.” It was a relationship that defied easy classification.

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Despite the sweetness, and the smiles in Cartier-Bresson’s picture, the reality of Britain’s withdrawal was grim. One million people are estimated to have been killed and 14 million displaced in the horrific violence that followed the partition of India and Pakistan. But it is also true that the Mountbattens made Britain’s departure seem like a success, in London and Washington as well as in Delhi and Karachi. Friendship between Britain and its former eastern colonies was not only possible but mutually desired. (The Mountbattens were instrumental in persuading Nehru to keep India within the British Commonwealth -- where it remains to this day.) In as far as imperial endings go, this qualifies as an outstanding achievement.

Though the Mountbattens left India in 1948, the love between Edwina and Nehru endured too. It was, of course, impossible for them to be a couple in public. Nevertheless, Edwina returned to India every year; and Nehru stayed with her whenever he visited Britain (Dickie would tactfully find business to do elsewhere). Tantalizingly, the hundreds of letters that passed between them remain locked in the family archives.

For today’s politicians, Cartier-Bresson’s photograph may offer a glimmer of hope. No one would suggest that the American command should take its cue for cozying up to the Iraqi leadership directly from Edwina Mountbatten. And yet, remote as the possibility seems, the example of Britain and India may indicate that the U.S. could still leave the land it occupies on friendly terms. The president has yet to find his Mountbattens. But if there is genuine goodwill and understanding, and a real enthusiasm for the right of Iraqis to determine and pursue their own future, perhaps we may still hope for a picture in which the representatives of the United States and Iraq laugh together like old friends.


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