Curious bedfellows

Jonathan Kirsch Is The Author Of, Most Recently, "a History Of The End Of The World: How The Most Controversial Book In The Bible Changed The Course Of Western Civilization."

“LONG years ago, we made a trust with destiny,” declared Jawaharlal Nehru, the founding father of modern India, on the occasion of the formal surrender of power by the British imperial authorities. “And now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge. . . .”

“Tryst,” as it turns out, is more accurate than “trust.” According to Alex von Tunzelmann’s “Indian Summer,” the back story of the decline and fall of the British Raj features a passionate love affair between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last British viceroy, among various other scandals and outrages. Thanks to such sly glances into the dirty little secrets of world history, Von Tunzelmann’s irreverent and irresistible popular history is both entertaining and illuminating.

Von Tunzelmann, in fact, tells two tales. One strand of her narrative is devoted to dishing about the rich, privileged ladies and gentlemen who strutted and fretted on the stage of history in the mid-20th century, indulging their eccentricities and infidelities even at times of dire world crisis. The other strand is a sober and insistent revisionist account of how India and Pakistan -- two atomic powers that figure crucially in our own times -- emerged from the crumbling shell of the British Empire. Combining these strands, the author shows how stupid and silly men and women in positions of power changed the lives and destinies of millions.

In one sense, “Indian Summer” is history as a box of bonbons, a collection of delectable little nuggets of folly and scandal. Von Tunzelmann introduces us to Lord “Dickie” Mountbatten and his fabulously rich wife, a pair of sexual adventurers and celebrity seekers who prefigured the antics of Charles and Diana by more than half a century. She reveals the secret strife in the family of the saintly Mohandas Gandhi, one of whose sons converted to Islam in a public gesture of Oedipal rage toward his insufferably strict father. She points out that Nehru, who frankly admitted that he was “a bit of a prig” when he returned to India after years in England, was more fluent in English than in the native languages of India.

At the same time, the author reminds us that many of today’s headlines about the Indian subcontinent can be understood in light of what happened there after the departure of its imperial overlords. Pakistan, for example, is a self-invented state that came into existence because the Muslim subjects of the British Raj insisted on separating themselves from the newly independent India with its vast Hindu majority. Characteristically, Von Tunzelmann embellishes the hard facts with well-observed moments of intimacy, thus making the historical figures come fully alive on the page. During the tense and tumultuous period leading up to the formal separation of India and Pakistan, Nehru received visitors and engaged in conversation while standing on his head during a daily yoga ritual. And Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Islamic political movement in India and founding father of Pakistan, purposely arrived late to a party that Lord Mountbatten gave in the final days of British dominion. “My boy, do you think I would come to this damn man’s party on time?” he confided to a fellow guest. “I purposely came late to show him I despise him.”

Few of the famous men and women we encounter in “Indian Summer” come off very well. Both Gandhi and Mountbatten, she points out, possessed a “flair for the grand gesture,” and their gestures often went terribly wrong. Gandhi, of course, practiced passive resistance, but the angry Indian populace and the stern imperial authorities lacked his exacting self-discipline; a demonstration at Amritsar in 1919, for example, ended in a riot and then a retaliatory slaughter by the army, “an incident which would change the whole course of British imperial history.” Later, Gandhi insisted on taking over the care of his ailing wife; he refused to allow her to be treated with penicillin out of a principled rejection of Western medicine. Two days later, she was dead.

The biggest buffoon in the lot is Mountbatten, whose insatiable desire for glory in battle prompted him to commit blunder after blunder -- he managed to fail upward, however -- during World War II. The various ships under his command had an alarming tendency to sink or collide with other British vessels. One such episode was made into the mythic World War II movie “In Which We Serve” (written by Noel Coward, a Mountbatten crony), “one of the few propaganda films in history to show the heroes suffering a disastrous routing by a stronger and more competent enemy.”

When Churchill promoted him to a high position in the admiralty, Mountbatten insisted that he wanted to serve at sea. “What could you hope to achieve,” cracked Churchill, “except to be sunk in a bigger and more expensive ship?”

To her credit, Von Tunzelmann seeks out the women who are so often overlooked in the writing of history, including the mothers, sisters, wives and lovers of the “great men” who get most of the ink in conventional accounts. The most surprising of them all is Edwina, the last “vicereine” of British India. She was far richer than her husband, and her bloodlines included a wealthy German-Jewish grandfather and an Algonquin princess known in U.S. history textbooks as Pocahontas. Their marriage settled into one of convenience, and she conducted “a long and ostentatious series of affairs,” including a rumored one with Paul Robeson.

As Von Tunzelmann writes, Edwina suffered all the afflictions that seem to go along with public beauty. After arriving in India, for example, she asked for something to feed her pet terrier, and when a roast chicken was delivered, she retreated to the bathroom and devoured it herself.

“This incident has usually been omitted by biographers,” Von Tunzelman notes, “perhaps because to modern eyes a story about an extremely thin woman who locks herself in a bathroom to eat looks uncomfortably like evidence of an eating disorder.”

The verdict on Edwina is considerably kinder than the one on Dickie: “For years Edwina had been looking for a role in which she could actually do something, and, to her surprise, it would be in India that she found it.” Von Tunzelman describes how Edwina plunged into Indian politics with greater deftness than her husband: “While Edwina was concerned with world events and the plight of the growing number of victims of violence in the Punjab, Dickie seemed incapable of seeing beyond protocol.”

Yet the author also insists that Lady Mountbatten and Nehru turned into bedfellows of a literal kind.

“Dickie would subtly facilitate Edwina’s relationship with Jawaharlal, just as he had with her other lovers; more so, in fact, for he liked Jawaharlal,” the author insists. “As he must have known, Edwina could not leave him for the prime minister of India.”

Von Tunzelmann’s first book is a highly readable popular history, an impressive piece of work that is rooted in scholarly sources, her own original research and a solid command of Indian history and politics -- all considerably spiced up with tidbits of gossip and speculation. Academic historians may be put off by some of Von Tunzelmann’s stylistic flourishes and her undeniable flair for telling a good tale. For the rest of us, “Indian Summer” is a fascinating book that may well change how we look on the benighted world in which we live today.