A Year in the Life of Lord Louis M.
November 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Between 1965 and 1975, Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins collaborated on three best-selling books of historical non-fiction. Their modus operandi was the same in all three attempts. Each time, they picked a historical event of significance that took place in the 1940’s. They conducted hundreds of taped interviews, undertook painstaking research into the papers and official correspondence of the high and mighty, travelled extensively to the locations, picked the memories of eyewitnesses, integrated conflicting perspectives into versions of truth, and pieced together thousands of data points into a single chronologically accurate and gripping narrative, neatly divided into build-up, denouement and aftermath. Freedom was the common theme of all three books. Is Paris Burning? documents the events leading up to the liberation of Paris in 1944. O Jerusalem! describes the formation of the new state of Israel, from 29 November 1947 to 19 July 1948. And Freedom at Midnight follows the tumultuous fortunes of the Indian subcontinent from 1 January 1947 to 31 January 1948.
For obvious reasons, my reaction to this book was more emotional than to most historical non-fiction. This was about my country, after all, and it was talking about events that were part of popular folklore as I was growing up, events about which I had been taught at school, and of which I have heard first-hand accounts from older relatives. One of my grandfathers had still been in his thirties in 1947, the other had just turned forty. I have heard their versions of what happened, a hundred times. LaPierre and Collins’ story covers the final phase of the freedom movement, the decision to partition the territory into India and Pakistan, the devastating state of civil war that held both new nations in a vice like grip before and after the transfer of power, culminating in actual war, the first of several, between the two new national armies, over Kashmir, and in the brutal assassination by religious extremists, of the man who took non-violence and religious tolerance to its logical extreme, Mohandas Gandhi.
What LaPierre and Collins do best is reification, the reduction of historical figures into believable human beings with human insecurities and inadequacies. My schoolbooks, on the other hand, had specialized in the exact opposite process, in deification. The French-American journalistic duo paint warts-and-all portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Vallabhbhai Patel, Nathuram Godse, Vinayak Savarkar – and even of the Mahatma himself, depicting his idiosyncratic obstinacy with affection, respect and exasperation, but not with hushed tones and breathless awe.
In fact, the only sacred cow that the authors seem to suffer is the least likely one: the dashing, crisply attired and very British figure of Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl of Burma, Viceroy and later Governor-General of India during this turbulent time. His are the only decisions that are not examined with the unsentimental objectivity that those of the others are. His is the only character that is not frisked for flaws. Here, after all, is the man who was told, in no uncertain terms, upon taking up vice-regal responsibilities that British administration was on the verge of complete collapse. He decides to exit, in what can only be described as unseemly haste, picking an arbitrary and unreasonably early date for departure. The Bill of Indian independence was discussed in the House of Commons on 3 June 1947, and received Royal Assent and became law on 18 July. And yet, less than a month later, the British had left, and the administration was in local, untrained, hands, in the middle of a raging crisis. To put this in perspective: when the Euro was to become the common currency across a population and land area that were fractions of those in the Indian subcontinent, a historically significant event but not one that had lives at stake, the provision in the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 came into force a full seven years later, after several rounds of elaborate planning. Mountbatten’s explanation, that an immediate exit was necessary to avoid a bloodbath, is belied by the fact that a terrible bloodbath did take place despite the urgency. Mountbatten’s other excuse, that Nehru and Jinnah were pressing for immediate independence, cannot be gainsaid, but Mountbatten’s own conduct cannot escape criticism, when, as the incumbent, he was more aware of the attendant administrative challenges than anyone else. The authors point, with the barest hint of schadenfreude, to Nehru’s and Patel’s inability to put an end to the violence and their desperate pleas for Mountbatten’s assistance – but fail to point out that this inability was merely a continuation of the impotence of the previous administration: Mountbatten’s.
Perhaps Mountbatten’s first objective was to ensure that the blood, wherever shed, was on Indian and Pakistani hands, not on British ones. From a British taxpayer perspective, this is an understandable goal, if not exactly a noble or altruistic one; and in this, Mountbatten was successful.
Of course, to hold the British responsible for religious bigotry and mutual mistrust between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims of the Punjab would be churlish; to blame the British for not bothering to understand the people they ruled for 200 years is fair, if somewhat cyclical. If they had taken the effort to know us well enough to administrate wisely, there may not have been any fratricidal violence, or even the need for partition; in fact, if they had governed well and with the interests of Indians in mind, even Gandhi would have found it tough to rally the country around the flag of Indian independence.
My point is not that Mountbatten was evil, but that Freedom at Midnight has one critical shortcoming. It is that Louis Mountbatten has his share of dubious decisions to answer for in that general melee, but this is nowhere apparent from the book. The reason for this blind spot is the very same modus operandi of the authors that bestows their accounts with so much authenticity and credibility. LaPierre and Collins reputedly spent $300,000 on their research for this book, and wrote up 6,342 pages of research notes. However, five of the six principal characters of their story – Gandhi, Jinnah, Patel, Godse and Nehru – were long dead by the time they picked up pens. The last man standing, the one who was willing to be interviewed 16 times for the book and whose copious commentary filled 600 type-written pages (10% of the total research)…was Mountbatten himself. It is understandable if the authors tended to see the events of 1947 from his perspective. Of the 6 characters in the drama, his was probably the best, most impartial, most panoramic perspective: but it cannot be classified as complete.
We had everything before us, we had nothing before us…the India of 1947 can be described precisely in Dickensian terms. It was the age of the extraordinary wisdom of Gandhi, of the unshakeable self-belief of Jinnah, of the lights that lit up the Red Fort on Independence Day, of the hope of a radiant future and the blissful promises of heaven that a new beginning always brings; simultaneously, it was also the age of the foolishness of intransigent Maharajas, Nawabs and Nizams, the disbelief of Godse in the morality of non-violence, the dark despair of ten million refugees who were uprooted from their homes and who bore mute witness to the rape and butchery of their near and dear ones. Humanity reached its highest point in India in 1947; men plumbed their lowest depths in India in 1947. The story that LaPierre and Collins narrate is the same one that I have heard all my life; it is also a different story. It is richer in form, it is rawer in content. It is therefore more believable than my textbooks in many aspects, it is less believable than my textbooks in one important way.