going too fast with the result that his ship rolled so violently that its lifeboats flew off the side into the sea. No wonder he was known at the Admiralty as ‘the Master of Disaster’. Yet there was more to Mountbatten than this, and as viceroy he displayed unusual skills in his dealings with Indian leaders, princes as well as politicians. Much assisted by Edwina, who could empathise with Indians of all classes, he obtained agreement to both partition and the accession of nearly all the princely states to India or Pakistan. Indeed Alex von Tunzelmann recognises some of his achievements when she defends him against accusations that he ignored the problem of the Sikhs, failed to use British troops to stop the communal killing in the Punjab and, by bringing forward the date of independence, prevented adequate preparations from being made to deal with the consequences of partition. Indian Summer does not ignore the atrocities that surround its exotic characters: it has a horrifying description of the tactics used by Sikh gangs when they set out to erase a Muslim village and exterminate its inhabitants. But otherwise it has little in common with The Great Partition, Yasmin Khan’s intelligent and empathic work on the same period. It is unlikely that the second book will have scriptwriters salivating. Most historians of partition like to apportion blame among the leading players, British and Indian, for the
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disaster that occurred. Yasmin Khan is not interested in doing so. Nor does she give time to the simplistic and oft-repeated theory that partition was the result of Britain’s alleged policy of ‘divide and rule’. The author’s main interest is in the experience of partition, how people thought of it and how it affected them. Nobody could have predicted that it would lead to a million murders and twelve million refugees. But then nobody thought it through very carefully in the first place. Partition ‘meant myriad things to different people’ even within the same community, even sometimes within the same head. Jinnah himself made ambiguous noises about federalism. So did his supporters. To some of them Pakistan was ‘an imaginary nationalistic dream’ while to others it was contiguous Muslim territory stretching all the way from East Bengal to Kashmir and the NorthWest Frontier. Educated Muslims from Delhi and Aligarh clamoured for partition without apparently realising that, for demographic reasons, their homes could not possibly be included in a Muslim state. Sikh leaders made a similar miscalculation, demanding the partition of the Punjab without understanding that as a result their holiest shrines and a good number of their followers would end up in Pakistan. Instead of examining partition with a contemporary lens, when we know what happened and assume it was inevitable, Yasmin Khan tries to look at it from the standpoint of its participants, for whom nothing was inevitable. She understands the fear of small communities as they hear rumours of approaching violence and suddenly abandon everything to seek safety on the other side of the new and often bewildering frontier. She writes of the fear of women who, even if they were not murdered, faced rape, abduction and – for those who managed to stay put after their ordeal – repudiation by their families for having ‘dishonoured’ them. Later in the book she writes with similar sympathy of the millions of penniless refugees who arrive in ‘Mother India’ or ‘the Land of the Pure’ (Pakistan) to find not much purity and precious little motherliness. As the author relates, many of them never overcame the traumas of massacre, uprooting and divided families. South Asian violence is often considered in the West to be spontaneous and hysterical, a moment of aberration that suddenly takes possession of a normally docile people (as Hindus at any rate are often imagined to be). As Yasmin Khan demonstrates, however, much of the partition violence was planned by nationalist politicians, inspired by political rhetoric and orchestrated by political organisations. Alas, such events set a precedent for modern India. Recent pogroms of minorities, such as the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, contained a similar mix of ingredients, a similar collusion of the police and a similar immunity for those who carried out the atrocities. To order these books, see LR Bookshop on page 37
LITERARY REVIEW August 2007