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Indian Summer

The Secret History of the End of an Empire

Alex von Tunzelmann


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ISBN10: 0312428111
ISBN13: 9780312428112

Trade Paperback

512 Pages


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At midnight on August 15, 1947, India was granted freedom from the British Empire, and 400 million people were liberated. With the loss of its greatest colony, Britain ceased to be a superpower, and its king ceased to sign himself Rex Imperator.

This defining moment of world history had been brought about by a handful of people. Among them were Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister; Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the leader of the new Islamic Republic of Pakistan; Mohandas Gandhi, the mystical figure who enthralled a nation; and Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, the glamorous but unlikely couple who had been dispatched to get Britain out of India. Within hours of the midnight chimes, their hopes for freedom and democracy would be given up in the face of a war.

Behind the scenes, a secret personal drama was also unfolding, as Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru began a passionate love affair. Their romance developed alongside Cold War conspiracies, the beginning of a terrible conflict in Kashmir, and an epic series of events that saw one million people killed and ten million dispossessed.

Drawn from the private papers and reflections of the participants, Indian Summer reveals how the actions of a few extraordinary people changed the lives of millions and determined the fate of nations.


Praise for Indian Summer

"In the flood of books marking the anniversary of independence, this one is different. It does not seek to apportion blame, nor offer an exhaustive account of events, nor even, despite its subtitle, to expose the secrets of that time . . . it suggests no prescriptions for the future. Instead, Indian Summer achieves something both simpler and rarer, placing the behavior and feelings of a few key players at the center of a tumultuous moment in history."—Ben Macintyre, The New York Times

"[Indian Summer] removes the veil from the colorful personalities and events behind India's independence and partition with Pakistan, exploring the eccentricities and peccadilloes of the subcontinent's last British rulers and first democratic leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi . . . The author moves easily between these stories, as well as that of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the man who would lead Pakistan. She makes the connections and keeps track of every part of the story while moving it all forward."—Joanne Collings, The Washington Post

"Alex von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer is the best narrative historical account I've seen of the grubby end of the British Empire and the bloody beginnings of independent India and Pakistan."—Harper's

"About two-thirds of the way through Alex von Tunzelmann's stirring book on how India won its independence, the author describes the climactic political moment, at midnight in New Delhi, Aug. 14, 1947. 'As the chimes sounded and the unexpected blast from a conch shell startled the delegates in the chamber of the Constituent Assembly,' she writes, 'a nation that has struggled for so many years, and sacrificed so much, was freed at last from the shackles of empire.' 'Yes,' von Tunzelmann concludes, 'Britain was finally free.' It's a wisecrack, but more wise than crack: Centuries of entanglement had by then become a disastrous knot disabling the colonizer as well as the colonized . . . Von Tunzelmann's brisk narrative is propelled forward by the personalities of five memorable individuals who all wanted and worked for independence. One, of course, is Mohandas Gandhi, whose moral integrity smothers political expediency and efficiency (even if his admiration of Hitler's organizational abilities is a little, um, unsettling). Another is the cigar-smoking, foppish Mohammad Ali Jinnah, a non-observant Muslim who almost single-handedly creates the Islamic state of Pakistan. But even they are upstaged by the trio of Louis Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, who presided over independence and the partition of India and Pakistan; his wife Edwina; and Jawaharlal Nehru, the father of modern India . . . Needless to say, the role of a Western power that heedlessly imposes itself on an Asian culture has contemporary resonance. So does the sectarian slaughter that accompanied that partition of India and Pakistan. Such echoes make this fine book relevant. But as these are the last days of summer, I'll take absorbingly readable instead—and Indian Summer is that too."—Daniel Okrent, Fortune

"Indian Summer is . . . absorbing in its detail and masterly in the broad sweep of its canvas."—Sir Martin Gilbert, author of The Somme

"Indian Summer is outstandingly vivid and authoritative. Alex von Tunzelmann brings a lively new voice to narrative history-writing."—Victoria Glendinning, author of Leonard Woolf

"Alex von Tunzelmann is a wonderful historian, as learned as she is shrewd. But she is also something more unexpected: a writer with a wit and an eye for character."—Tom Holland, author of Rubicon and Persian Fire

"An engaging, controversial, very lively and, at times, refreshingly irreverent tour de force. Alex von Tunzelmann has written a dramatic story, laced with tragedy and farce, and done so very well; a remarkable debut."—Lawrence James, author of The Middle Class: A History and Raj: The Making and Unmaking of British India
"In her debut work, von Tunzelmann offers an extremely well-written and lively history of a pivotal time for two nations. While Britain and India prepared for the post-World War II dismantling of the former empire, the political players found that disentangling the two powers was more complicated than anticipated. In describing the behind-the-scenes history of the crises accompanying Indian independence and partition, the author focuses predominantly on Louis and Edwina Mountbatten, Mohandas Gandhi, and Jawaharlal Nehru and how their personal lives affected the political situation and one another. Von Tunzelmann maintains that while Mountbatten, as the final viceroy of India, was mainly bemused and stymied by the infinite challenges of the rising Indian government, his wife was far more competent in grasping these complexities while efficiently doing humanitarian work. In fact, it was her close relationship with Prime Minister Nehru that raised eyebrows and may have altered the course of history. This is an eye-opening view of a remarkable time, as the British Empire divested itself of its largest colony and a new world power was born."—Elizabeth Morris, Library Journal

"The transfer of power from the British Empire to the new nations of India and Pakistan in the summer of 1947 was one of history's great, and tragic, epics: 400 million people won independence, and perhaps as many as one million died in sectarian violence among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs . . . British author von Tunzelmann keeps one eye on the big picture, but foregrounds the personalities and relationships of the main political leaders—larger-than-life figures whom she cuts down to size. She portrays Gandhi as both awe-inspiring and, with his antisex campaigns and inflexible moralism, an exasperating eccentric. British viceroy Louis 'Dickie' Mountbatten comes off as a clumsy diplomat dithering over flag designs while his partition plan teetered on the brink of disaster. Meanwhile, his glamorous, omnicompetent wife, Edwina, looks after refugees and carries on an affair with the handsome, stalwart Indian statesman Nehru. Von Tunzelmann's wit is cruel—'Gandhi . . . wanted to spread the blessings of poverty and humility to all people'—but fair in its depictions of complex, often charismatic people with feet of clay. The result is compelling narrative history."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt


Part One
In Their Gratitude Our Best Reward
IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WERE TWO NATIONS. ONE WAS A vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly...