empire? this, too, will pass

I've enjoyed two books about India this year. One tells the story of the sudden extinguishing of the British Empire - "the largest empire the world had ever hosted ... at its peak, six times the size of the Roman Empire" (Indian Summer, 333). The other recounts the gradual decay of the remnants of the Mughal Empire, as expressed in the life of the last Nizam of Hyderabad, who also happened to be the grandson of the last Ottoman ruler, who had once nominated this lad, "at the time a shy schoolboy in India, as the next Caliph" (The Last Nizam, 138).

This lad turned 84 yesterday.

Extraordinary stories.

First impressions of Alex von Tunzelmann's Indian Summer: the Secret History of the End of an Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2007, a new edition in 2017) lie with its resonance with more contemporary events. The departure of the British from India was a hasty, poorly-planned, blood-drenched 'Brexit' of its own, while one can hear echos of the leading figures in the story, Louis and Edwina Mountbatten (still in their 40s when sent to India), in more recent incarnations. There is more than a hint of both Mountbatten's self-absorbed narcissism and Winston Churchill's overbearing patriotism in Donald Trump, for example. As for Edwina, her combination of acts of compassion - as president of twenty-two Indian charities, "most of which dealt with refugees, trafficked women and children, and the poor" (327) - mingling with a penchant for extra-marital dalliances carries a reminder of Princess Diana.

The main 'secret' to which the sub-title alludes is the affair, certainly emotional, if not substantiated physically, between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian's first Prime Minister, with whom Edwina is enjoying a laugh in the photo on the cover. They were "unquestionably in love" (xxii) and the influence of this intimate relationship on political decisions, usually for good rather than ill, is the major plot-line in the story.

There are other 'secrets' to emerge. The author spends a lot of her time gently mocking Mountbatten, possibly as a response to the most popular book on Partition - Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins' Freedom at Midnight - which she considers to be a "highly entertaining (book), so imaginative that it is best read as a novelization of events" (427) because it is written by Mountbatten's own "pet historians" (162). Ouch. Where Mountbatten does good things, it tends to be because "he was led by his wife" (136). In a large portion of the story, especially in the lead-up to Partition, Mahatma Gandhi appears to be lost in a season of senility,  annoying in a stubborn, obstructive way. As for Nehru, time and again, we glimpse him as someone who "never quite fitted in - too British for India, too Indian for Britain" (285) - and with a vision for a secular India that clashed with Gandhi's vision.

The rare photograph which so
captivated the author. Nehru and Edwina
hand-in-hand, walking through
a refugee camp.
And ohh, the sadness in the story. The division of Bengal (in the east) and Punjab (in the west) led to so much violence at the time, while the unresolved division of the most northern state has led to ongoing violence on into the present time. "The Punjabi holocaust ... (is) one of the vilest episodes in the whole of history" (262, 267). The man responsible for drawing the new borders had "never been east of Gibraltar" (232), later admitting that it was a task designed to take two years. He did it in 40 days. What a mess!

Given the tragedy in the story, here and elsewhere in the Empire, it is scarcely believable that a respectable 2014 poll, as quoted by the author in her new Introduction, states that only 19% of Britons think the British Empire was something to be ashamed of, while 59% something to be proud of (xix). I would have bet on the numbers being the other way around. But this is where we need to hear the author's most telling phrase: "comforting fictions" (6).

"Comforting fictions were established on that happy night (referring to Independence Day): that the British left India with dignity, having seen the error of their ways through Gandhi's soft but compelling persuasion; that the Indian independence campaign won its prize by non-violence and civil disobedience; that the departure of the British was completed with enough goodwill to pave the way for genuine friendship between India and the west, and separately between Pakistan and the west; and that the end of the British Empire in India was a triumph for freedom" (6).

If you want a little uncomfortable non-fiction, type 'Jallianwala Bagh massacre' into wikipedia and read until you weep.

John Zubrzycki's The Last Nizam: an Indian Prince in the Australian Outback (Macmillan, 2006) tells the story of Mukarram Jah (yes, that "lad" who turned 84 yesterday). As the 'last Nizam', he was the final ruler, but only in name, of the princely state of Hyderabad. It was included into India just 400 days after independence in 1947. His father, Osman Ali Khan, was the richest man in the world, with Time magazine giving him a cover in 1937. "He could live without difficulty on the interest of the interest of his income" (162). His mother, Durrushehvar, was the only child of the last Ottoman Emperor.  With this combination of wealth and lineage Mukarram Jah's station in life was second-to-none in the world.

But today he lives anonymously in a self-imposed exile in a two bedroom flat in Antalya, in southern Turkey - having previously exiled himself to a sheep station in Western Australia. Anywhere for a little "informality and isolation" (259) far away from Hyderabad's headlines and limelight. It was in the Australian outback that he could indulge "his overriding passion for heavy machinery" (260), while back home "the plunder of his properties and possessions reached epidemic proportions" (272). "In 2005 the number of direct descendants of Osman Ali Khan had crossed the 500 mark, with almost all of them involved in some form of litigation against Mukarram Jah for a share of the late Nizam's wealth" (114-115). It is a story of bungling incompetence and systemic corruption. Just trying to locate Mukarram Jah in order to be able to re-tell his story is a fascinating story all of its own (see Finding the Last Nizam)...

The Koh-i-noor diamond (now embedded in the Crown Jewels in London) was once a part of his wealth. Two of his palaces have been restored -  the Chowmahalla and the Falaknuma (which is now a hotel in the Taj Group - check out the photos in this link).

Hyderabad has established itself as my second favourite city in India. Nothing will knock Delhi out of the #1 slot. "Hyderabad has a habit of hiding its most beautiful buildings behind high, ugly walls to ward off encroachers or simply because there is no appreciation for their significance" (53). Like 'the Residency', for example - "still one of the grandest relics of the British Raj still standing" (53, and the focus of another book and another blog post here). This building is being meticulously restored even as I write. I am bemused by how many residents of Hyderabad have never heard of this building and how many visitors to Hyderabad never take time to see it.

The Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad

Let's give the author the last word, as he closes his Introduction with these two paragraphs:

"Over seven generations from 1724, the Nizams created a state (Hyderabad) that would rival Mecca in importance as a centre for Islamic learning, and eclipse Constantinople as a repository of the Islamic world's cultural and spiritual legacy. In the detritus of the Mughal Empire arose a kingdom that played a central role in the struggle for supremacy in south India between the British and the French, determined the outcome of the Mutiny and challenged newly independent India's right to impose its sovereignty over its princely states.

The Nizams became the most faithful allies of the British Raj and amassed more riches than all the other (hundreds of) princely states in India put together. And then, in one man's lifetime, almost all would be lost. Not on the battlefield; not in Hyderabad's palaces - but among the dusty red paddocks of a sheep station that bordered the same Indian Ocean the Nizams' Dominions had touched." (xvi-xvii).

nice chatting


PS: There is an insight into India that I don't want to lose and so I add it here as a "PS".

"India's population could not be divided into neat boxes labelled by religion and cross-referenced with social position. India was an amorphous mass of different cultures, lifestyles, traditions, and beliefs. After so many centuries of integration and exchange, these were not distinct, but rippled into each other, creating a web of cultural hybrids and compromises" (Indian Summer, 229-230).


Stephen said…
Ah, the vicissitudes of historiographical perspective! Methinks vonTunzelmann knocks down to build herself up (427). ‘Nuff said.
Paul said…
Hi Stephen - 162 (in the body of the manuscript), more than 427 (part of an appendix), is what had me reading and re-reading and asking, "Did she just say that? Surely not?!" The authors of Freedom at Midnight as Mountbatten's "pet historians"?? Gulp. Methinks there is more going on here. Maybe they wrote a critical review of her first book? Maybe it goes further back? Maybe they were her nasty teachers at primary school? But it is part of what makes the book such a good read. No shortage of opinions and, on the whole, they seem well-supported. Plus I love reading a 'minority report' anyway. She does a good job.

And what about (in 2014) "19% of Britons think the British Empire was something to be ashamed of?" Yikes. Need a little revisionist history being taught in those schools...!

Be good


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