Alex von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer

Alex von Tunzelmann’s “Indian Summer. The Secret History of the End of an Empire” is a captivating read — I didn’t do much else this Sunday but read it.This is not a novel: It’s an extraordinarily well-written historic narrative of the tragedy, drama, and, yes, farce that surrounded the end of the British Raj and the creation of India and Pakistan as independent states.Tunzelmann tells this piece of history by often focusing on some of its key players.There’s Gandhi’s struggle between political judgment and his personal spirituality, there’s Jinnah’s career from being a champion of Hindu-Muslim unity to being the father and first governor-general of Pakistan (which Tunzelmann suggests might have been a bargaining chip that Jinnah didn’t actually aim to get). There’s Nehru, who starts out as a young English gentleman (and English native speaker), to become the country’s first Prime Minister — and who sometimes excels as the author of scathing political polemics against himself, published anonymously.And there are the Mountbattens: Louis, a gentleman of impeccable courtly manners, high intelligence, but sometimes questionable judgment, known as the “Master of Disaster” in Royal Navy circles during World War II, cousin of the King, last viceroy of the Raj and first governor-general of the Dominion of India, oscillating between political achievements (notably, the accession of the princely states to India), and petty distractions. Edwina, socialite, heiress of an immense fortune, turned into a skilled organizer of humanitarian aid during World War II and in the midst of the catastrophe that the India/Pakistan split was – and, in a politically explosive ménage à trois, Nehru’s close friend (and lover?) within weeks of the (often adulterous, never divorced) couple’s arrival in Delhi; a political force in her own right.Despite this colorful cast of historic characters, and despite Tunzelmann’s interest in their motives, the personal stories and portraits remain a tool for telling the bigger story and painting the historical picture of Britain, India, and Pakistan. This book is not court reporting, but serious, yet eminently readable historical work.Don’t start “Indian Summer” if you have other plans for the day. It’s near impossible to put down.