The two authors of this book have over the years developed a type of book-making for themselves. The idea is to pick up some subject of recent history which is full of incident and drama, visit the site, read up as much as you can, interview such of the participants as are still around and then write a blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute account. There is a broad base of fact, though this is not very important; but certain events are highlighted, some personalities are exaggerated and the drama is converted into melodrama. There is some research but it is submerged in imaginary dialogue. Nothing is done to warn the unwary reader that the authors were not all the time behind the curtains or under the car-seats with their tape-recorders. The result is a kind of Cecil B. De Mille on paper. One has the feeling of reading a panoramic film script. Gripping but not true; vivid but unreal.
The writers have already tried their hand on Paris during the war and the creation of Israel; and now they have got round to the transfer of power in India in 1947—a subject, with its blend of colour, passion, personality and tragedy, which is obviously suited to their talents. They have done a lot of homework and the reader new to the subject will get a broad, general impression of the men and issues involved. The book also shows, on the whole, the right approach and sympathy.
For the non-Indian reader, therefore, this basically non-serious book can be said to have some value, however limited. He will smile again at timeworn jokes about the Maharajas, relive the horrors of Partition, discern the schizophrenia of Jinnah and recognize the nobility of Gandhi and Nehru. But the fact of an Indian edition raises other problems. For most of us these general strands are parts of a well-known background. Readers here are more likely to sniff at or accept the details which are claimed to be new; and this is where the danger lies. Collins and Lapierre have spent a large amount of time with Mountbatten and his version of events colours the narrative. Obviously, and understandably, to the last Viceroy everything else in his life since 1947 has been an anti-climax; and he has been incessantly reliving those events. But as time passes he sees himself more and more at the centre of the stage, with superhuman godlike powers which reduce all others to pigmies. The Mountbatten myth-making has reached the proportions of an industry—Campbell-Johnson, Hodson, Mountbatten himself—and the myths get wilder and wilder. His vanity has fed on itself till it borders on megalomania, and it has taken advantage of the fact that he is now the only major survivor of those days with none of the other protagonists available to contradict him.
This book is the latest in this series and is, therefore, the worst so far from this point of view. It depicts, for example, Nehru and Patel cringing before Mountbatten and imploring him to rule India again as an autocrat. Gandhi too comes into the picture, assuring Mountbatten that he had done the right thing in staying on in the palatial Viceroy’s house because he was now functioning once more as the effective head of the administration. This account which, curiously, Mountbatten does not seem to have remembered till now, is not borne out by such record as is available and is wholly false to character. It is also asserted that the fixing of 15 August as the date for the withdrawal of the British was a snap decision taken by Mountbatten in answer to a question at a press conference—a claim so breath-taking in its irresponsibility that it can hardly be accepted.
This book, therefore, which is already, we are told, a best-seller, should be read with caution, for the general effect rather than the specific narration, for the wide vision and not the careful grounding.
Gopal, Professor of Contemporary History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, is Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford.