The Short Good-bye

Lord Mountbatten
Lord Mountbatten; drawing by David Levine

One of the deadliest traps for the writer of contemporary history is the informant who is just too good. A central actor in the events to be chronicled, crisp and comprehensive in memory, meticulous in preserving his documents, forthcoming, articulate, immensely likable to boot—when these authors found such an informant across the French ambassador’s table in London, they must have felt that their intended work on the independence and partition of India was already almost done, and safely on the best-seller lists. Lord Mountbatten, the last of the viceroys, who was sent to India to set it free, and stayed on as independent India’s first governor-general, gave Mr. Collins and Mr. Lapierre some thirty hours of tape-recorded interviews. The authors claim that this amounted to “the most painstaking and exhaustive review of his Indian experiences that he has ever been exposed to,” remarking that during this process Lord Mountbatten was able to refer constantly to the documents in his possession. And there’s the rub. It was not the authors who consulted the crucial documentation, but the former viceroy.

The result is not only that Lord Mountbatten’s judgments, decisions, and actions are described in great detail—they would have to be in any history of this momentous act of imperial demission—but that Mountbatten both fills the stage and dominates the audience. The point of view is his throughout. Freedom at Midnight gives us Mountbatten’s version of the drama of Britain’s relinquishment of her Indian empire, with supporting voices that turn what might have been a vivid aria into an oratorio.

That the authors responded wholeheartedly to Lord Mountbatten is clear throughout their narrative. They make his likes and dislikes their own. Nehru, Gandhi (the secondary hero), and indeed the whole approach of the Congress party to independence and partition are treated with respect and affection; when criticism is voiced it is compassionate, never harsh. Their villain, too, is Mountbatten’s. “The evil genius of the whole thing,” “a psychopathic case,” “hellbent” on his “exigent demand” for Pakistan—that is how Mountbatten described the Moslem League leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah to the authors and that, more or less, is how they depict him. It is a subjective and shallow appreciation of Jinnah and reveals a gross underestimation and misunderstanding of the historical and social forces that brought about partition.

The very intensity of Mountbatten’s antipathy for Jinnah and opposition to his cause is among the few new insights that emerge from this long book. It demonstrates how right Jinnah was in his belief that Mountbatten was never neutral between him and the Congress party; and how well founded was Jinnah’s (and Pakistani) suspicion that under Mountbatten’s aegis the Indians obtained many concessions that tilted the advantage in the terms of partition even more in their favor than did factors of geography and economics.

Mountbatten conceived the idea that once partition and the double independence—India from Britain,…

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