Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Freedom at Midnight

Authors: Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
Freedom at Midnight is an immensely readable account on the political climate surrounding Indian Independence in 1947.
It begins with the arrival of Lord Mountbatten as the Viceroy of India in April 1947 and ends with the last British soldiers leaving Independent India in February 1948 through the Gateway of India to the strains of Auld Lang Syne.
In this period of less than a year, Lord Mountbatten's task was to help ensure the transfer of power to reliable Indian hands. He did this by what the authors call Operation Seduction – using his immense charm to negotiate with leaders of various political factions to ensure the transition is smooth. However, as the book details, this was easier said than done.
For one, the Viceroy had to keep the best interests of Britain at heart at all times. Then, there was the decision on the able hands in which to entrust India. The personalities that Mountbatten dealt with are portrayed in lucid detail. These include the individual idiosyncracies, habits as well as unique challenges surmounted by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The most critical matter of all was the drawing of the borders, made more difficult by the long standing discord between Hindus and Muslims. There was the core issue of partitioning a country on religious grounds which was bound to have repercussions not only on the lives and livelihoods of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs alike, but also on the economies of India, Pakistan as well as what would soon become Bangladesh.
While Mountbatten is a constant thread in the narrative, the book makes frequent forays into other, connected happenings. The lifestyles of the Indian royalty makes for fascinating reading. The plot to assassinate Gandhi is described in great detail. The violence between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs is captured in many first-person accounts in graphic depth. There are heart-rending tales of common men and women, like the Sikh, Boota Singh and his Muslim wife, Zenib, who were tragically separated at the time of Partition.
The strength of the book is clearly the narrative that assumes that no story is too small and no detail too trivial to provide a glimpse into the complexity of Indian Independence.
An edited version of this article appeared in the August 2011 Issue of Culturama
Image courtesy Vikas Publishing

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