Operation Madhouse

Review: LIBERTY OR DEATH: India's Journey to Independence and Division by Patrick French HarperCollins pounds 20

The dissolution of the Raj seems to fascinate the British almost more than it interests the Indians: the 50th anniversary of Independence has caused a spate of events, celebrations, broadcasts and publications; the national soul-searching, which might perhaps be expected to belong more to the Indian nation than to the British, seems instead to be more intense here than there. And this book is a fine and worthy contribution to it all. In it, Patrick French's ambitious project is no less than to describe the ending of British rule and the partition of the subcontinent; on the way he has peopled his book with a rich cast of famous personalities and little people, heroes and obscurities. He plays in the political arena, making some sweeping and controversial observations about the saintly- famous (Gandhi) and the far-from-perfect (Jinnah, Mountbatten, Churchill). One of his many gleaming skills in an impressive book is the recording and extrapolation of the interplay between these major players.

Myth-making is endemic to India, and to the history of the country: much of French's considerable research seems to be aimed at the debunking of many of the more cherished legends. Gandhi himself is perhaps an easy target (that Attenborough movie gives too many hostages to fortune), but French's biting description of the man as "emotionally troubled" and "a ruthlessly sharp political negotiator" opens all kinds of questions - in particular, it leads French into possibly insoluble comparisons between the essential honesty and integrity of Gandhi and that of Nehru, who is the more heroic figure in this author's eyes.

And what of the British? It would be surprising if Patrick French treated the British record gently, and of course he does not. His always sprightly narrative can be highly entertaining when it comes to pen-portraits, and his quotes are coolly chosen. He retails the Duchess of Windsor's opinion of Mountbatten, from her memoirs - "The more baffling [the] problems were to the experts, the more convinced Dickie was that he had a fundamental contribution to make and was determined to make it" - and backs it up with his own view that "Everyone seemed to have a story - usually apocryphal - about Dickie Mountbatten: he cheated at polo; he had a controlling interest in a male brothel in Knightsbridge; he always pretended he had just been speaking to the Queen on the telephone; he believed in flying saucers; he was caught in bed with Noel Coward ..." His sharpest and most dismissive barbs are aimed, however, at Edwina Mountbatten, who, he claims, "became a rather brittle vamp, and took to her bed with a string of polo players and lounge lizards" - remarks that would be almost quaint in their dated language if they were less hostile.

More soberly, and more typically, French anatomises Lord Mountbatten's particular way of cultivating legend: "By attempting to create his own myth with such assiduous care, [he] sowed the seeds of its posthumous collapse". He has more time for Lord Wavell, the viceroy-before-last, and there is a vivid description of the discussion between the two as Wavell hands over the reins of power: "I am sorry for you ... I have only one solution, which I call Operation Madhouse - withdrawal of the British, province by province, beginning with women and children, then civilians, then the army ..."

This was the language of despair, and French conveys cleverly the sense of brinkmanship and bravado, the grief, the dodgy dealings and the naked fear that went hand in hand with the withdrawal from India. It was not just a knotty political problem for the British, but a visceral, emotional wrench that brought out much of what was worst, and well as some of what was best, in those who were getting out as much as in those who were, Paul Scott-like, staying on.

It is a long, tight and intricate narrative, as it is bound to be, but one that occasionally becomes over-dense for the non-specialist. In his account of partition, particularly, he can hardly avoid a certain weightiness: the facts themselves weigh heavy, and it would be irresponsible to try to lighten them too much. French chooses for the most part a standard approach, necessarily so in order to accommodate all his enormous accumulation of material; but, as if he is worried that we will have found the political part of the book too pedestrian, in the last 50 pages he literally goes walkabout. Setting off for a little fashionable footstepping, he decides to undertake his own journey through cultural time and space, recording on the way his encounters with a range of characters in vignettes and mini-interviews. Here, for instance, is Tazeen Faridi, brought up in the heart of the Pakistan movement in the 1920s. "Now she was a widow, living in a good suburb of Karachi, wearing a silvery-blue salwar kameez and big pearl earrings and sitting on a sofa eating cake. She had moles on her face and a saggy neck and the lively, dogmatic, opinionated air of a Muslim matriarch. I liked her nerve."

It is not so much that these spotlit encounters don't work on their own terms, more that their grafting onto the book that has gone before just doesn't take. It does not, however, spoil a far-reaching and substantial achievement.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable