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.

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