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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star