In April I went to the cinema to see Viceroy’s House and it immediately made me want to read more about the history of the partition of India. It’s something I knew a little about, having done a course on India as part of my undergraduate degree. I had also read the wonderful Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, a fictional account of Indian independence which won the Booker Prize and the ‘Booker of Bookers’ prize. But that was a long time ago, so after seeing the film I bought the two books that the film is based on: Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten by Pamela Hicks and Freedom at midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
The first is, as the title suggests, an account from the inside of the Mountbatten family of what it was like to be a part of history as India was finally handed from the British back to her own people in August 1947, almost 70 years ago. It is a fascinating account of growing up in an unconventional upper class family, detailing the life of Edwina and Louis Mountbatten before and during his tenures as the last Viceroy of India and its first Governor General. As an 18 year old Pamela became fascinated with India and its people and did what she could to help when the horror of partition began.
Freedom at Midnight is an in-depth account of what led to India’s partition, though from reading around the subject, it clearly presents a somewhat one-sided and contested view of the role Mountbatten played in India’s independence. It sympathetically portrays him as doing the best he could have done given the task he was handed by the British Prime Minister and the King. With that in mind, it is a book I would highly recommend as an extremely well written and un-put-downable account of how and why the decision was taken to create an independent India and Pakistan. The cast of characters is extensive and I learned a great deal about Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah (who many have argued is unfairly portrayed here as the villain of the piece) as well as about both Louis and Edwina Mountbatten.
The most horrifying part of this story are the massacres that took place as India was divided. It seems incredible to me that we are not taught more in school about the movement of 14.5 million refugees who found themselves on the wrong side of the borders and about the slaughter of somewhere between 200,000 and two million people (estimates vary). The vivid accounts of the extreme violence in the Punjab were very hard to read but really brought home the impact that partition had on families and communities – the dark side of India’s and Pakistan’s independence.
This is a part of history that we should all know more about.