Midnight, August 14-15, 1947: Jawaharlal Nehru is sworn in by Lord Mountbatten as independent India's first Prime Minister.

In ‘The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition’, Narendra Singh Sarila refers illuminatingly to the relationship between Nehru and Mountbatten when he writes ‘Nehru and the Mountbattens had come close to each other. The Indian was less able to separate affairs of state from personal feelings than the Englishman’.

I was struck by those sentences, for they seemed to shed light too on what I have described as one of the most interesting features of British colonialism, as expressed by a couple of the great novelists who have dealt with the subject, namely the desire of the more interesting white protagonists to both dominate and be loved.

The Indian critic Nirmal Verma sets this phenomenon in the context of what he sees as a distinction between the European characterization of the ‘other’ and the Indian. Verma claims that for Indians, ‘The self was always accepted as self-referential; the “other” was neither a threat to their identity, nor a source of confirmation of their uniqueness. This was very different from the European notion of the “other”, an inalienable entity external to oneself, which was both a source of terror and an object of desire.’

I am not sure if this is necessarily always true, but certainly Paul Scott expands on the idea in his characterization of Ronald Merrick, the grand villain of his ‘Raj Quartet’, who sublimates his homosexual feelings through sadism. Conversely, Scott illustrates the civilized aspects of British colonialism through a series of women, young ones who have affairs with Indians, older ones who express their commitment even more strikingly through gestures that establish their alienation from their own countrymen.

Interestingly enough, the men who see themselves as very different from Merrick are incapable of such gestures. Scott makes clear how they see Merrick as their dark side, something to be deplored, but at the same time they cannot do without him. They have to stand up for him even when they know he has behaved appallingly, and conversely they cannot unbend with the Indians they see as comparatively a threat. What softness they display extends only to those they do not fear, the unsophisticated and helpless, as with the woman Robin White remembers as feeding him curds when he was sick.

 The rigidity they feel obliged to maintain extends even to relations with women. Daphne Manners becomes an outcast when she refuses to seek refuge in an imperial identity after she has been raped. The Indians in contrast behave impeccably, Hari Kumar maintaining silence about the affair with Daphne, while Ahmed Kasim goes further, in stepping out to certain death from the railway carriage where he might have clung to the English he was traveling with, who would not have been dragged to their deaths. Scott emphasizes here a heroism which British fiction would have thought the stuff solely of empire builders, through describing it without attribution at the beginning of the novel in a way that makes the reader assume the protagonist is probably Merrick, certainly British. 

Underlying this is the notion, which British women in both cases enunciate, that the Indians have learnt only too well British lessons about good form. Yet the interpretations Sarila provides of interactions in the last days of empire suggest something more. Where the British, either naturally, or because they were trained for an empire in which they had to stand aloof, controlled their softer feelings, the Indians naturally gave them free rein. As Verma suggests, this was part of a mindset that did not dichotomize, that saw even practitioners of empire as human.

 So Nehru, at least according to Sarila, ended up playing into British hands over partition and Kashmir too, while ‘Attlee had disapproved Mountbatten”s action on accession. Like the good soldier that he was, Mountbatten immediately fell in step with HMG’. Sarila shows clearly how the British military, inclined in any case towards Pakistan, ensured that Mountbatten toed the line. The parallels with Robin White, or Nigel Rowan, who forgot his elite feelings and obligations so that Merrick’s prestige could be preserved and indeed enhanced, are obvious.


Jawaharlal Nehru with Lord and Lady Mountbatten, 1948.

At the same time, as ‘Indian Summer’ the recent ‘Secret History of the End of an Empire’ by Alex von Tunzelmann suggests, there was some sincerity in the Mountbatten approach, in terms of the genuine commitment to both Nehru and India on the part of Lady Mountbatten. Obviously she did not go as far as some of the ladies of the Raj Quartet, who cut their links with the British. However, like Sarah Layton, the principal heroine, who relives some aspects of Daphne Manners’ commitment while maintaining her established identity – and her life – Edwina Mountbatten fulfilled through faith as well as deeds what Verma describes as ‘that strange notion of “romantic love” which happens to be one of the most remarkable features of European sensibility’.

 ‘Indian Summer’, in describing the aftermath, blows up a sense of romance between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. Whether this is accurate or not, one has to note however that this was not a case of the world being well lost for love. That book, as well as Sarila’s, suggest that it was Britain that largely benefited from the political manoeuvers of the time, and that too only in the short term, as the triple demons of separatism and fundamentalism and terror increasingly haunt us all now.


We need then to be less sentimental about such matters. Though from a human point of view one would prefer to function with the worldview Verma characterizes as Indian, rather than the divisive European one, in the world of international relations as practiced now one needs to be realistic. Remaining content with personal assurances and social contact makes no sense. One remembers after all the manner in which President Jayewardene put all his eggs in the Western basket in the eighties, just as Pakistan had done in the sixties, only to find that there was no question of interference to protect from what were assumed to be common enemies.

 But, while one needs to be constantly vigilant, one should also appreciate the analyses, both historical and literary, that help us understand the personal contribution to interactions between countries. Scott’s assessment of the psychological motivation of both active and passive protagonists will help us to forgive, as well as to understand, the compulsions that drive the powerful as well as the weak.