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INDIAN SUMMER: Stories Behind Histories

Image Courtesy: Alex von Tunzelmann
I doubt reading history can make an individual wiser. I am certain that it can shock us. This shock wave takes birth at the crack between what is the perceived history and the stories behind that history. Often the stories behind history are beyond reconciliation resulting in mass violence and murders. Salman Rushdie tried that once and he faced the fatwa. Dan Brown tried to decipher Da Vinci in his rather playful quirk called The Da Vinci Code. And this book is still banned among many Christian communities. I remember one of my friends’ words that he had spoken to one of his students, “If you wrote a paper on The Da Vinci Code, you might end up in trouble.”

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Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire by Alex von Tunzelmann, published in 2007, is one such book that can shake some of us from our foundational thoughts on Indian history, especially the story of Indian freedom struggle. Unlike many of the so-called groundbreaking books, Tunzelmann’s book does not relocate the existing paradigms or unravel a chaotic vision. In a gentle act of unearthing, Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire portrays the story of Indian struggle for independence in a rather fresh light, leaving some of the stones unturned. For Tunzelmann, unlike a recent comment by Arundhathi Roy, the author of God of Small Things, Gandhi remains an influential figure. In Tunzelmann’s own words, “It is within the context of this tightening of the imperial shackles that the swift and dazzling rise of Gandhi can be understood.” (38)   

For someone who studied Indian history Tunzelmann’s book might not bring any enlightenment. However, with her evocative style and lucid prose, Tunzelmann wins open the reader’s mind into a historical landscape beautiful like a novel and wondrous like a museum of exotic samples. Rarely can one feel bored reading Indian Summer, although this books is a long historical non-fiction. Tunzelmann narrates the history of the grand downfall of an empire and the equally thrilling turns in the history of two newly independent nations with a history of millennia. She does it in a language that is charming and lucid. In finding the drama in history, Tunzelmann has been exceptionally successful. And this makes Indian Summer a book worth reading.

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What makes Indian Summer the most impressive book on Indian freedom struggle is its ardent advocacy of how some individuals changes the course of the history of three nations. The Mountbattens and the Nehrus play crucial roles as individuals in the formative history of three nations—Britain, India and Pakistan. “Dickie and Edwina had met in October 1920,” she writes. I quoted this line to indicate how story-like her narrative style and concerns are, in this book.

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The scope of the book, though, does not end with telling the world how some influential individuals influenced the national history of three nations. Indian Summer proves that national histories are often misguiding. For example, any student of Indian history or Post-colonial Theory would doubtlessly blame Lord Macaulay for his infamous educations reforms as the grease in the grand machinery of British Imperialism. However, in Tunzelmann’s research one might come across, quite unprecedentedly, a different Macaulay, presenting his opinion regarding the interference of The East India Company in India. “Presenting the scheme to parliament, Thomas Babington Macaulay freely admitted that licensing out British sovereignty to a private company was inappropriate.” (15)

Indian Summer presents some interesting out look into these events that are kept rather obscure due to many factors. Occasionally surprising with an undoubtedly capturing narrative style, Indian Summer is surely worth a shot, not just for history buffs, but also for those who keep an eye open for spicy stories. Alex von Tunzelmann’s second book is Red Heat published in 2011.     

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