It was the culmination of a lifetimes struggle; and yet, as Nehru later confided to his sister, his mind had not been on the splendid words. A few hours before, he had received a telephone call from Lahore in what was about to become West Pakistan. It was his mothers hometown and a place where he had spent much of his childhood.4 Now it was being torn apart. Gangs of Muslims and Sikhs had clashed in the streets. The main gurdwarathe Sikh templewas ablaze. One hundred thousand people were trapped inside the city walls without water or medical assistance. Violence was a much-predicted consequence of the handover, but preparations for dealing with it had been catastrophically inadequate. The only help available in Lahore was from two hundred Gurkhas, stationed nearby, under the command of an inexperienced British captain who was only twenty years old. They had little chance of stopping the carnage. The horror of that night in Lahore set the tone for weeks of bloodshed and destruction. Perhaps the Hindu astrologers had been right when they had declared 14 August to be an inauspicious date. Or perhaps the viceroys curious decision to rush independence through ten months ahead of the British governments schedule was to blame.
Emerging into the streets of Delhi, Nehru was greeted by the ringing of temple bells, the bangs and squeals of fireworks and the happy shouting of crowds. Guns were fired, in celebration rather than in anger; an effigy of British imperialism was burned, in both.5 Soon afterward, Nehru arrived at the Viceroys House, a gated citadel at the end of Kingsway, New Delhis two-mile processional avenue. He and Rajendra Prasad, the leader of the Constituent Assembly, were to see the last of the viceroys, Earl Mountbatten of Burma.6
At forty-seven, Mountbatten was young for a viceroy but no less assured for it. Tall, broad-shouldered and handsome, he had a brilliant Hollywood smile, easy wit and immediate charm; it might never have been guessed that he had been born a prince were it not for his ability to switch to a regal demeanor. The new earl and his countess, Edwina, had kept an appropriate distance from the festivities. While freedom was declared, the couple had spent the night at home, pottering around their palace and helping the servants tidy away anything marked with an imperial emblem. They had taken a brief break to watch the latest Bob Hope movie, My Favorite Brunette. It was a pastiche of the fashionable noir genre: the story of a wayward but irresistible baroness, played by the sultry Dorothy Lamour, whose feminine wiles drag a number of men into a dangerous conspiracy. No more than a handful of those in the Viceroys House that evening could have realized what a very apposite choice of film it was.
While Nehru had been declaring his nations independence and worrying about the emerging crisis in Lahore, Mountbatten had been sitting in his study alone, thinking to himself, as he later recollected, For still a few minutes I am the most powerful man on earth.7 At 11:58 p.m., he settled on a last act of showmanship, creating the Australian wife of the Nawab of Palanpur a highness, in defiance of Indian caste customs and British policy. It was an act epitomizing Mountbattens character. Kingmaking was his favorite sport. Two minutes later, and the power had vanished.
Nehru and Prasad were greeted by the viceroys wife, Edwina Mountbatten, in lively form despite the lateness of the hour. Vivacious, chic and slim, at forty-five Edwina was still in her prime. Her position as one of the worlds richest women had never made her happy. But, over the course of the previous few years, she had finally found a role for herself, leading health and welfare campaigns for the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance Brigade. The heiress to millions had never been happier than when she was working in the hot, rough and filthy refugee camps that had been set up across the riot-scarred Punjab. In India, Edwina had blossomed, both in the revelation of her own work and in her close friendships with the Indian leaders, particularly Gandhi and Nehru. It was the second of these friendships that was already the subject of gossip in Delhi society.
Copyright © 2007 by Alex von Tunzelmann. All rights reserved.
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