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Sriram Karra

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Freedom@Midnight [May. 9th, 2007|02:23 pm]
Sriram Karra
I just finished reading the remarkable book "Freedom at Midnight" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. I picked up a copy as part of a lucky harvest in a used book store on South Mada Street (Mylapore) - Glimpses of World History, Discovery of India, Autobiography (all by Nehru) and Freedom at Midnight for a grand total of Rs. 120/-. Of course all of them were yellow and grimy with age and use. But nothing serious enough to take away from the satisfaction of a good read.

The book, I am glad, lived up to its rave reviews on Amazon.com. Extensive research, brilliant narration, tight prose (witty at times), attention to detail, and a neutral point of view all come together in a package that enlightens and entertains. The book is written almost like a screenplay for a thriller with two heroes – Mountbatten, and his “dejected sparrow”, Gandhi.

The book covers in exquisite detail, important events and intriguing personalities related to Indian Independence starting from January 1, 1947 to Gandhi's assassination in 1948. Throughout there are insights into the proceedings that one does not encounter in an Indian school history text book. Such as:

(a) The role of Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of British India and first Governor-General of Independent India, has not left much of a mark on most Indians of our generation. The only thing about him that many consider worthy of remembering is that he had a stunningly good-looking wife whom Nehru had a thing for. But in the words of Collins and Lapierre Mountbatten comes through as a charming person and brilliant administrator, with a natural talent for negotiation and decisive action, who was singularly responsible for hammering out in short order an Independence settlement that Gandhi, the Congress and the Moslem League all agreed to.

(b) Nehru, the charismatic self-declared "Last Englishman of India", is often portrayed as anything but the self-assured all-knowing global leader he is remembered as. Shortly after independence, as Prime Minister of India when the country was being torn apart by communal riots and even the capital was slipping into chaos, Nehru, along with Patel, approached Mountbatten "looking like a pair of chastened schoolboys" asking him to run the country. "While you were exercising the highest command in war," said Nehru in the meeting that remained a secret for the better part of 25 years, "we were in a British prison. You are a professional, high-level administrator. You've commanded millions of men. You have the experience and knowledge colonialism has denied us. You English can't just turn this country over to us after being here all our lives and simply walk away. We're in an emergency and we need help. Will you run the country?" A remarkable statement by leaders of the Congress who had followed a single point agenda of asking the Brits to get out of the country at the earliest and leave India to its destiny.

The book is a treasure-trove of trivia. Take the date of India's Independence, for example. One, particularly if that one is an Indian, would like to believe that the date would have been chosen with utmost care and deliberation. That, as it happens, was not the case. In early June 1947 Louis Mountbatten went into a press conference to announce the details of the agreement of India's Independence. Yet by that time he had not brought up the actual date of transfer of power in any meeting with the negotiating Indian leaders. When a reporter questioned him on the date, Mountbatten realised the problem. Unwilling to do anything to spoil the carefully constructed image that he was The man in total control, Mountbatten displayed a remarkable talent for keeping his cool and quickly announced August 15, 1947, the second anniversary of Japan's surrender in WW-II as 'the chosen date.'

Much of the book, understandably, is devoted to Gandhi and his assassination. His remarkable ability, powered by the most extreme idealism, to get people to maintain order and peace in the most volatile regions never ceases to inspire. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Gandhi had lived to make his walk into Pakistan…

There are plenty of light passages in the book as well. The extravagant lifestyles and antics of the Princes of the British Raj appear to have amused the authors no end and one entire chapter is devoted to their eccentricities. Certain passages highlighting the mind boggling wealth and bizarre lifestyles of these pampered despots are absolutely delightful and deserve to be reproduced in full.

"Centerpiece of the great Sikh Maharaja of Patiala's collection was a pearl necklace insured by Lloyds for one million dollars. The most intriguing item, however, was a diamond breastplate, its luminous surface composed of 1001 brilliantly matched blue-white diamonds. Until the turn of the century it had been the custom of the Maharaja of Patiala to appear once a year before his subjects naked except for that diamond breastplate, his organ in full and glorious erection. His performance was adjusted a kind of temporal manifestation of the Shiva ling, the phallic representation of Lord Shiva's organ. As the Maharaja walked about, his subjects gleefully applauded, their cheers acknowledging both the dimensions of the princely organ and the fact that the it was supposed to be radiating magic powers to drive evil spirits from the land."

"In Baroda, the princely fetes were inevitably highlighted by elephant fights. Their combats were terrifying spectacles. Two enormous bull elephants driven mad with fury by lances thrust into their flanks like a picador's jab at a fighting bull were unleashed on each other. Shaking the ground with their enormous weight and the sky with their frightened trumpeting, they fought until one of them was killed. The Raja of Dhenkanal, a state in eastern India, provided thousands of guests each year with an opportunity to witness an equally impressive but less bloody exhibition by his elephants, the public copulation of two of the most select denizens of his stables."

"Of all the bizarre and exotic rulers in India, Rustum-i-Dauran, Arastu-e-Zaman, Wal Mamalik, Asif Jah, Nawab Mir Osman, Alikhan Bahadur, Muzaffar-ul-Mulk Nizam-al-Mud, Sipah Salaar, Fateh Jang, His Exalted Highness, Most Faithful Ally of the British Crown, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad was surely the most bizarre. ... In 1947 the Nizam was reputed to be the richest man in the world and the legends of his wealth were surpassed only by the legends of the avarice with which he sought to hold it in tact. He dressed in rumpled cotton pajamas and ill-formed grey slippers bought in a local market place for a few rupees. for 35 years he'd worn the same soiled, dandruff-encrusted fez. So stingy was he, he smoked the cigarette stubs left behind by his guests. When a state occasion forced him to put champagne on the princely table, he saw to it the single bottle he reluctantly set out never got more than three or four places from him. ... In most states, it was the custom once a year for the nobles to make their prince a symbolic offering of a gold piece which the ruler touched, then returned to its owner. In Hyderabad, there was nothing symbolic about the offering. The Nizam grabbed each gold piece and dropped it into a paper bag beside his throne. On one occasion when one fell, he was on his hands and knees like a shot, racing its owner along the floor to the rolling coin."

I laughed so hard... my stomach ached. A brilliant book, indeed. I look forward to reading Collins & Lapierre's other books (Is Paris Burning and O Jerusalem), but a quick search through the old book stores in my locality have disappointed :)
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2007-05-09 02:27 pm (UTC)
I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Gandhi had lived to make his walk into Pakistan…

From what I have read in Gopal Godse's book and another book published by RSS' publication division... Gandhi did walk to Pakistan and that was amongst the reasons which triggered his assassination.

It seems, Nathuram Godse and Naryan Apte had gone to Noakhali in East Pakistan where large number of Hindus were reported to have been slaughtered, Narayan Apte recounted that they were talking with few refugees who survived the onslaught and they saw a grievously hurt man crawling to meet Gandhi, and Gandhi was in hurry to meet a prominent muslim leader, when he noticed the bleeding guy, he turned his companion and told him to stay there and bury him after he is dead!
He walked off... this supposedly aggravated Godse and co's anger about him and caused his death.

I don't how true is this account.
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[User Picture]From: skarra
2007-05-09 07:23 pm (UTC)
Gandhi's stay in Noakhali was pre-independence. At the time of independence Gandhi stayed was in Calcutta on the invitation of a Muslim leader after that guy extracted promises from Noakhali's Muslims that Hindus there would not be harmed.

A post-independence walk to Pakistan would, I'm sure you'd agree, have had an altogether different dimension.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-06-19 07:46 am (UTC)

fantastic book

karra bhai,

u must be mightly pleased that u r back to chennai..now u can subsist on a healthy dose of pongal every morning :)

hv read half of that book. it brings the hitherto unknown facts alive. very witty narration. infact, peggy noonan has made a mention of it in the wall st journal. she goes on to say tht the resistance in iraq has parallels with the freedom struggle in india - http://www.opinionjournal.com/columnists/pnoonan/?id=110008126.

-mithun
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[User Picture]From: skarra
2007-06-19 06:59 pm (UTC)

Re: fantastic book

Hegde??? Yep, I agree about the witty narration, and bringint to light 'new' facts... but remember the book was written over 30 years ago :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-08-10 05:23 am (UTC)

Wonderful read indeed!

What really moved me in that book was the Naokhalli incident.. what some thousand odd "trained British" troupes couldnt achieve, Gandhi did - no violence in that entire region - speaks volumes about the power of that tiny man - more importantly the strength of conviction in his ideals. Brought tears to my eyes! :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-08-10 05:24 am (UTC)

Re: Wonderful read indeed!

O and its Beena - ddnt notice the anonymous thingie :D
Waise - have u read City of Joy by Lapierre? nice read that!
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[User Picture]From: skarra
2007-08-12 10:43 am (UTC)

Re: Wonderful read indeed!

Nope. It's somewhere in my To-Read list.
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