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Jawahar and Edwina, the greatest love story of the twentieth century? Fact and fiction

By Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang
I know about historians.  I am married to one!   They look at the evidence, interpret it and make judgements to give you a balanced and judicious account.  If you want a critical assessment of the historical setting in which Jawahar and Edwina developed their friendship, then you need a solid work of history.  But if you want to understand the feelings, emotions, personal histories, tensions, contradictions and passion that drove them together, then you need a work of fiction.
The historical novelist does not pretend to be a historian. In some ways the net must be cast wider than that.  Not only must a historical novelist have a thorough grasp of the period of the relevant political and social history, but they must also have an understanding of fashion, food and psychology- in sum be a jack of all trades!  My aim in writing The Last Vicereine was to transport the reader back to the chaotic last days of the British Raj. I wanted to put the reader in Edwina’s and Jawahar’s shoes so that they could empathise with them and live moment by moment with them in their world.  Unlike the historian, the historical novelist is not there to judge or assess, and needs to remember that historical figures and imaginary characters do not have the benefit of hindsight.  This requires constant vigilance when writing. People in the novel might attempt to predict the outcomes of certain decisions and calculate their actions accordingly. They might genuinely believe that they were doing the right thing in the circumstances, and be acting out of the best of intentions, but history might judge them to be wrong.  Today we all know that partition was a disaster, but no one at the time, neither British nor Indian had a full grasp of the horrendous short term consequences, never mind the long term implications of the decision to divide British India along religious lines.
So how exactly did I go about bringing Jawahar and Edwina to life?  I began by avidly reading all the standard history books of the period and general histories of India. I then moved onto autobiographies and biographies particularly of Nehru, Gandhi and the Mountbattens, and supplemented this with as many diaries and memoires as I could get my hands on. The next step was to spend time in the Mountbatten archives going through the papers of Countess Mountbatten of Burma and some of those of her husband, the Viceroy. And finally I undertook a research trip to India so I could truly soak up the atmosphere.  Only when I felt I had a full grasp of the locations and historical period and could enter the minds of the key players, did I begin to write.
It was at this stage that I stopped playing historian, pushed aside my own judgements, and put on my novelist’s hat. It was then that history moved from the foreground and took on a different function. It became both background set and plot driver. We know for example that some of Edwina’s letters of Jawahar were stolen in the run up to the transfer of power. What was in these letters? Who had sight of them? How did the characters react and what might have been the political consequences if they had been leaked?
Furthermore, Jawahar and Edwina were characters of their time. Both were born with silver spoons in their mouths and were respectively members of the British and Indian elite. This imposed certain restrictions, privileges, duties and obligations on them that conditioned their world view and actions.  They cannot be judged by today’s standards.
While a historian might dread gaps or ambiguities in the record, the historical novelist can turn them to advantage. The blanks and omissions in the record are fascinating and exciting and are where stories lie. What are they hiding?  What is missing? What might have been said or not said after a big meeting? Perhaps the minutes don’t exactly tell the full story. What might have happened at the party? What did the gossips say and what were the consequences of rumour and chatter on the political process?
The gaps leave space to imagine and create.  For example, we know from the records that Lady Mountbatten had two female English secretaries on her staff.  Unlike the men of Lord Mountbatten’s staff neither of them appears to have kept a diary or written or published memoires.  Here was my opportunity to create the character of Letticia, Lady Wallace, a widowed school friend of Lady Mountbatten who served on her staff and became my narrator. She was privy to many private conversations, she became our eyes and ears and she took on an exciting and exotic life of her own.
For various reasons the main histories and records have dithered around the relationship between Jawahar and Edwina, partly because it was a private friendship, partly out of respect to the parties involved and also because it has been in the interests of both the British and Indian Congress establishments not to ask too many questions. Nevertheless, it is clear for example that Lady Mountbatten probably played a key role in saving the talks on the transfer of power from complete collapse in Simla in May 1947 and I enjoyed dramatizing this.
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, is easy to ask why on earth India should have been divided in 1947.  The first thing to understand it that it was the end of the war.  The Japanese had broken the will of the British in the Far East and the British people and State were exhausted. Nehru had spent years incarcerated in British jails and was no longer a young man.  Jinnah too was old and probably knew that he was dying.  In dramatizing the situation in Viceroy’s House in the spring of 1947, it was clear from my research that British India was in a state of virtual collapse.  There had been a complete breakdown of law and order in some areas. The British were terrified, bunkered down with a siege mentality and planning for a mass evacuation of their nationals- to say this is not to absolve the British from their responsibilities.
In my novel, I attempt to reflect the sense that things were spinning out of control, the exhaustion, illnesses and at times sense of hopelessness and futility experienced by Edwina, Jawahar, the Viceroy and his staff. By May of 1947 it was obvious that a solution had to be found and quickly. It is not widely known that shortly after independence there was a real fear that the new government of India might have to be evacuated from New Delhi for its own safety. For a period of time the survival of the new India was in question, and Nehru had to work with Mountbatten as Governor General and the outgoing British administration to ensure the future of the new administration and preserve the illusion of central authority. Given this, perhaps we can understand the kind of pressures Jawahar and Edwina were under, their day to day experiences and the extreme stress they shared together, both of them constantly risking their own lives to serve India.  Perhaps if we understand the kind of emotional stress they were under as public figures at an desperately traumatic time, we can they appreciate why they supported each other, why they cared about each other and perhaps also why some decisions were made in the way they were.
What is the truth of the Jawahar Edwina relationship?  My own sense is that there was certainly a deep physical attraction but that it was a friendship between two older people based on emotions and the mind.  Both would have counted themselves as socialists.  They shared interests in art, history, music and poetry and enjoyed riding, swimming and hill walking together.  Edwina was also an experienced aid worker before she became Vicereine of India. She was good with people, having a common touch, and worked valiantly to get aid to refugee camps both before and after partition.  Again this is not really known in India today. But Nehru saw how hard Edwina worked and appreciate all she was doing for India. Both were public figures with a keen sense of public service and duty and they understood that this came at huge personal cost.  Somehow, they managed to carve out a private space for their friendship and to continue to meet, correspond, and support each other emotionally until Edwina’s death in 1960.  Perhaps one day, if the full content of the letters between becomes publically available, we will know more.  But we will always need historical fiction to bring the past to life. Jawahar and Edwina’s friendship is arguably the greatest love story of the twentieth century. If Shakespeare were alive today, he might not have written Anthony and Cleopatra but rather Jawahar and Edwina.
About the Author
Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is a British writer. Her work focuses on historical fault lines and themes that are globally significant. She studied Oriental Studies at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and is a non-practising lawyer. She is fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese.

“Where I sweated and wilted, Edwina was as cool as a cucumber”, 'The Last Vicereine' — An Excerpt

In the spring of 1947, Lord and Lady Mountbatten set foot in the sultry heat of Delhi. A woman of unparalleled charisma, influence and beauty, Edwina Mountbatten was also one of Jawahar’s closest. Little did anyone know that their lives were about to change forever as lines would be drawn through the soul of undivided India.
A beautiful, heart-breaking tale of love, loss and unflinching faith, Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s The Last Vicereine takes us through a blossoming relationship that was one of a kind, amidst the storm of Partition.
Here is an excerpt from the novel:
My God, India was hot! Standing on the tarmac at Palam airport, the heat took my breath away. Everything was white. My eyes ached from the brightness. Had I been living so long in the darkness that I had forgotten the light?
Where I sweated and wilted, Edwina was as cool as a cucumber. We had landed ages ago and the boxes were mostly unloaded. The Viceroy and Vicereine Designates had been received by the waiting dignitaries and Dickie had long since finished inspecting the guard of honour. Yet she tarried.
She stood about ten feet away from the foot of the steps to the aircraft. All fizz and sparkle, her weight resting seductively on to one hip, she was deep in conversation with two Indian men. Already, they were under her spell. They were Liaquat Ali Khan, General Secretary of the Muslim League, and Jawaharlal Nehru, Vice President of the interim government. Both of them were famous and I recognized them immediately from newsreels, papers and books. The handsome, charismatic Nehru was the man most likely to be the Prime Minister of the new independent India after we left. But it looked like Edwina knew them personally. She had greeted them like they were long-lost friends. Now she was chatting animatedly, talking French style, with her hands and shoulders, as was her way.
The rest of us were gathered by the cars, waiting to leave the airport. Dickie’s face was inscrutable. But he pulled awkwardly at the hem of his jacket as if trying to straighten it when it was not creased. It was getting embarrassing. She was almost flirting. Did she know she was keeping everyone waiting? If she did, she didn’t seem to care.
Squinting and shading my eyes against the sun, I saw that now Nehru was doing the talking. He must have said something very funny for Khan rolled his eyes to the sky and all three of them burst out laughing.
It was a relief when at last we got in the cars.
‘Best keep the windows up as much as you can once you enter Delhi,’ the young British officer from the 14th Punjabi Regiment warned. He closed our car door gently, almost as if he were tucking children up in bed.
I was squashed between the side of the car and Ronnie Brockman who seemed owl-like in his spectacles. He, in turn, was wedged against a bulging padlocked briefcase and Elizabeth Ward. Just after we landed Edwina had thrust the shoebox containing the tiara into my hands for safe keeping. Tenderly, I cradled it in my lap as the cars sped towards New Delhi.
On the outskirts of the city we stopped so that Edwina and Dickie could transfer into the horse-drawn landau for the final leg of the journey to Viceroy’s House. I could not see the point of such a show for there was a marked lack of crowds to welcome the new Viceroy and Vicereine. Out of nowhere, I remembered that in 1912 someone had thrown a bomb at the elephant carrying the then Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, and his wife when they were passing through Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. The Viceroy had sustained serious injuries, and the mahout had been killed. And now Dickie and Edwina were out in front in the open-topped carriage. They smiled through clenched teeth at the non-existent crowds, and hated one another. They had not exchanged more than a few words during the whole flight.
Through the windscreen of the car I watched the landau with its mounted escort of the Viceroy’s bodyguard, wheel past India Gate. Facing the Gate was a high stone canopy underneath which stood a monumentally square, almost Soviet-style statue of King George V.
‘Look!’ Ronnie Brockman pointed to the great cupola dome of Viceroy’s House. In the distance, it seemed to float on a cushion of the palest blue. ‘Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Isn’t it magnificent?’ Ronnie had been in New Delhi during the war when he was Secretary to Lord Louis in his capacity as Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia. He was gearing up for the role of tour guide. ‘The city of New Delhi was commissioned in 1911, and designed by Lutyens and his colleague Herbert Baker. It is in a unique style, as you will see, combining Western classicism with Indian decorative motifs.’ Elizabeth and I nodded dutifully. Judging the danger of bombs, stones and Molotov cocktails to be minimal by this point, I rolled the window down.
There was no wind, not even the promise of a breeze. The pennants on the lances of the Viceroy’s bodyguard barely moved. The men were tall in their turbans, splendid in white breeches, black jackboots and red jackets. The hooves of their horses clattered as they rode a neat collected trot.
‘North Block, South Block.’ Ronnie Brockman was feeling at home, proudly indicating the two great administrative blocks of red sandstone, one on either side of the road, each topped with its own miniature dome. Here was the heart of the British Raj that ruled over four hundred million people. I wondered who might be looking down at us from behind the black unblinking windows. The size and the scale of the buildings made Whitehall look like a toy town. Surely it was Britain that was ruled by India, not the other way round?
Grab your copy of ‘The Last Vicereine’ here today!

The Rise and Fall of the Mighty Kingdom of Ranjit Singh

Stories of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s heroics continue to mesmerize generations, even after 178 years of his death.
Khushwant Singh in his two books The Fall of the Kingdom of Punjab and Ranjit Singh: Maharaja of the Punjab draws a fascinating portrait of one of the most powerful ruler of India, the brilliance of his kingdom, and the unfortunate downfall of the Kohinoor that was Punjab.
Here are six instances which capture the rise and fall of the kingdom of Punjab.
After his accession in 1801, Maharajah Ranjit Singh invited talented Muslims and Hindus to join his service and paid assiduous respect to their religious institutions by participating in their festivities.
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Besides its riches, Amritsar had sanctity in the eyes of the Sikhs. It was founded by the fourth Guru, Ram Das, and it was here that the fifth Guru, Arjun, had compiled their scripture, the ‘Adi Granth’, and built the temple in the centre of the sacred pool.
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Ranjit Singh built his kingdom like a fortress that could not ever be breached.
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The English made no secret of their intentions to annex Punjab. Even in his old age, Ranjit Singh tried with all his might to foil the English’s plans.
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Ranjit Singh’s choice of successor, Kharak Singh was the least suited of the brothers, having inherited nothing from his illustrious father except his plain looks and bad habits—particularly the love for laudanum and hard liquor.
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After the accession of Punjab by the British empire and the subsequent surrender, a veteran soldier remarked ‘Aj Ranjit Singh mar gaya (Today Ranjit Singh has died).’
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For more amazing facts of the remarkable Maharajah Ranjit Singh and his empire, read Khushwant Singh’s The Fall of the Kingdom of Punjab and Ranjit Singh: Maharaja of the Punjab. 

Five significant contributions of Islam’s advent in India

The relationship between Hindu and Islamic traditions has existed in the subcontinent since the Persians set foot in Asia. The relationship has seen a lot turns and turmoil ever since. In the light of recent political climate, the alliance has become more relevant.
Historian Raziuddin Aquil, in his book The Muslim Question: Understanding Islam and Indian History has given a poignant and detailed account of the evolution of Islam from its prime to its transformation in India due to colonialism.
Here are five instances which capture the legacy of Islam in India.
India’s integration of Islam also opened a transfer of fresh political ideas which had evolved over the centuries in Iran and Greece. In many ways, this was a re-emergence of political ideas in a new garb.
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There was also an emergence of ‘syncretic’ traditions in different regions which did not conform to any particular religion.
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Although the main undertaking of Sufi traditions was to restrict any deviations from the Muslim rule, their belief in unity within multiplicity contributed to religious synthesis and cultural amalgamation.
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Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar due to his inclusive religious and administrative policies is regarded as one of the greatest rulers of India.
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Under Akbar’s rule, man’s reason (aql), not tradition (naql), was acknowledged as the only basis of religion.
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Read more about Islam’s journey in Raziuddin Aquil, in his book The Muslim Question: Understanding Islam and Indian HistoryGet your copy here.

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