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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.

How Sindhis do Business, An Excerpt from ‘Paiso’

Guided by their sharp business acumen and adaptability, Sindhis have braved the Partition, fled from one nation to another and weathered ups and downs in the economy to set up some of the biggest companies in the world. In Paiso, Maya Bathija chronicles the journey of five Sindhi families and the business empires they have established.
Here’s an excerpt from the book.
Sindhis are a community originally from Sindh, which is now in Pakistan. Even in the earliest references, Sindh has been known as a beautiful land, rich in natural resources. Since thieves can only steal from lands of abundance, the inhabitants of this area had their peace and harmony disturbed from time to time by plunderers. From the Mohenjo Daro and Harappa excavations, archaeologists discovered the city structure that ran with underground drainage, and dug up bricks and jewellery, proving that 5,000 years ago a full-fledged civilization lived in Sindh, on the broad plains and valleys of the Indus River.
The Sindhis were predominantly Hindu by religion, but some later converted to Islam and Sikhism. There was a time when some Sindhi families promised their eldest sons to Sikhism, who wore turbans in the same way as Sikhs.
A lot of the Sindhi heritage and history was destroyed by invaders. Chach Namah,the oldest known historical account of Sindh, was written by an Arab historian accompanying the forces of Mohammed bin Qasim, who attacked Sindh in 711 ad. It has also been established that there existed Sindhi Hindu dynasties, such as the Samma, Samra, Khairpur, Kalhore and Talpur.
Sindhis were primarily businessmen and traders. Their skills did not naturally allow them to take part in warfare, but they were known for their perseverance and business acumen even centuries ago. The main trading castes were the Lohana, Bhatia, Khatri, Chhapru and Sahta. These castes were occasionally divided into occupational groups, such as the Sahukars (merchants) and the Hatawaras  (shopkeepers).The most affluent Sindhis were the merchants who owned trading firms (kothis4) in the major towns of Sindh. Eventually, the name Amil5 was given to any Sindhi who was engaged in government service.
Post-Partition, many of them who moved to India, having left everything behind, experienced much poverty and hardship. And there has been many a proverbial rags-toriches story in the community.
The early perception of the Sindhworki who had moved to India and lived in Bombay in the post-Partition days was that a Sindhi would do almost anything to make even a small amount of money. If the shops around sold sugar for Re 1 a kg in bags of 50 kg, Sindhi businessmen would buy 50-kg bags of sugar and sell the commodity on the streets for 99 paise a kg. Their price being 1 paise cheaper per kg, they sold hundreds of bags of sugar, making a loss of 50 paise per 50-kg bag. This amazed others and made them wonder why a person would work so hard to lose money. What they failed to realize was that every time a Sindhi businessman sold an empty bag for Re 1, he made a net profit of 50 paise on every 50-kg bag of sugar.
Sindhis were known to sacrifice profit margins for a large turnover. With the exception of the Seths of Karachi, the Sindhworkis of Hyderabad and the Shroffs of Shikarpur, most Sindhis were local shopkeepers and moneylenders. They specialized in the hundi, or bill of discount, with Chennai, Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka being some of the main banking hubs. They even became financiers for industries and filmmaking in Bombay. The Shikarpuri Shroffs were dependent on commercial banks for their trading. The rest went on to become traders, cloth merchants and businessmen, some of them in faraway countries.
Sindhi families have been known to migrate to countries all over the world or to send their children overseas for education. After one lot migrated, they would then encourage their relatives to join them, not only so that the relatives could better their own prospects but also so that they could help the family business grow. Sindhis moved far and wide, to the Far East, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Europe, the Americas and Africa. Over the years, their businesses have evolved from trade and finance to export/import, retail, entertainment, computers, property/real estate, etc.
In most Sindhi families, the heirs were—and sometimes still are—exposed to the family business from childhood itself, creating in them business aspirations at an early age. Sons were expected to earn even while they were studying—what is now known as ‘to shadow’. They happily learnt the ropes of their family business, but sadly, formal education was never encouraged among the community, as it was thought it was not in the ‘Sindhi blood’ to excel in academics. Most Sindhi families felt that the time spent on acquiring an education could be better spent on earning money. They believed that inherent business sense could be cultivated by practice and experience and not necessarily through formal education.


An Unresolved History: A Legacy Of Partition

By Urvashi Butalia
It is close on two decades now that I have been researching and writing on the human histories of Partition. As story upon story unfolds, and terrible, painful histories begin to emerge, it does not, contrary to popular wisdom, become any easier to deal with them.
One of the many grave consequences of Partition—and one which remains all the more prevalent today—has been the ease with which so many Indians and Pakistanis fall into a pattern of mutual demonisation, so that virtually everything, whether it relates to bombs, or to violence or to foreign relations or to territorial claims, can be laid at the door of the ‘other’. If it was not so serious, it would be laughable: imagine two mature, intelligent (if one can use those terms for nation states) countries in the twenty first century placing virtually every failure at the door of the ‘other’. Indeed so powerful is the jingoism, and so deep the suspicion, that attempts to move out of that are seldom successful.
The story below provides an illustration of this.
I once received a letter from Pakistan, sent by a young man called Tanveer Ahmed, who had made it his mission in life to bring his grandmother, originally from Kashmir, to Indian Kashmir to meet her siblings, and he wrote to ask if I could help in getting her a visa. 
His letter started by recounting the facts of his story. They are as follows: 

  • I have been trying to re-unite my maternal grandmother with her siblings since 1989, having met them that year (They live about 90kms apart, divided by the LOC since October 1947)
  • After objecting for many years, my maternal grandfather finally agreed to allow me to seek an Indian visa for my maternal grandmother after learning of the death of her younger brother. He even expressed interest himself in visiting her remaining family members.
  • Being a British citizen (I have lived in the UK since the age of 4) it was obvious that I would seek my Indian visa from London (I have been to India twice before—1989 and 1993). After meeting the concerned Visa Officer and outlining my reason for travel, he stipulated that I should request a fax from my relations in India to verify our relationship. After confirming that to be the only stipulation, I duly received a fax from my Indian uncle in Rajauri and presented it to the visa officer. He, in turn, expressed that he found it impossible to believe that Hindus and Muslims could be related and insisted that I re-apply for my Indian visa from the IHC in Islamabad. He was at pains to insist that IHC (Islamabad) would merely request an NOC from IHC (London) and that I would promptly receive my visa within a matter of days. He even gave me his personal phone number in case of any problem with IHC (Islamabad). On his persistence, I felt I had no option but to trust him on his word despite my scepticism.
  • When I applied in Islamabad, I was initially told to check after a few days, then a couple of months, then I was told that my case was in the Indian Home Ministry pending approval. After a few months, I was informed that the issue could take up to two or two and a half years.
  • I also applied for the LOC crossing in November 2005 only to learn a few months ago that people applying after me have been and come back.

Tanveer wrote in desperation, anxious to find a way of getting his grandmother to Indian Kashmir to meet with her relatives. Concerned that both her age and her heart condition would make it increasingly difficult for her to travel, he gave up his job in London to come to Pakistan and devote all his energy to achieving the goal he had set himself.  To him, getting his grandmother to Indian Kashmir was not only a personal mission—she was the one who had brought him up as a child—but also a way of contributing to the lessening of tension between India and Pakistan. He saw visits to and reunions with relatives across borders as one way of doing so. As he said:
My personal and professional experience of life equips me well to make a positive and constructive input into Indo-Pak Relations. It’s a real pity that neither country has been able to read that about me thus far. I completed a cycle ride from Torkhem (Pak-Afghan border NWFP) to Wagah (PAk-Indian border Punjab) in the sweltering heat recently to display my seriousness for peace between the two countries. I aim to continue this cycle ride from Attari to Kolkatta as soon as my grandmother has been re-united with her family.
Despite his best efforts Tanveer Ahmed’s labours continued in vain, with little hope of a visa being granted for his grandmother to travel to India. With some help from him, I was able to explore this story further and to meet with his grandfather in England, and as the story unfolded, other aspects became clear.
His grandfather was among the many Pathans, men who came to Kashmir in October of 1947 as part of what has come to be known as the raiders’ attack. A little over sixteen at the time, Tanveer’s grandfather said he knew very little about why they went to Kashmir, but that as a group of young boys, they found the whole enterprise to be something of an adventure. At some point they came across a group of young girls who were running away from the violence, in search of safety. The boys divided up the girls between them, and Tanveer’s grandfather married the girl who came to ‘his share’.
At the time, the assumption was that her family had all been killed. She converted to Islam and stayed on with her husband in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, believing all the while that everyone else in her family was dead. After some years, her husband moved to England, and she stayed behind, and it was a chance encounter with a relative of hers in England—a distant cousin—that led her husband to the discovery that some members of her immediate family had survived and were still living in India-administered Kashmir. And among them was her brother.
Keen to go back to what she still thought of as her home, Tanveer’s grandmother began to focus all her energy—as so many Partition survivors do—on meeting her family again. But her husband, fearful of this new element in their lives, was not at first willing to let her go. Eventually he agreed, but at that stage, it was bureaucracy and the political standoffs between the two countries that continued to work against this family.
As with so many Partition stories, this one too remains unfinished in its telling. Many years later I heard from Tanveer that a visa had finally been granted and his grandmother did finally manage to go to her family home across the border. What we do not know is what that visit meant to her – did it finally resolve something for her? Put a closure on a history that had so far remained unfinished, perhaps incomplete? And what did this search mean for Tanveer, born after Partition, with no direct memory of it, but with its constant presence in his life? These are questions to which we’re not likely to find satisfactory answers. These are questions that still do not easily enter the histories of our countries for the tension between history and memory prevents us from seeing how they can so fruitfully overlap and enrich each other.
This story is in no way adequate to even begin to understand the complex and multiple legacies of Partition that stretch their long arm into the present of India and Pakistan and that still influence the ways in which both nations and indeed their peoples relate to each other. There are not many countries in the world where, after seventy years, the divide is still so deep politically, that any contact is difficult, sometimes, as in Tanveer’s family’s case, virtually impossible, and looked upon with suspicion. No matter that travel restrictions have eased in the last several years but there is still the very real fear that the moment things go wrong in the India-Pakistan equation, the first thing to be affected will be the issuing of visas. Traumatic histories leave many scars that take several generations to heal, and India and Pakistan are no stranger to these, but the opening up of contact, the easing of travel barriers, the issuing of visas—these things signal a return to the ‘normal’ behaviour that is so necessary for nation-states to own, regardless of how terrible their pasts have been.
Urvashi Butalia is a publisher and writer based in Delhi. She is co founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house and now runs Zubaan, an imprint of Kali. She has written and published widely on a range of issues. Among her published works are a co-edited volume, Women and the Hindu Right: A Collection of Essays, Speaking Peace: Women’s Voices from Kashmir and the award winning history of Partition: The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India which has been translated into eleven languages. (Urdu, Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Assamese, Marathi and French, German, Bahasa, Japanese, Korean)


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