When I left India to return to England I was eighteen years old.” This sentence, which appears on the last page of Pamela Mountbatten’s memoir, India Remembered, is, in fact, the most poignant line in the whole book, expressing over and above the fact of departure from India, the sense of having grown into adulthood while witnessing from up close, as the daughter of the last Viceroy of colonial India, the most fascinating and troubled year in modern Indian history.
Although Mountbatten’s point of view cleaves to that of her parents, Dickie and Edwina, and she offers hardly anything by way of serious analysis except some familiar defences of her father’s decisions, the charm of her memories of the last days of the Raj, supplemented by beautiful photographs (many from the Mountbatten private archives), make for a fairly charming book.
If anybody had advance notice that she was going to be living through days that were going to be the very pages of history, it was Pamela Mountbatten. In December 1946, her dashing father, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria and cousin of King George VI, widely feted for his feats in the British navy during World War II, was asked to replace Lord Wavell as Viceroy of India.
That year, Mountbatten had already overseen the handover of power to the newly independent Burma, Malaya and Indonesia. It was thought he might succeed in taking talks between the Congress and the Muslim League forward where Wavell had struggled, and oversee the partition of India and the transfer of power in 1948. That Mountbatten later moved up this date, at six weeks’ notice, to August of 1947 was his most significant and controversial intervention in Indian history.
The Mountbattens—Dickie, his vivacious wife Edwina, and Pamela—thus moved in March 1947 from the austerity and gloom of post-war England to the fabulous grandeur and pomp of Viceroy’s House in New Delhi. “The main source of my knowledge (about India at that point) was provided by Rudyard Kipling,” writes Pamela. One of her first challenges was figuring out how to deal with her male bearer, Lila Nand, when she was expecting a maid instead. At the swearing-in ceremony, her parents, in their marvellous regalia, “looked like film stars”. Her father, himself an attentive and devoted recorder of his own life, encouraged her to keep a diary, snippets of which are provided in her book.
Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Vallabhbhai Patel would often visit for talks and negotiations and, of the four, the Mountbattens became closest to Nehru—each, we could say, in his or her own way. Pamela’s account provides not just interesting tidbits about Nehru (“Yesterday evening Panditji gave us a demonstration of standing on his head…”), but also acknowledgement that her mother and Nehru were attracted to each other and eventually fell in love.
She also reveals that her father knew this and, already emotionally distant from his wife, gave the matter a kind of consent, even using his wife to work on Nehru on matters on which he was not persuaded. In a revealing and curious letter to his older daughter Rebecca in June 1948, Mountbatten writes of his wife, “She and Jawarhalal (sic) are so sweet together, they really dote on each other in the nicest way and Pammy and I are doing everything we can to be tactful and help. Mummy has been incredibly sweet recently and we’ve been such a happy family.”
Pamela, meanwhile, put her time to good use, throwing herself wholeheartedly into social life, and also working in a canteen and a dispensary and accompanying her mother to various engagements. One diary entry records her day at a reception for the women delegates of the Inter Asian Conference: “Being already rather dark and having got separated from Mummy, everyone seemed convinced that I was the Palestinian delegate”. Indeed, from Pamela’s memoir, it becomes clear that the two Mountbatten women were involved in Indian public life to an unprecedented extent. If anything, her account is warmer towards her mother than her father.
Much of the pleasure of this book is in the lavish selection of photographs. One, an official picture of the Mountbatten family sitting in front of columns of their house with more than 200 staff lined up alongside them, gives a better sense of what life was like in the days of the Raj.
Another, showing Gandhi with his hand on Edwina’s shoulder, caused great outrage in England; a third is the famous photograph of Jinnah standing between the Viceroy and his wife, unable at the last moment to modify his prepared joke, “Ah—a rose between two thorns.” This may be among the more diverting of the works due to appear over this month to mark the 60th anniversary of Indian independence.
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