Friday, February 24, 2012

Freedom At Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

Here, I am attempting to review a classic historical treatise, which has won acclaim for itself from diverse corners of the world. I feel inadequate. To exacerbate my feeling of inadequacy, the fact that it has been more than a month since I finished this 700 page long book looms large over my head. Still, I have now been infected by this incurable urge of expressing my view about any and every book I read, here, on Nascent Emissions. So this post, essentially, is my 'view', not a 'review' of Freedom At Midnight.

History is not a hailed discipline in our education system. It is pursued by those whom science rejects and commerce repels. Even still, those who brag about their knowledge of historical occurrences do so on the basis of extensive reading of world history- the wars, the revolutions, the socio-economic evolution. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with it, but how many of us are actually aware of the history of India, and I here mean that part of Indian history which has perhaps been pivotal in shaping the landscape of India as we know it today? All of us have a decent idea about the Indian National Movement, the struggle for freedom, the Gandhis, the Nehrus, the Patels, the Partition; but are we really aware of what was it that went into making India one of the world's most successful secular democracies?

Lapierre and Collins, through their characteristic exhaustive research, attempt to answer the above question, and a lot many more. Their research was conducted precisely to recreate the drama and the hysteria surrounding just one event, perhaps the most important in the history of Modern India- that of Independence, concomitant to which was the Partition. The idea that I would be reading about 700 pages delineating just one event, however mammoth its significance, was both, intriguing and putting off. I am glad that intrigue prevailed. This book is not a mere collection of words, or recollection of incidents. This book is a magnum opus. And had it not contained its own set of controversial detailing, it might as well have been an indispensable reading for all students of history in India. For me, it still serves much as an authoritative text. When you go through page after page of tireless details, a certain amount of credibility and an acceptance of the veracity of facts builds up inside you along with respect for the authors for their painful investigation of even the minutest of events surrounding India's independence.

For those not used to Lapierre and Collins' writings- and they do have to their credit other historical works of unquestionable repute, viz, Paris Is Burning and O Jerusalem- the opening chapters of the book can baffle the reader with both, their verbosity and a little over-the-top detailing. However, that is how the authors set the scene. When you revisit events from Indian history via the narration of these authors, you will be certain to feel a thrill and gush of personal emotions even though everything they've written about is a veritable anachronism in the 21st century. Their book is layered with interesting trivia, the most interesting perhaps being the chapter dealing with the lifestyle, the essentially eccentric and amusing lifestyle of Indian Maharajas. Their role in consolidated Indian politics becomes relevant when the independence plan grants them an autonomy to decide which side of the border to join, or to remain independent. More trivia about the division of state property when India was being partitioned can leave you astonished, with anecdotes you would perhaps want to sit over with a coffee and share with your friends.

The book begins with the appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the last Viceroy of India, and goes onto scan in detail many incidents gone unnoticed by famed historians. Particularly interesting are chapters dealing with Cyril Radcliffe's predicament. He was the cartiographer deployed to undertake the surgical division of Indian mainland, the irony being he had never ever visited India prior to this assignment. The bloodbath which preceded and followed partition has been narrated in a manner to leave you shocked and stirred. Marvelous are the portions dealing in an elaborate manner with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

What I personally loved about the book was the theatrics. Many events, including the riots, were not just described, but narrated as a story from the perspective of that one person who could be easily lost in a crowd, but who as an individual was profoundly affected by the same. The story builds up on you, in a way that you understand the magnitude and consequences of events you read as dull parts of draggy history text. The book dithers a bit too much upon the role of Lord Mountbatten, gloriously described, in the pre and post independence times, so much so that you are forced to feel if the authors had a predilection towards him. However, the latter half of the book more than redeems itself with the kind of aura it builds around the person who inhabits the very soul of India- Mahatma Gandhi. Many a book, including his autobiography, have I read about him, but none has made me fall in love and awe of him as much as Freedom At Midnight. The book also paints interesting portraits of Nehru, Jinnah and Patel- the other big players at the fore of the political battleground. And, most importantly, trust me, you really want to read this book to delve into the chilling details of the fanatical plan which was put in place to end Gandhi's haloed sojourn among us mortals.

On a scale of 5, not less than 4and 1/2 stars for me. This is one book we all should read, with a warning, it might just bore you in parts, but at the end of it, you will feel immense satisfaction for having dared to undertake this journey. The following are the protagonists of the saga of independence, and any story which builds on them, along with numerous other faceless characters, can be nothing less than outstandingly thrilling.

Lord Mountbatten

Mahatma Gandhi

Jawahar Lal Nehru

Mohammad Ali Jinnah

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