Updated August 13, 2017


On Aug 14, 1947, the Pakistani nation was born out of boundless bloodshed. What followed — an unprecedented refugee crisis; horrific violence, especially against women; and a subsequent land and power grab — was narrated in the fiction of Saadat Hasan Manto, Qurratulain Hyder and Zulfikar Ghose among others. I want to extrapolate one strand from the independence and Partition story: the ménage à trois between India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the last viceroy of India Louis ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten, and Edwina Mountbatten.

In her BBC film Viceroy’s House, Gurinder Chadha somehow turns the spicy relationship between these powerful individuals into bland fare. Through casting alone, viewers are forced to like Mountbatten, as he is played by Hugh Bonneville, previously known as the affable father in 2014’s Paddington. Part-way through Viceroy’s House, the Mountbattens’ daughter Pamela (Lily Travers) receives an invitation to be a bridesmaid at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Mountbatten’s nephew Philip — thus tapping into the popularity of the recent Netflix series The Crown. And who could dislike Gillian Anderson who, for years, was a televisual fixture as the X-Files’s Dana Scully? Anderson’s Edwina evinces pluck, compassion and humour, making for one of the film’s strongest performances. Less convincing is Tanveer Ghani’s Nehru, since his mellifluous cockney tones chime more with the wonderful British-Asian poet Daljit Nagra performing ‘Singh Song!’ than the prime minister delivering his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech.

Although the film’s politics are fatally flawed in their tilt towards the Mountbattens, Nehru and India, there are some moving scenes about Partition. Genuine newsreel footage of shrouded corpses and human caravans are interspersed with images of the white actors visiting refugee camps. Edwina gives rousing speeches and works through the night to help malnourished children and cholera victims. This accords with the historical record regarding her energetic relief work, although the film presents it amidst troubling white saviour discourse. Edwina blossomed in India, finding purpose away from Britain’s social whirl. Yet, aside from a few wistful glances and admiring words that pass between Nehru and Edwina, the film conveys no suggestion of the affair in which the pair were embroiled in 1947.

One reason for the film’s bias is Chadha’s reliance on the book Freedom at Midnight (1975) written by Mountbatten’s ‘pet historians’ Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. Chadha lifts scenes directly from Collins and Lapierre, including the comic moment when servants bring Edwina’s Sealyham terriers slices of fine chicken breast, and rationing-deprived Edwina throws herself on the dogs’ food. Another flash of levity comes when M. K. Gandhi offers Mountbatten a taste of his unappetising, abstemious meal of goat’s milk curd. The opulence and pomp of, and breathtaking labour employed at Viceroy’s House are also emphasised in the book and film. Finally, both represent Edwina and Nehru’s ‘friendship’ euphemistically and downplay the recklessness of Mountbatten’s haste to effect British withdrawal in weeks rather than months.

A more up-to-date and suggestive source text would be Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire (2007) that quotes politician Yahya Bakhtiar as saying: “Nehru in those days was having a roaring love affair with Lady Mountbatten … said to be with the tacit approval of Mountbatten.” The pair formed an immediate connection and loved each other for 13 years until Edwina’s death at 58. Their affair went long-distance once Edwina returned to England, but she still spent time with Nehru at least once a year. The precise nature of their relationship would have caused scandal, if not outright war, had it been broadcast. Mountbatten knew, it is said, but he adored Edwina and so indulged her affection for a politician he admired. The Mountbattens’ marriage was strained during the viceroyalty, though, and they came close to divorce. Mountbatten had his own girlfriend, but was reportedly more interested in genealogy than romance.

In her 1954 memoir Prison and Chocolate Cake, Nehru’s niece Nayantara Sahgal explains that her parents sent her to an American university because India under British rule was “a vast concentration camp.” This devastating view flies in the face of Chadha’s, Collins’s, and Lapierre’s Raj nostalgia. Sahgal further claims she was taught only propaganda at school, including “[l]urid accounts” of Indian atrocities and whitewashing of British colonial violence. Ten to 15 years before Edwina’s brief flurry of activity, Sahgal’s mother (Nehru’s sister) Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit was doing tireless charity work in between multiple stints in jail. For Sahgal, Nehru was “Mamu,” an affectionate, witty and wise uncle rather than a distant politician and premier. Only at the memoir’s end does she warmly introduce the Mountbattens: “no longer the governor general and his lady … [but individuals] of infinite charm.”

In Bapsi Sidhwa’s Ice Candy Man (1988) the Pakistani Parsi author allows most of the nationalist leaders and their parties to make cameos on her novelistic canvas. The political world is filtered through the characters’ perspectives and functions at the level of gossip. This, in conjunction with the child’s-eye view of protagonist Lenny, leads to irreverence. Sidhwa repeats the well-known hearsay about Nehru’s affair with Edwina. He is portrayed as an Anglicised dandy who cynically charms the British to capture Kashmir.

An Indian writer who fictionalised the Nehru-Mountbatten relationship is author, former diplomat and member of parliament Shashi Tharoor. In his The Great Indian Novel (1989), Mountbatten is satirised as glamorous, wealthy, but “shallower than the River Punpun in drought.” The Edwina character, Georgina Drewpad, is a promiscuous socialite whom her husband describes as his “secret weapon” in negotiating with Indian delegations. At Tharoor’s hand, Nehru becomes a blind politician whose passionate “coupling” with Georgina inspires his plea to the United Nations for the disputed Muslim-majority state of “Manimir.”

As such, Tharoor follows historians such as Von Tunzelmann and novelists such as Sidhwa in suggesting that Nehru’s close relationship with the Mountbattens contributed to India’s possession of Kashmir. According to Tharoor, viceroy Mountbatten had one job: “to exit, pursued by a bear.” As we have seen, this bear was made more fearsome by Mountbatten’s hubristic exit velocity and his wife’s infatuation with India’s first prime minister.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 13th, 2017