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History, she wrote

February 15, 2011

Alex von Tunzelmann reviews historical films for the Guardian, and if you’ve read any of her no-holds-barred pieces you’ll know she has no patience for fools. - Photo Courtesy: White Star

KARACHI: The 2nd Karachi Literature Festival will be remembered for a number of reasons, one of which is it managed to assemble a decent variety of writers and thinkers under one cosy roof. Among them was Alex von Tunzelmann, who was there to anchor just one panel discussion, though her achievements as a writer could’ve easily made her the keynote speaker of a session on history. Maybe next time!

Alex von Tunzelmann reviews historical films for the Guardian, and if you’ve read any of her no-holds-barred pieces you’ll know she has no patience for fools. She uncovers (sometimes locates) factual faux pas and silly mistakes in movies and comments on them in a manner that tickles the reader and hits the filmmakers where it hurts the most. That’s not it. Tunzelmann’s claim to fame in the subcontinent is her book, Indian Summer, an account of partition of India that ruffled a few feathers in New Delhi because apart from other things it also sheds light on a romantic liaison that existed between Jawaharlal Nehru and Lady Mountbatten. So where to begin the discussion? Films first.

She listens very carefully to the argument that most creative endeavours use hyperbole or some kind of exaggeration as a tool. She often discounts that and makes fun of successful films. “My column is supposed to be funny, amusing. Besides, a lot of research goes into it.”

There are many movies that Tunzelmann has found lacking in verisimilitude. The critically-acclaimed Frida is one of them. She makes an interesting observation about the film which relates Trotsky’s assassination to his involvement with Frida.

“The film implies Trotsky moved into the less safe accommodation where he would soon be murdered to avoid falling in love with Frida Kahlo. This isn’t true: she moved to Paris and he continued to live in her house, eventually moving out perhaps because of a disagreement with her husband, Diego Rivera. So the film implies that she was somehow responsible for Trotsky’s death, which is completely untrue,” she says in her talk with Dawn during the literature festival.

It’s been 63 years since India and Pakistan became two separate geographic entities. Yet partition continues to fascinate historians and students of literature. Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer caused quite a bit of stir in some quarters, particularly with the Nehru-Edwina affair that not many people talk about or they refrain from discussing. “All the five characters at the centre of my story are important, not just the two you’ve mentioned. When you research any love affair in history you’ll find no one tells the truth. So you can’t tell if the relationship was ever consummated,” she says.

Can’t take issue with that. The subcontinent’s partition is usually looked at with a predetermined mindset. Tunzelmann elaborates on the subject she’s focused on in the book.

“Often, not always, those people who lived through partition are reluctant to talk about it. It was a profoundly traumatic event, and left very deep scars on the people who endured it. That is a separate thought from the fact that Gandhi and Jinnah are elevated to such revered status that they almost become deified, and then it becomes impossible to see them as human beings. What I have tried to do about them in the book is write about them as three-dimensional people, human beings who had greatness and flaws in them just as we all do. In my opinion the fact that these men were men, not saints, makes them more interesting — perhaps even more sympathetic.”

Hold on, Gandhi seems to be one of the topics Tunzelmann wants to expand on, because she feels his character needs to be seen in the light of not just what he brought on; there was also a Hamlet-like delay.

“Gandhi’s insistence that his own followers reach a state of moral perfection often meant he drew back from his own campaigns at crucial points — the incident at Chauri Chaura is one example. I do think this contributed to delaying Indian independence. I think it is feasible that India could have won some sort of semi-freedom, like the Irish Free State or even dominion status, much earlier if Congress had run its campaigns differently, and the fly in the ointment was very often Gandhi.”

So the five protagonists weren’t solely instrumental in cleaving undivided India into two.

“By 1946-47 the British government under Clement Attlee was desperate to get out of India by any means necessary, and that was very strongly connected to the terrible state of the British economy after World War II.”

Enough of partition and its untold tales! Is she excited about her next book?

“Red Heat is actually about the Cold War in Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the big event, but there are lots of others: the book is actually coming out for the 50th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion, which is another centrepiece of the book.”

The post-lunch sessions of the literature festival are about to begin. Tunzelmann’s big, bright eyes become a bit restless, trying to discover a potentially historical moment in that part of modern Karachi where English is spoken with at least a dozen different accents. Time to put an end to the chitchat.