Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Freedom at Midnight- A Review

Freedom at Midnight
Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins

“At the stroke of the midnight hour, while the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom…”

However cliché it may be, many a sleepless nights would have been the price I would have had to pay if I didn’t give this introduction to the book that induced a much needed flavor of emotion into this oft-repeated quote by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of a free India.

We have heard this story several times, read it in the yellow pages of our history books, through the trembling voices of our grandparents, or in the comfort of a reclining seat through the colourful interpretations in the movies of creative ‘geniuses’. At yet, a most striking picture was painted by the authors of this book, unlike anything I have seen before.

Most books that talk about the independence struggle in India focus on the facts, the fighters and the struggle itself. However, the timeline of this book dates to January 1947. Now most of us would think, “well, what’s the point, the exciting bit is over!”, however, the authors (and many significant others like Gandhi, Mountbatten, and the millions living in India who’s fate was being pondered upon!) would beg to differ!
It was intriguing to see that this part of the story, which our history books usually wrap up in a page or two, was going to be told in a whooping 600 pages! I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was possible and what was even more pleasant (and equally surprising) was that it was nothing like my history book! A story was being narrated and with the turning of every page, a new twist would unfold and even though you’ve heard the story before, you can feel the anxiety and tension in the air.

Each and every character is immaculately described and well researched. Kudos to the writers for giving such a detailed insight into the lives of leaders we usually raise to a pedestal but never really know why. Gandhiji appeared far more human and real through the words of Collins and Lapierre than an over hyped God-man that no one really gets in most other literature on him. The Mahatma’s portrayal is one most touching, giving much needed clarity on a man most misunderstood, at least in this day and age. ‘ A soft voiced archangel of non violence’ with a clairvoyance lacking in even the likes of Nehru and Patel and at the same time possessing the subtlest understanding of India, its villages, the Harijans. Not Philips, but Gandhi was a perfect amalgamation of sense and simplicity.
One of the most tense debates this book takes up in the fifth chapter was the question of the Partition of India. What with Gandhi on the one hand not yielding to the demand for partition commanding the British to ‘Leave India to God’ while hordes of Hindus and Muslims ambush each other and with Patel and Nehru on the other hand, pro Partition awaiting to embrace the ravaged nation, ready to mold it into India of their dreams. One could only wonder what would happen next! With the advantage of having history on our side, we could safely say that Gandhi’s instincts were right, a divided India was not the answer to the communal violence pervading the atmosphere. The madness did not end, we still bear witness to it, in the form of many a bomb blasts and innumerable border clashes. No other leader of our struggle had the foresight that Gandhiji possessed, but alas, one can drive to this conclusion only in retrospect for he could give no reason or rationale behind his decision, only instinct, which at the expense of thousands of lives, wasn’t good enough.
At one hand the book brilliantly depicts the heartbreak suffered by the British on losing their crowning glory “India” and the joy of millions of Indians on obtaining the freedom on the other. The book would be more aptly titled, “Lord Mountbatten was innocent and Jinnah was a sick old man!”. It was in a sense Mountbatten’s side of the story, which is not surprising as the author’s interactions with the last Viceroy were a major source of their research. He was supremely glorified, and the atrocities committed by the British found no mention in the pages of the book. Jinnah was portrayed as pure evil, hiding the forbidden truth about his terminal disease of TB, which could have changed the fate of India and the ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan. In the saga of the birth of the Indian nation, with Mountbatten playing the lead hero under the spiritual guidance of M.K Gandhi, it is certain that according to this book, Jinnah played the role of the villain, par excellence.

After reading the book, a person who has never been to ‘the land of the snake charmers’, would probably never want to do so either, at least a person his right mind wouldn’t. Barbaric, uncivilized, petty-minded, violent mobs, superstitious, eccentric, these are the words one would associate with the common masses of India.

The most incredible chapter of the book is interestingly enough, the twelfth. India is finally free, and for the first time in sixty years, I actually felt the euphoria and jubilation that the end of an era of resistance can bring. When Nehru gave his speech, my heart filled with pride. And when Gandhi’s heart pained at the sight of his vivisected India, I felt that too. So much more significance is now attached with the name of my nation- India. It is much more than the third fastest growing economy, or the world’s second most populated country, with rich heritage and traditions, India signifies struggle till the very end, it shows the world a better way, that of non violence, India signifies a dream and man’s capability to fulfill it.

Lastly, a must read for every Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi for reasons of origin and a much needed revival of nationalism. A must not read for everyone else, for colonialism cannot be justified, and the myth of the ‘uncivilized east’ cannot be reiterated however nice Lord Mountbatten maybe or however many times Britain clandestinely pleads its innocence.

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