Lahore Book 1 Of The Partition Trilogy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, is set in the months leading up to independence. It will hurtle you towards 15 August – fasten your seatbelts! An Excerpt
You’re doing much better with this business than I am, frankly.’ Dickie sipped on orange juice and watched the swimming pool with crinkled eyes. Morning was the only time the sun wasn’t beastly enough for the outdoors. And breakfast was the only meal they could certifiably have together.
‘That’s because you have the tougher constituents, darling,’ Edwina smiled. As her husband had started meeting the various Indian leaders, she had initiated her own tea and luncheons with prominent women: Amrit Kaur, who was very close to Gandhi; Manibehn, daughter of Vallabhbhai Patel; Begum Ra’ana, wife of Liaquat Ali Khan; and Sarojini Naidu, who was also her mother’s childhood friend! Edwina enjoyed an instant rapport with Amrit Kaur, but not so much with Fatima Jinnah, the sister of the Muslim League leader.
‘Not a hearty fact,’ Dickie said drily. Following the swearing-in, he had begun executing his mandate by meeting important Indian leaders and representatives of all the main stakeholders in India – Christians and Parsees, in addition to Hindus and Muslims; businessmen and academics. The Viceroy’s study hummed like a command centre: Each meeting took place there, lasted an hour, and was recorded immediately after. What Dickie had gleaned from the series of meetings was the location of power centres: the trio of Gandhi, Nehru, and Sardar Patel for the Hindus; and Jinnah alone for the Muslims.
‘Which of them is being the hardest on you, Daddy?’ Pamela asked as she buttered a slice of toast.
‘It would be simpler to talk about the one I think I will enjoy working with. Pandit Nehru. He struck me as most sincere. Of course, we are acquainted from before – Singapore – which helps, but I daresay he has an open mind …’
Edwina smoothed back her hair. ‘He strikes me as sophisticated and worldly wise. And he’s so erudite, having written all those books.’
‘Hmm … In our preliminary discussions on the future shape of India, I get the sense that there is room for manoeuvre. Though, of course, he won’t contemplate partition of any sort.’
Pamela nodded. She had gone with her mother to a party hosted by Pandit Nehru and met his daughter, Mrs Gandhi, too.
‘Wavell’s assessment was different – he called Nehru quixotic and emotional – so we shall see. But I am happy to report that the Spirit of the Hive is alive and functioning in Viceroy’s House!’
‘Spirit of the Hive?’ Pamela cocked her head at him.
Dickie sat upright and began arranging orange segments on a plate. Edwina seemed lost in her thoughts. He stacked several in close proximity to the centre, a core, from which thinner circles radiated outwards. ‘A beehive,’ he pointed an index finger at the plate, ‘is an efficient working organization. See the core here? That’s the heart of the hive. In my case, it’s my immediate staff – Ismay, Miéville, Abell, Ian Scott, Christie … you know them – and our daily staff meetings, where we review the events of the past twenty-four hours and deliberate over future policy. We work as a team; I am the team leader. Which means I can run my ideas past these men, all old India hands, who know their areas way better than I could ever hope to.’
Dickie looked pointedly at Edwina.
With a lazy smile, Edwina leaned forward, plucked a segment from the outer circle and popped it in her mouth. ‘Didn’t Abel begin with a first posting in Panjab?’
‘Yes. As a young ICS officer, two decades ago. He’s worked with Governor Jenkins, Viceroy Wavell, and now, myself. A wise man and an experienced Panjab hand.’
A series of short barks interrupted them. The Sealyham had sighted something in the bushes and was yapping at it.
‘Mizzy!’ Pamela hailed. ‘Mizzzeee.’ The barks had grown frenetic. The Sealyham was bewildered by the new fauna he was encountering in the Viceroy House’s untrammelled gardens. Pamela pushed her chair back, ‘Can I be excused?’ On a nod from her mother, she went to join the dog in one of the manicured gardens that stretched outwards from the pool.
A khidmatgar stepped up noiselessly to serve tea to the Viceroy. Dickie frowned at the cup.
‘I’ll give you an anna for your thoughts,’ Edwina chimed.
‘Make it a 4 anna at least,’ Dickie grunted. ‘Many would pay a king’s ransom to hear the Viceroy’s thoughts.’
‘Not the Vicereine; she has his ear.’ Edwina leaned forward to place a hand on his right forearm.
‘Jinnah … I’m afraid the Ice-man is also a No-man.’ Edwina patted his arm, offered him the teacup, and settled back. She remembered what her husband had said after meeting the Muslim leader the first time. ‘My god, he was cold!’ Dickie’s proverbial charm hadn’t thawed Jinnah the least.
‘He says “No” to everything, every option, every plan, every solution, except the one that gives him an independent Pakistan. A child couldn’t be worse. If I cannot reason with him, how do we hold a discussion? Indeed, I get the impression he was not listening. Another “No”.’
‘Hmm … Well, if it’s any consolation, his sister is equally frosty. And bent upon getting that Pakistan. I shared with her my visit to Lady Irwin College where a class of fourteen Hindu and two Muslim girls had elected one of the Muslims as head girl. A cheery prospect, I thought, in these tense times. Miss Jinnah demolished my credulity. “We have not been able to start our propaganda in that college yet,” she said!’
Dickie nodded before waving to Pamela, who was heading back with Mizzy in her arms. ‘Another day awaits.’ Placing his napkin on the table, he stood up.
‘You’ve established a good rapport with Mr Gandhi, darling. That’s important.’
Dickie frowned, whether at the sun that shone like a plate in the sky or at his thoughts, Edwina couldn’t decipher.
‘An old poppet,’ Dickie said with affection before kissing bye to his wife and daughter.
Edwina and he had enjoyed meeting Gandhi, whom Wavell had dismissed as a charlatan. But Dickie was committed to spending time with the ultimate leader of the Congress to gauge him better. On 1 April, Gandhi had suggested that Jinnah be invited to form an interim central government, a crucial step to maintain the unity of India. It was April Fools’ Day, which made Dickie wonder how seriously he ought to consider it. The idea was bold and imaginative but, his advisers told him, it had been aired in the past as well and been soundly rejected by the Congress. Gandhi’s two lieutenants, Nehru and Patel, had sympathy for their old man, but they were being pragmatic. Patel, especially, Dickie found, was a realist, wholly concerned with ground reality.
Excerpted with permission from Lahore Book 1 Of The Partition Trilogy by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar published by HarperCollins.