Rhiannon Jenkins’ Novel Revisits Much-debated Edwina-Jawahar Relationship
Author Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s new book, The Last Vicereine: A Novel is a fictional account of the much-debated relationship between India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten, the wife of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. With the country on the brink of a civil war owing to its partition, an unlikely and special friendship blossomed between the two influential people who otherwise led extremely public lives.
In the book, Nehru says, “She was my escape and I was hers.” What was it about their personalities that they were able to move beyond their position of powers and get to know each other in a deeply personal way? The British writer who read Oriental Studies at St Anne’s College, Oxford, says that we must be careful not to judge people like Edwina, Jawahar, Mountbatten, Gandhi and Jinnah by today’s standards. All of them were born into privileged backgrounds, were all members of the elite and were products of their time.
“They enjoyed poetry, music, history and art together as well as hill walking, horse riding and swimming. They found in their friendship an emotional companionship that perhaps had been lacking in their marriages.”
“By the time Edwina and Jawahar met they were both famous people used to living life in the public eye. Neither Edwina’s nor Jawahar’s lives were truly their own. They shared a strong sense of duty and public service, ideas that have sadly gone out of fashion today. But they understood that this came at a price; duty before desire, to quote Edwina Mountbatten. I think they were able to carve out a tiny, private space for their friendship and that this was a great support and comfort to them both. They enjoyed poetry, music, history and art together as well as hill walking, horse riding and swimming. They found in their friendship an emotional companionship that perhaps had been lacking in their marriages.”
For the non-practising lawyer, Edwina and Jawahar’s is the greatest love story of the 20th century. It is a classic like Romeo and Juliet or Anthony and Cleopatra. Her work focuses on historical fault lines and while reading histories of the British Raj, she came across references to their relationship. She was determined to write them as real people to make their story come alive. Rhiannon started her research in the usual way with all the key secondary sources, general histories, biographies and autobiographies.
She informs, “I moved onto memoirs and diaries and spent time at the Mountbatten archives at Southampton University. I went through the papers of Countess Mountbatten of Burma and some of those of Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
The first challenge was the main one facing all historical novelists, that is to always remember that the characters in the story do not know what is going to happen. Unlike us, they do not have the privilege of hindsight.
We all know that partition was a disaster. However, none of the main players at the time, neither Indian nor British, fully imagined the scale and long-term ramifications of what had been set in motion.
The second and most troubling challenge was the Indian “legal read” process, a euphemism for censorship. It was not something I had expected in a democratic country like India.”
Tsang wrote the book in the first person because she felt it made the story more accessible and immediate. She wanted the reader to be there in the moment with the narrator. To clearly understand the pressure the characters were under and the difficult, if not impossible, choices that had to be made.
Earlier, in an interview, she had spoken about seeing our political leaders as rounded characters. I ask her, why is it so important to humanise them and is literature the only way to do it?
“They are people just like the rest of us and none of them are perfect. Somethings they get it right, but sometimes, even with the best intentions in the world, they get it wrong.”
“History is made by people, little people as well as famous people. If we want to truly understand our own histories it is vital that we see political leaders as human beings, in many cases extraordinary ones like Jawaharlal Nehru, but human beings none the less, with all the normal strengths, weaknesses and needs. They are people just like the rest of us and none of them are perfect. Somethings they get it right, but sometimes, even with the best intentions in the world, they get it wrong.”
The author feels that India has had difficulty coming to terms with the Edwina-Jawahar relationship – partly because the horrors of partition has coloured all our understandings of this period, but it is also because of the pure adversarial good vs bad colonial narrative.
She adds, “Beyond politics and colonial controversies, there was another side to the British Raj. A softer side of friendships, sharing, feelings and emotions. Edwina and Jawahar’s love symbolises this.”
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