Much history writing has emerged from the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. And yet the whys and wherefores of the decisions taken during the run-up from March 1947 by the leaders involved continue to remain unclear and intriguing. We still ask the most basic questions: how could such wise and clever political leaders not avoid the division of the country? How could they not anticipate the holocaust it would unleash? Continued dissatisfaction with the answers provided by scholars only tells us that the narrative mode of history writing cannot reflect the simultaneity and multiplicity of perpetually shifting positions and accents: the clashing wills and conflicting lines of argument as they are revealed in the minutiae of daily records.
The existing histories of the partition have very little chance of capturing the moods and mindsets, the helplessness and frustrations, the anguish and final despair of those who steered the course. At times they appear to box at shadows, at other times they move slowly towards the apparently inevitable. The histories written in India thus far have either focused on political narratives or ideological analysis. More recently, the spotlight has turned upon the blood and gore, the madness and pathology of mass murders and hate. This work tells the story as it a was-without the epic dimensions of conventional writing filed with the rhetoric of freedom and greatness, and also without the legalese and constitution-making vocabulary of the Transfer of power. It captures the ticking of the clock in real time with a mix of cynicism, fair play, strategic advantage, pelf and profit juxtaposed with all too human and frail visions, desires, prejudices and isolations.
Bing Crosby sings as breakfast is eaten; the protocol and ceremony of the Order of the British Empire runs parallel to the columns of refugees; the gracious sophistication of the viceregal public relations machine and the bowing and curtsying at the balls intersect with the exercise of power with a capital P. Bach and Chopin play as the Indian world goes mad.
All this and more comes into play as the endgame reaches its final moment and denouement. The personal and the political meet and separate "as the Last Durbar" with Louis Mountbatten on the throne, and the modern, constitutional durbar is to proclaim a republic and bid farewell to each other.
This work, based scrupulously and completely on the private papers of Mountbatten, including verbatim records and testimonies, discussions and suggestions of the leading Indian actors, is a blow by blow, nuanced and multilayered account of the months and day that led to the Indian partition. It exposes the palpable relationship of the leading actors in this drama, the moves and countermoves, the interactions and maneuverings between a range of characters against the backdrop of momentous events and developments that transfigure their imagination for better or worse. Past policies and platforms mutate rapidly, often into diametrical opposites, and lifelong patterns jerk into new trajectories. Marginalized and shunned elements, traditionally kept out of the reckoning at Round Tables and parleys at the top, threw most of the figures that were center stage into confusion and turmoil. The Journalist and the Administrator spin order out of chaos with words and prescription. And yet, the relentless speed of disorder defies any miracles. The prosaic and the poetic, the narrow and the expansive, the wise and the foolish, and the hopeful and the bleak are fused together.
It is only the dramatic genre of writing history which allows us to recover the complexity of such a process and frame the atmosphere of that concentrated moment. It also raises interesting issues about writing: the main concerning 'voice' and its textual representation. It also admits more documentary evidence than historical studies usually do. That evidence, here, takes the form of statements from the actors involved in the events who are all extensively quoted; it better inscribes the view of historical discourse. As Certeau remarks: 'History is never sure: made of "two series of data", namely of ideas we have about the past on the one hand, (and) of "documents" and "archives" on the other, the history book is a "book divided'.
The existing histories of the Partition of British India have very little chance of capturing the moods and mindsets, the helplessness and the frustration of those who steered the course. The histories written thus far have either focused on political narratives or on the ideological analysis. More recently, the spotlight has turned towards the madness and pathology of hatred and mass murders.
The last Durbar tells it as it was-without the epic quality of conventional writing filled with the rhetoric of freedom and greatness, and without the legalese and constitution-making vocabulary of the Transfer of Power. The personal and political meet and separate at the last durbar, with Louis Mountbatten o the throne, and the modern, constitutional 'durbaris' hail the advent of freedom and bid farewell to each other.
The play is based on private papers of Mountbatten, including verbatim records, testimonies, and discussions of the leading political figures. It is a nuanced and multi-layered account of the months and days that eventually led to the independent nations of India and Pakistan.
Drama is the only genre of written history that allows us to fully portray the complexity of such a process and frame the atmosphere of the concentrated moment. The history of Partition has never before been told in this way.
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