“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Around the same time William Shakespeare wrote that line, the “Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies,” better known as the East India Company, was taking shape. During the two and a half centuries of its existence, the EIC would become one of the most powerful private-run institutions on the planet, gaining a monopoly on “two thirds of the trading World,” and accruing a reputation that Edmund Burke would refer to as “a state in the guise of a merchant.” In The Anarchy (Bloomsbury, $35), his new history of the EIC, William Dalrymple offers something of a revisionist view. Without underplaying the company’s excesses, Dalrymple puts them into a wider context, showing us, with engrossing storytelling, how the EIC’s malfeasance affected actual lives, especially across caste divides. He also richly evokes the company’s heyday through detailed scenes of military conflict, political intrigue, and even some swashbuckling action. At a time of renewed suspicion of corporate power, Dalrymple’s story is rich, nuanced, and, above all—riveting.
Alex Von Tunzelmann’s marvelous book, Indian Summer (Picador, $18), tells a little-known story about the importance of the relationship between Lady Edwina Mountbatten, wife of the last Viceroy of India, and Nehru, India’s leader in the final stages of India’s Independence movement. Louis Mountbatten, obsessed with rank and privilege, was an ineffective naval officer but perfect for the task of taking Britain out of India. His wife barely tolerated him, but she loved India. She and Nehru completely adored each other. He confided in her and admired her energy and devotion to India. Von Tunzelmann uses the relationship as the hook, but the reader will learn a great deal about the struggle for Indian independence in 1947. Von Tunzelmann is keenly aware of the legacy of colonialism—how it infantilized hundreds of millions of poor people and pitted them against each other. Nehru was a brilliant, charismatic leader who had a strong moral code; he believed that Muslims and Hindus (and many others) could live together. There were too many others, however, who were determined to separate.
(This book cannot be returned.)
Arthur Herman’s dual biography, Gandhi And Churchill (Bantam, $20), is a gripping tale of two colorful, stubborn giants of the 20th century who struggled to define the future of the British imperial presence in colonial India. Both men represented the ironies in British-Indian history: Churchill, the ambitious Raj, spent much of his childhood in India and hoped to invigorate the British Empire, while Gandhi, opposed to the Raj, was so committed to humanitarian action that he was part of an ambulance corps that tended to British wounded in the Boer War. Herman’s book is a wonderful narrative about a longstanding conflict where both sides are completely right and each side is partly wrong. I loved this book for its perspective on how a no-win diplomatic rivalry overcame so many hurdles on the path to independence. The tragedy of this story is that the great triumph brokered by Gandhi and Churchill, a free India, quickly dissolved into religious and ethnic divisiveness as Muslim Pakistan and Bangladesh established their own independent states.