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Sunset, sunrise: The dramatic birth of modern India

At the cusp of Britain's exit and the rise of Indian independence there was unlikely leadership and untimely love

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Today, India is the world's most populous democracy, with a fast-growing economy that stamps Mohandas Gandhi's face on every 10 rupee note. Sixty years ago, it was unclear if the democracy would survive its first year.

After the partition of India in 1947 to create Pakistan and what became Bangladesh, riots erupted as Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims began slaughtering one another. The atrocities lasted for weeks, and while no one knows how many people died, the most commonly cited number is 1 million. The people who had fought for decades to win India's independence from Britain never really got a chance to celebrate the victory achieved on Aug. 15: They were too busy trying to stop the bloodshed.

Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire, Alex von Tunzelmann's first book, is a sweeping narrative history about the five historic figures at the heart of independence: Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister; Gandhi, the country's spiritual leader; Mohammed Jinnah, founder of the Muslim state of Pakistan; and Louis "Dickie" and Edwina Mountbatten, the glamorous but unlikely couple who had been sent to extricate Britain from its empire.

Complicating matters, the widowed Nehru and Edwina were conducting an affair, von Tunzelmann writes. Had it become widely known, the scandal could have been disastrous for the three countries.

Despite the book's subtitle, it's unclear what's "secret" about this history. Von Tunzelmann is witty, erudite, and thoughtful about her subject, but "Indian Summer" doesn't contain any revelatory discoveries.

As for the dishier topics, while the book jacket goes on breathlessly about the romance between Edwina and Nehru, well, this isn't "The Jewel in the Crown." Von Tunzelmann is too serious a historian to make the affair a central focus of her book, and Edwina and Nehru themselves vowed their work would take precedence over their relationship. With the country ravaged by mobs that targeted women and children, they had other things on their minds than their next tryst.

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