The Last Vicereine: Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten are the subject of this new novel

'It was the spring of 1947 when Lord and Lady Mountbatten arrived in New Delhi. India was on the brink of civil war. The reluctant Vicereine was a rebel, a rule-breaker. She was a troubled soul, a great beauty, a firecracker. But there was more to Edwina than met the eye. The glamour was a façade; behind it was a highly intelligent woman of influence and power. The only one to truly understand her for who she was was Jawahar, her friend, confidant and so much more.'

So reads the synopsis for The Last Vicereine by Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang, a fictional account of the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru. Reproduced here is an excerpt from the book, courtesy Penguin Books India: 

I decided not to trouble the duty ADC and took a jeep myself from outside the white post office with its little clock tower at the back of the estate. The dozy guards at the gate nursed rifles between their knees. They protested not about the jeep, but the earliness of the hour and the fact that the curfew had not been lifted yet. But I was desperate for the luxury of twenty minutes alone. Between the office, the army of staff and the mess, there was no privacy at Viceroy’s House.

Waving aside their offers of an escort, I indicated my St John’s Ambulance khakis which I always wore like a suit of armour, floored the accelerator and shot out of the back gate. This rear section of road was not yet laid. I bumped along a dirt track, the frayed remnants of the pink dawn fading in the east, birds flying up, monkeys chattering in the trees. Holding the steering wheel with one hand, I took off my cap, letting the softest of early morning breezes play with my hair.

Cover of The Last Vicereine. Courtesy Penguin Books India

Cover of The Last Vicereine. Courtesy Penguin Books India

At 17, York Road the gates had been left wide open. I drove in. No one came out to either challenge or greet me. Apart from the rattan chairs stacked up in the corner of the porch, there was no sign of last night’s gathering. Ghosts and shadows, all had vanished, and the right-angled corners of the two-storey bungalow, with its isosceles triangle portico, were clear-cut against the blue of the day. Leaving the jeep at the bottom of the drive, I made my way to the back of the house. The sun was in my eyes as I turned a corner and I didn’t see him. He must have been bending down, working in the flower bed and when he stood up and took a step back, I bumped right into him.

The momentum on impact was such that we grabbed each other to stop ourselves falling over. He was wearing a long white khadi shirt and white trousers, and holding a pair of secateurs and a freshly cut red rose. These were now pressed up against my chest and my battered old leather briefcase which had come between us in the crush. I moved to pull back but he held on to my arm and roared with laughter. ‘Panditji! I am so sorry. I didn’t see you!’ I stuttered. ‘And I didn’t see you either, Lady Wallace. Have you had breakfast?'

I was surprised that he remembered or indeed knew who I was. Caught off-guard by his informality, I answered truthfully. ‘No.’ ‘Nor I, then you must stay and have some with me.’ ‘I couldn’t . . . Her Excellency sent me,’ I said limply. ‘Did she?’ He raised an eyebrow and turned back to the rose bushes, gently parting the leaves and branches with the back of his hand, letting them rustle against him, playing at avoiding the thorns. Carefully he examined first one flower and then another. There were only about half a dozen shrunken blooms left. After some deliberation he snipped one with his secateurs and gave it to me. ‘Alas, the season is over, Lady Wallace, and my offering is poor. Come!’

Hooking my arm through his, he led me on to the veranda and in through the French windows at the back of the house. Not for the first time in twenty-four hours I was cross. Cross at being disarmed with a rose. Cross at this man for a friendship with Edwina that risked so much. Cross at being in this embarrassing situation at 7.20 am. We were alone in the sparsely furnished dining room. There were no pictures on the walls, no clocks or collections of fine China in glass cases, just stark white-washed walls. And I remembered that many years ago Panditji and his father, Motilal Nehru, had given all their wealth away for the cause of Indian independence and Gandhi.

‘Tea and toast, eggs and tomatoes; we live a simple life here,’ he said quietly. Breakfast had been laid out on the sideboard at the end of the room. Panditji dropped his chin and I heard his breath as he threaded his own red rose through the top buttonhole of his shirt. There, it drooped more than a little. Somewhat at a loss as to what to do with my own rose, I opened the top pocket of my St John’s uniform and popped it in so that it peeped out of the right side under my medal bar. I hesitated over food, but already he had taken a plate from the pile. ‘Tuck in! Won’t be long before the hordes arrive!’

Without his jacket, in just his shirtsleeves, he was a private man, a different person from the evening before. Gone was the exuberance, effort and show. His movements were now slow and calm, and he exuded a sense of peace which reminded me of Amrit Kaur. Despite myself, I was drawn in. And yet there was something of the boy in him too, bashful in expression and a little shy. In his late fifties, he was still undeniably handsome and young-looking, with a very fair complexion, aquiline nose and large sad eyes. His wife had died tragically some years ago. He was probably one of the most eligible men in India. He sat at the head of the table and motioned me to his side. A boy appeared with tea. Panditji waved him away and took charge of the pot himself. ‘How do you like your tea, Lady Wallace?’ ‘Black please, Panditji.’ ‘No milk? No sugar?’ I shook my head. He smiled softly. ‘Then perhaps you were an Indian in your past life?’

Carefully, he poured the tea; the gurgle of water and clink of porcelain the only conversation between us. I was deeply embarrassed that this man, second only to Gandhi, who had been one of the most famous political prisoners in the world and spent years in British jails, was serving me. But he was hungry, focusing on his food, buttering his toast and taking big careful bites. ‘It was a most lovely party last night; a pleasure to meet so many Asian delegates.’ I was making small talk. He nodded, eating more quickly now, talking between mouthfuls. ‘And how do you find India, Lady Wallace?’ ‘I can hardly say, Panditji. I’ve been here such I’ve been here such a short time, under such extraordinary circumstances. I’ve not seen much more than Old Delhi, the office, a few schools and hospitals, and your back garden full of mango trees!’

He laughed. ‘Believe me, that’s already more than many. Indeed some of our very own high-society ladies with their fine clothes and shiny handbags would never think to roll up their sleeves as you and Edwina do.’ I was taken aback. ‘Don’t think I don’t know that you and the Vicereine have been out and about,’ he said mischievously, with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I am afraid neither of us is a woman who can sit on her hands.’ I hesitated. ‘I promise you, Panditji, whatever happens we will work hard and do our best for India. Edwina wants to be a different kind of Vicereine.’

Oh heavens! Formality was falling away. Loyalties were getting confused and I couldn’t stop. I had to be careful. It would be all too easy to be charmed by this man. He nodded, popping a piece of egg into his mouth. Then waved his right hand as he talked, giving the illusion of picking words most precisely out of the air. ‘Well, you must visit the Qutb Minar when you have time and, of course, see the Taj Mahal before you leave. Did you know that Delhi is, as a matter of fact, made up of seven cities? Layer upon layer of history, ruins all over the plain, if you have eyes to see.’ ‘I fear work leaves little time for sightseeing.’ I sipped my tea, waiting for the right moment. ‘Yesterday Amrit Kaur came to see Her Excellency. Unfortunately she was indisposed so the poor lady had to make do with me.’ I was wearing my lawyer’s face, looking him in the eye. ‘She told me the most horrendous tales of Muslim violence against Sikhs and Hindus in the Punjab.’

He raised his hand like a traffic policeman to stop me. ‘Such violence is temporary. I assure you, Lady Wallace, it’ll stop as soon as the British leave.’

Updated Date: Aug 27, 2017 10:43 AM

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