An absorbing partition saga through eyes of an American

April 13th, 2008 - 10:25 am ICT by admin  

(Book Review)
By M.R. Narayan Swamy
Book: “An American Witness to India’s Partition”; Author: Phillips Talbot; Publisher: Sage Publications This is a remarkable and gripping book that provides a scholarly insight into the Indian independence movement and the leaders who helped end British colonial rule. The author was a rookie reporter of the Chicago Daily News whose editors turned down his request to be made a foreign correspondent. The year was 1939, and Phillips Talbot was just 23. But destiny was on his side. The Institute of World Affairs in the US was looking for a young journalist to go to India to write on the dynamics of a country America was eager to know better. Talbot lapped up the offer, thinking a stint in India will help him become the ultimate foreign correspondent.

As Talbot knew little about the huge land mass called undivided India, the institute’s director, Walter S. Rogers, arranged for him to take a year’s academic programme offered to Indian Civil Service probationers at the School of Oriental Studies in London. The enterprising Talbot also learnt Urdu. He landed in India in 1939 and began writing immensely absorbing letters to Rogers about the goings on in the country.

Talbot was not just a good writer, he had other qualities too. “He was a good listener; his letters show his ability to separate the grain from the chaff in talks with high and low,” historian B.R. Nanda says in the foreword. Talbot spent quality time with leaders fighting for a new India: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Mohammed Ali Jinnah - and many more. He also spoke to academics, journalists and common people from all walks of life. Talbot was a relentless traveller. He turned out to be a diarist, a scholar, a journalist and a historian of sorts. His letters, which effortlessly transport readers to those turbulent times, would have remained forgotten but for the persistence of Krishen Mehta. Talbot eventually sent them all to him.

The book is a collection of the letters, starting from Oct 15, 1938, when Talbot was still in London, on his way to India. The last of the letters is dated Feb 7, 1950, when he wrote about three years of Indian independence. In between, Talbot served the US Navy before he was demobilised and joined the Chicago Daily News, which sent him back to India in 1946.

In no time Talbot came to understand India like few would do - in some cases his assessment of personalities and situations was on the dot, much unlike many Indians! In 1941, amid despair, many in India felt that Mahatma Gandhi had outlived his utility. In an August 1941 letter, Talbot prophetically disagrees: “On many sides in India today one hears that Gandhi is through, finished. That his era is past, the world has gone beyond him, his old magic won’t work any more…Gandhi, who still holds the masses in his hand, is not dead and his robust spirit and frail body that has shown such capacity for punishment may well continue to serve him for some years to come.” Exactly 12 months after Talbot made the prediction, Gandhi came to haunt the British with his “Quit India” movement.

Much later, in February 1947, amid communal frenzy, Talbot spent time with the seemingly untiring Mahatma Gandhi in blood-soaked Noakhali: “I came away convinced that the aging leader is clinching his place in the Hindu pantheon.”

By March 1947, Talbot was convinced - even when millions were not - that “the India we know will be broken into at least two states in the next 15 months”. Even as he praises Indians for their capacity for warm-hearted friendship, Talbot - writing just four days after independence - calls India “a sick country” because of the terrible communal strife. Talbot writes warmly about British India’s last viceroy Lord Louis Mountbatten. He writes about the struggles Pakistan waged to stand on its feet post-August 1947. He also writes about Indian weddings, about ashrams, about mushairas, about Afghans. Every Indian - and Pakistani - must read this book.

(M.R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at narayan.swamy@ians.in)

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