1947. The year that India and Pakistan got ‘freedom’. The year that tore us apart, and joint us as well, in a sequence of events that still continue. It is a year etched in our collective memories. The Last Vicereine is set in these turbulent times of history.
Historical fiction is a delicate genre. How much is true and how much is imagined? This is a question that readers often grapple with, as do authors. But, British writer Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang, toes the line well. The story, though fictional, is based on intensive research. There are some fictional characters, and of course, the majority are real characters.
It all starts with Letticia Wallace, the fictional narrator. She is a close friend and confidant of Edwina Mountbatten. Edwina visits Letticia, to ask her to accompany her to India, where her husband, Lord Louis Mountbatten would be posted for the transfer of power from Britain to India.
We get the sense of Edwina, that is, Lady Mountbatten right from the first chapter itself, when she comes all the way from London to Oxford on the train in very bad weather to convince her to join them in India.
Of course, Letticia Wallace accompanies the Mountbattens to India. Here sparks off the series of events that changed India forever.
She establishes the context of the social and political scenario which forms the backdrop of the story. Things were never going to be easy, and the reader gets a glimpse of this right in the beginning. This is best illustrated in the following words, which describe Letticia’s observations about the guests at the swearing in ceremony of Lord Mountbatten.
“I surveyed the diverse bunch before me, representing the Muslim League, the Indian National Congress and the princely states, and realised why it had been impossible to get any agreement on a plan for a transfer of power to India to date. Surely there were as many different visions of what India was and should be as there were conversations in this room.”
Interwoven within the story is the blossoming friendship between two key figures: Jawahar and Edwina. Their story against the backdrop of the horror of partition and the breakdown of society touches the reader. The narrator describes Lady Mountbatten’s visits to refugee camps where victims of riots were hosted, and through the eyes of Letticia, the reader also views the sheer horror of it all.
But there are beautiful moments in the story which talk about hope. She wonderfully describes her encounter with Gandhi, which was no less than a spiritual experience. She encounters true dedicated workers who relentlessly strive to make things better in the most difficult circumstances.
The title will lead you think that the story is about Edwina and Jawahar. It is, and the author does justify this premise. But, the story is also about the fictional Letticia and how a British woman, in the service of Lady Mountbatten finds a calling, and ultimately finds love in the unlikeliest of nations.
Towards the end, the reader’s heart will surely empathize with all the characters: imprisoned by duty…and by fate. What will also come out, is the sheer futility of violence and conflict.
As Edwina says in the book:
“I think the answer is that it is all real and unreal at the same time: war, death, suffering, joy, love, happiness. We cannot have one without the other”
But, through it all, The Last Vicereine is ultimately about hope and love! A smooth and poignant read indeed.
The Last Vicereine by Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang
Published by Penguin Random House India (2017).