Thoughts: Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, by Narendra Singh Sarila

I love how every non-fiction book title is [Snappy Title]: [Cumbersome Thesis Statement So You Know What The Book Is Actually About]. Every single one. I can’t not notice it anymore.

Anyway, I’ve by pure coincidence happened to read a surprising amount about Indian independence from the British Empire very recently, so I’m going to line those reviews up instead of going chronologically through my reading/backlog, the better to compare and contrast. I am of the bad habit of reading a single non-fiction book per subject and assuming I know some stuff afterwards, but honestly, the more I read about India the less I felt like I knew. Understatement of the year, but turns out it’s an extremely complex subject that is impossible to entirely contain in one book… and the whole world, and all of human history, is made up of uncountable events of similar complexity. Terrifying. Mind-bending. Things like ‘the size of the universe’ don’t really get to me, because they’re so far out of my comprehension that my brain just goes, “That’s nice,” and moves on. But show me how huge the Earth is and how fractally complex all human life is and I’ll blue-screen on the spot.

My knowledge of Indian history before reading this little run of books about it was limited to a pretty rough sketch of India in the British Empire and the very basics of independence, back during A Level History I think? So it was also many moons ago. My level of knowledge before watching Viceroy’s House in 2017, which is when I heard of this book, could be summarised as follows.

  • India definitely got independence!
  • Pakistan was also created!
  • There was a Congress Party?
  • Gandhi???
  • It was in 1947 because 1947 Toast To Freedom is the name of the good digestif at eatDOORI (vodka, bitters, homemade ice tea)


I know a lot more now.

Shadow of the Great Game is a difficult book – it contains a lot of information, and that information isn’t all beginner-level. Indeed, it is mostly not beginner-level. I used the Kindle dictionary a lot, for Indian government-specific terms, Hindu terms, Indian spellings of Islamic terms. It came through for everything but “Dogra”, for which it told me that a dog is an animal, thanks Bezos.

Most of what I’ve read and learned about India’s relation to the British Empire has been written by/about Brits or explicitly to educate Brits (Lady Pamela Mountbatten’s memoir, a biography of Clement Attlee, textbooks), so it was really interesting to read from an Indian perspective* (even if it wasn’t specifically about India’s or Pakistan’s experience of independence, as it were, but a wider analysis of how and why Partition came about). And not just any Indian perspective, but the perspective of Narendra Singh Sarila, heir to the princely state of Sarila at the time of Independence, and aide-de-camp to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India.

He doesn’t really discuss this in the book at all – a couple of times he mentions that information or quotations are taken from conversations political figures had with him, and once he mentions standing in for his father at a meeting of the princes of the princely states, and once mentions being at an event as an aide-de-camp, and that’s all. I was looking up the book just to mention it on a forum thread about books people are currently reading, to make sure I had the title and author’s name right (I obsessively cross-reference and check pretty much everything I say in any capacity on the internet, like every interesting person…) and came across the title of his other book, Once a Prince of Sarila, a memoir of his life during the last years of British rule of India, and the age of the princely states. I feel like I have never read a history book that was so personal, and I know that sort of isn’t quite true – I’ve read a good few history books where the driving thrust was a family-related investigation (thinking of books like Philippe Sands’s East-West Street and Bart Van Es’s The Cut-Out Girl) but that isn’t quite the same. David France’s How to Survive a Plague probably comes closest, as he was a journalist reporting on HIV and AIDS during the crisis itself. I think it feels different because Sarila seems to take a deliberate distance from his personal role in things, whereas other similar books lean into the personal link.

It makes sense for Sarila not to mention his own role (or maybe “vantage point” would be more accurate; though he seems to have been involved to some degree in the state of Sarila’s accession to India during Independence/Partition, I don’t think he was involved in the larger hammering-out of terms) as the book is about why and how Partition specifically happened, spanning the 1920s to 1950s and a huge cast of leaders, politicians and military top brass. I think any focus on himself would have been a distraction.

And this was a book that was hard enough to read without any distractions, to be honest. The action zigzags a little up and down the timeline, as the chapters are loosely themed around other aspects (countries, people, etc), and as people (Brits especially) shuffle around the board as the Viceroyalty, governments and governors change hands, it’s not easy to keep everything straight. A general timeline might have been useful, and I found myself wishing for a map every now and then too, both to give me an idea of the layout of the states of India pre-1947 and also to get an idea of the different proposed Pakistans through the process. There’s a photo section at the end, which does contain some diagrams of proposed Partitions and compares them to the final border, but I could definitely have used more.

The language as well is pretty difficult – Sarila does not hold the reader’s hand. As well as the India-specific terms that arguably don’t really warrant a gloss (we have dictionaries, after all), there are a lot of quotes from diplomatic cables and memoranda, as well as speeches, that are full of abbreviations and acronyms, meandering sentences and often an obliqueness where you get the feeling that the writers didn’t trust any confidentiality level or privileged reader enough to say outright what they were thinking. The primary sources often take quite some reading to tease out the meaning behind the words, and then situate that meaning in the larger context of what Sarila’s saying.

I won’t lie – I know a depressing amount of information went in one ear and out the other, but even so, I learned a hell of a lot. I know there are probably a lot of people out there who would look at the subject matter and whose reaction would be that of course the UK masterminded and designed Partition for its own ends, that to write a book about it is a waste of time and not worth reading. I disagree. I think there’s a certain kind of fatalistic cynicism that’s seen as being maturer and more realistic than more positive/optimistic mindsets, and a tendency to try to out-cynic each other by affecting a lack of surprise at bad news. I don’t think it’s a particularly charming character trait at the best of times, but I think it has a danger of making people intolerant of nuance, and discouraging pursuit of truth and facts – if you already “know” the worst, then why bother spending hours reading a difficult book only to have that knowledge confirmed? And yet it is intrinsically valuable to learn why and how things happened purely to know it, and not just assume.

I don’t think history repeats itself very often in a pattern that we can recognise and directly apply the lessons of the past to, but that’s no reason not to learn how the UK picked a fringe political theory and supported it quietly until it became an inescapable reality, and how it all blew up in their – our – face. Even if there is no future Partition to prevent, this knowledge is inherently valuable.

There’s an uncomfortable underside to the know-it-all cynicism, which is the urge to search for the slightest proof that things aren’t or weren’t all bad actually. I think a lot of Brits, glancing awkwardly at the Empire over our shoulders, can relate. This is also a dangerous trap. It’s comforting to think, “Well, the Americans had their own agenda in Asia, and anyway, they were in the grip of segregation, so their talk of fighting for freedom and democracy for all people was hollow at best.” It can give almost a sense of solidarity to read about the Congress Party’s political mistakes, naivety and failures to leverage international support, because then it wasn’t only the fault of the UK that things ended up the way they did; it allows for a loophole by which good intentions were thwarted through quirks of history and unwise choices. When Sarila talks about the individualism of Hindu culture and describes British influence on India in the 1800s as a positive one, even though he only makes this point to emphasise that it was all undone in the 1900s, it felt almost taboo.

One of the traps about reading an Indian-written book on the subject, maybe? The lure of complacency every time he says something positive (admittedly Sarila reserves almost all of his unbarbed compliments for Lord Mountbatten alone; everyone else gets a pretty withering assessment, on all sides). But one of the good things about it too – Sarila sidesteps the British weirdness about it all. I think we can tend to be either very defensive or overcompensatingly guilt-ridden – or maybe it just reads that way. Either way, Sarila keeps to the facts in a way that makes you confident in his judgement. He was there, after all.

I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time, and I hope in the future I can come to it again and appreciate the parts that slipped through my grasp this time. Aside from the nuts and bolts things I learned about Independence and Partition itself, it was a good lesson in why it’s good to read a variety of sources on complex subjects, written by as wide a variety of people as possible.

*OK, I’ve been trying to tiptoe around sounding like I’m saying that reading a non-British perspective on the British Empire is novel or anything, because of course the British Empire covered so many countries, regions, cultures etc that of course there is a huge multitude of non-British perspectives out there, but honestly, this is a personal record of the books I read, and I don’t really want to gloss over things that are important to my own personal reading life for fear of what some imaginary person who bothers to read any of my thoughts will say. I didn’t set out to never read a non-British perspective on Indian independence and Partition, I just followed the whims of my silly TBR list rules and here I am. And linguistically it was interesting to read! It was interesting to see what was considered common knowledge (a lot of Indian geography, understandably! Also many and varied titles – -ji, Sardar, Nizam, etc) and what was given a gloss (the Somme, which I found a fascinating little detail because it’s so seared into the minds of I think everyone who grows up in western Europe).

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