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Emergence of Two Nations

Pippa Virdee

By Phillips Talbot
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 431, Rs. 720.00

By Yasmin Khan
Penguin Viking, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 242, Rs. 495.00


This year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Independence in India and the simultaneous creation of Pakistan. There have consequently been many volumes released this year to commemorate and reflect upon this undeniably significant moment in the histories of India and Pakistan. Talbot’s account is a personal memoir which was written at the time and therefore captures and provides a vivid account of events unfolding before his own eyes. Khan’s account on the other hand attempts to capture and recreate that period through documentary sources, news-papers, personal narratives and recollections.   Phillips Talbot, a young journalist, was only 23 when he went to India on a fellowship by the New York based Institute of Current World Affairs. An American Witness to India’s Partition is a collection of Talbot’s letters that were sent back to the Institute. The correspondence covers his time in London, preparing for his impending trip to India covering places like, Aligarh, Lahore, Northwest Frontier, Kashmir and Afghanistan amongst others. The letters also detail his meetings with Nehru, Jinnah, Mountbatten and Gandhi. They cover the period from October 1938 when he arrived at the School of Oriental Studies (now School of Oriental and African Studies) in London and conclude in 1950 with some reflections and comparisons to his earlier visits to places like Kashmir, Northwest Frontier etc.   During this time he was witness to events which without a doubt were to define the histories of India and Pakistan to date. He had access to the leaders who were making the decisions, decisions which would determine the lives of millions of people. He was in many ways advantaged because he was neither part of the colonial power planning to leave India nor part of the Indian nationalist movement or emerging Muslim nationalists; he was therefore in many ways a neutral figure amongst them, observing and recording the events dispassionately and reporting back to his seniors in New York.   Talbot’s correspondence provides an easy read yet they are packed with thoughtful and insightful observations. Some are quite remarkable given that these were written as events were unfolding in front of his own eyes and based on little reflection. While the primary focus of the book is based on observations and his interaction with the political leadership there is other correspondence which capture Talbot’s time with ‘ordinary’ people and attending occasions such as weddings. As he spent his time ...

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