Indian political leader Mohandas Gandhi circa 1935.

In 1938, 23-year-old Phillips Talbot was sent to India on a fellowship to learn about British-governed India. An American Witness To India’s Partition is a collection that springs out of his experiences in India and the subcontinent between 1938 and 1950, chronicling the build-up to the independence of India and Pakistan, and the early experiences of the new states. The book was released in India in an event organised by Asia Society in Mumbai, last week. Sayandeb Chowdhury spoke to him before the launch and found that at 93, Talbot is still effusive. 

How would you describe the days that were the prelude to Independence as well as to the Partition? 

Before the Second World War began, England had no intention or even inkling that its colonies will go anytime soon. I knew young English officers who were first posted in India before the War and they were all looking forward to a long career in India and the East. Nobody heard them talking about free India. But after the War, the global dynamics changed. Churchill was gone, Atlee came in. The British calculated that they could not afford to keep the empire going. They had lost too much in the War. So, Mountbatten had to undertake the transfer of power.

But it was not smooth?

Not at all. I think it happened a bit too early. I am not saying that India should have been kept conquered for many more years. But maybe, had the leaders of the Indian National Congress (INC) and Muslim League (ML) not been in too much hurry, the days following August 15, 1947, could have been easier.

Why do you say this?  

It’s a complex thing, handing over of power and that too when there is clear division on what the new powers want from the old. The INC was desperate to inherit one India and the ML was desperate for two. Mountbatten wanted one. Had there been a little more deliberation, more exchange of thought maybe the brutal partition scenes could have been avoided, at least partially. From no thought about independence to two embattled independent nations, it was a fast and rough ride.

You met Gandhi and Nehru. What is your impression of these two men who shaped modern India? 

Well, I have met Nehru many times and mostly on professional visits. Gandhi was a most remarkable individual, no doubt about that. His best gift was that he could go very deep into one thing while he was at it. It can be politics, his philanthropic ventures, readings from the Gita, he could immerse himself into what he was doing at any given point of time. His prayer meetings at Sevagram saw unusual press attendance because he would often make a critical comment on some aspect of politics during those meetings. I did my last interview with him two months before his assassination.

How was it to be part of the actual event of the transfer of power on the night of 15th of August? 

Exhilarating. I was also in Karachi the day before when Mountbatten handed over power to Jinnah but it was a stiff exchange. In India, it was just the opposite. Millions converged near Red Fort and Nehru gave that famous speech. Indira, incidentally, was mobbed that day. While we were returning from the ceremony, we saw her, somewhat frazzled, trying to make her way. We picked her up.

The paper you worked for was Chicago Daily News right? 

Yes, a very popular afternoon daily; subsequently killed by television.