What are we doing here?

In June 1947, Mountbatten, the British Viceroy of India, likened Pakistan to a tent. *

“What are we doing? Administratively, it is the difference between putting up a permanent building, and a Nissen hut or a tent. As far as Pakistan is concerned we are putting up a tent. We can do no more.”

His words evoke a man whose selfhood depends on his sense of capability. Maybe he had pitched tents in the Lake District or a put up a Nissen hut somewhere in the colonies. I can never think of Nissen huts without thinking of Conrad and Graham Greene.

In talking about tents – the shelter-of-choice for nomads, backpackers and wanderers the world over – Mountbatten was onto something.

If Pakistan is a tent, then I can take her with me, wherever I go. Pitch her on the Alps or at Glastonbury. Put her away for the winter and take her out again if the weather permits. The point I’m making is not just about a convenient identity. Its about coming from a place with no fixed co-ordinates, with a muddy origin and no clear destination. It may not have the grandeur of a royal palace or the provenance of a stately home, but it keeps the rain off your head. What’s more, tents have always served refugees as a shelter away from home.

*I’ve been following Perry Anderson’s provokative pieces about Indian History in the London Review of Books. He quoted Mountbatten in his piece “Why Partition?” on July 19th.

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