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In Memoriam

Stanley Wolpert (1927-2019): Chronicler of the Subcontinent

Stanley Wolpert (1927-2019)
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A genteel historian who wrote the original biography of Jinnah

THE FIRST TIME that Stanley Wolpert arrived in India was a day after Mahatma Gandhi had been shot dead. His first response to the assassination was one of bewilderment: How could a leader who was so popular and, in the eyes of many, almost a saintly figure be felled with the cruel bullet of an assassin? Fourteen years later in Nine Hours to Rama, he wrote a fictional account of the events leading to the evening of January 30th, 1962. It was a racy account in which superintendent of police Gopal Das is always close on the heels of Gandhi’s killers. In the end, Das is just a few steps away when the fatal shots are fired. Perhaps it was too racy for the Government and was banned.

That was not the first time that he faced trouble in South Asia. Soon after Jinnah of Pakistan was published in 1984, it was banned in Pakistan which was at that time under the thumb of Zia-ul-Haq. Between bans and criticisms of what he wrote, the historian in Wolpert never lost the amazement about the countries and leaders he chose to study. The same bewilderment that he experienced when Gandhi was felled was visible in print when he wrote about the killing of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan (1993) he wondered where did the crowds that had once cheered Bhutto disappear when he was hanged on the orders of a military dictator.

That gap between the complexities of South Asia and the way he imagined it never left him almost until he wrote his last book in 2010 India and Pakistan: Continued Conflict or Cooperation. This was something that made him unpopular among a very varied set of critics who looked at the region in a clear cut, either or, fashion. Perhaps the political vicissitudes of the land left little room for scholars who imagined it otherwise.

So it was not surprising that when this historian of South Asia—who was also a professor emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles— passed away on 19th February, it took full 12 days for observers in India and Pakistan to notice. When social media reported his demise early on March 7th, there was shock that he was gone.

The majority of Wolpert’s books was written in the pre-internet age. At that time information flowed slowly via mail and print. That was also a time when historical research was genteel and history writing different from the popular histories that masquerade the real stuff. It was also an interregnum when research methods were not ruthlessly dependent on quantitative techniques. Above all, it was a time when even if a historian had an opinion, it would at the most tip-toe on some pages and then disappear. The age of aggressive history writing, meant to justify this or that government, ruler or personality was still a distant phenomenon. By the time Wolpert stopped writing this malaise was to be found everywhere but with a particular virulence in South Asia where it became difficult to distinguish historical writing from the subtle polemics that mark political tracts.

There was hardly any historical figure of import in modern South Asia on whom Wolpert did not write: from Gopal Krishna Gokhale to Gandhi to John Morley, the colonial secretary of state when Bengal was partitioned. In each work, Wolpert was careful to facts and light on opinion. Above all, his histories even when they dealt with serious subjects were fun to read. In Jinnah of Pakistan he described how Jinnah thought he had to respond to Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Hindustan Zindabad” on All India Radio in 1947: Jinnah’s “Pakistan Zindabad” was delivered in such a clipped accent that some listeners thought he said “Pakistan’s in the bag.” That tit-for-tat has continued ever since. Perhaps Wolpert presaged all this much before bombs and bullets became an essential part of that deadly quest for parity.