by Stanley Wolpert

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1675

Stanley Wolpert, the author of A New History of India (1977) and of a previous book also entitledIndia (1965), has written a readable, solid introduction to the land and people of one of the world’s most complex countries and civilizations. Evidently conceived for the nonspecialist for whom India may be only a name on a map, the new India addresses the subcontinent under the successive rubrics of geography, history, religion, society, arts and sciences, and politics. The result is both balanced and a bit bland, nourishing and yet at the same time slightly predigested. Ideally, perhaps, this book should be read as an hors d’oeuvre that will pique the reader’s curiosity to continue to more specialized, more detailed, and theoretically more self-aware views of this complex country.

Wolpert professes to a “lifelong romance with India” in his preface, but there is little hint of the wild or passionate in his treatment of the subcontinent. In fact, there is something more than slightly academic about the thorough coverage of the subject under his progressive rubrics, as if one were reading a high-school textbook rewritten for adults. Only rarely does the reader have the sense from Wolpert’s account of what it is like to live in or even visit India, a sense of the colors and sounds and texture of life. Indeed, this lack of “feel” the prose gives a reader is mirrored and presaged by the rather dull-looking and not very striking black-and-white photographs that serve as the book’s illustrations.

Appropriately enough, Wolpert comes closest to offering this kind of interesting detail in his chapter devoted to a consideration of Indian society. Yet at these moments he seems almost apologetic, as if this were not relevant to his real purpose. For example, he writes: “The rich deep green of rice fields before harvest or the gold of mustard surrounding the lime-washed white huts and well-swept lanes of a prosperous village appear so peacefully integrated into the natural environment of many regions of India’s countryside that it is almost too easy to wax romantic about the pastoral beauty of village life.” Yet the reader almost wishes he had given in to this “easy” enterprise, thereby perhaps infusing a touch of the poetic into what is otherwise so sober a recitation of facts. The closest Wolpert comes to this in the remainder of the text tends unfortunately to the cliché-ridden, as in the statement that “India and the River mirror each other, bubbling with life, always changing, ever the same.”

The value for the uninitiated of the introductions to Indian topography and history that open the book is self-evident. In addition, Wolpert points to some of India’s looming problems: its ever-increasing population, leading to deforestation and hence to erosion of the land, and the overload on urban services originally conceived for far fewer people. Yet though it is useful to have overviews of these relatively straightforward subjects united in a single volume, they are of a kind widely available in other reference works.

The chapters that follow are both more complex and more problematic, in that some tensions between the position of the narrator/author and that of his subject begin to surface. To a certain extent, the dominant tone is that of the professor telling stay-at-homes all they need to know and may well sound patronizing. “Most Indians,” Wolpert tells the reader, “are gentle, nonviolent people, in part perhaps because they view all life as interrelated, and believe in the potential cosmic significance of individual deeds or actions and their implications, extending over a hundred or more lifetimes.” Whether or not this...

(This entire section contains 1675 words.)

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is true, it is clearly the opinion of an avowed outsider to the civilization regarding which the generalizations are offered—and Wolpert offers neither evidence for his assertion nor acknowledgment of its presumption.

Instead, as is often the case when he permits himself generalizations of this sort, Wolpert prefers to submerge the subjectivity of his perception in a tone of gentle irony. Here he switches immediately from a statement about outsiders to one that seems to include himself and his potential audience as well: “One must thus be careful where one treads, for the very earthworm beneath one’s foot shares cosmic connections. We never know where the ripple-current we set in motion could lead.” Of course, he does not mean “we,” but “they,” as the first sentence of the passage has made clear. Those to whom this statement is addressed end in a position of bemused distance masquerading as the attempt to put themselves in the place of others. Wolpert seems insufficiently clear about his own position on the matter, having buried a clear delineation of approval or disapproval in the urbane pretense of identification.

The problem with this is not that such a viewpoint is untenable; indeed, it is clear that few Westerners will be able to justify fully the customs of non-Western societies. Certainly, Wolpert is making clear his fundamental forgiveness, rather than condemnation, of such foibles as he delineates, but the problem is that Indian society may not want such forgiveness. Wolpert’s viewpoint is at all times that of the slightly distanced professor, unflappable, interested, and above all not about to be drawn out to the point where his own presuppositions can be questioned. The pretensions of this work, that is, are to objectivity; it is, however, clear that finally it is quite subjective indeed. Nevertheless, so circumspect is the expression of this fundamental subjectivity that it may pass as all but invisible. Yet what else can a book of fewer than three hundred pages entitled—with no visible attempt at irony—simply India be, save subjective? How to summarize such a vast amount of material save under subjective rubrics?

Wolpert’s tack of all but submerging judgment under a sheen of bemused tolerance colors as well his treatment of those aspects of Indian life that seem least attractive to outsiders, including Muslim-Hindu violence, the treatment of women, and the lack of privacy in Indian society. In all cases, he makes as strong a case as he can for not condemning the Indian reality outright and then seems to throw up his hands and side with the more generally held Western point of view, which thus remains unquestioned. The result is that the reader may come to see Wolpert’s careful presentation as something of an evasion and long for a clearer delineation of opinion on the part of the author, a more honest consideration of the implications of a Westerner writing a Western-oriented introduction for Western readers.

Ultimately, for example, Wolpert does his best to relativize Hindu-Moslem religious violence by pointing out, accurately enough, that “India has not been the only country in the world to be plagued by religious conflicts. More Protestants and Catholics have murdered one another in religious wars than have Hindus and Muslims.” Yet finally (and perhaps unsurprisingly), he is unable to justify such violence, referring to the postindependence murders as “homicidal savagery” and writing, with a tone of sorrowful head-shaking, of the way contemporary riots between Muslims and Hindus are started.

In the same vein, his consideration of the traditionally subservient role of women in Indian society (each of whom was taught to consider her husband as her god) is clearly informed by sympathy to their plight. He is especially in favor of Indira Gandhi’s outlawing of the dowry, whose nonpayment sometimes leads to the “accidental” burning to death of the wife. Yet he seems willing to let his position all but trail off in the suggestion of nonjudgmental relativism, writing that “communities as a whole usually close ranks to defend what we view as barbaric behavior meriting the most severe punishment, but what is often judged through traditional Indian eyes as appropriate ‘self-help’ and as exemplary or a ‘good lesson’ to others.”

For all this attempt to avoid having to take a stand regarding local perceptions of Indian customs, Wolpert does in fact possess firm opinions about Indians and their social institutions. He speaks categorically, for example, of “the fragmentation of Hindu society that has always been its greatest weakness.” In addition, he allows himself generalizations about the Indian character: “There is, indeed, more ‘passivity’ in Indian personalities than we generally find among Americans of comparable age and status.” To be sure, he hastens to de-essentialize such qualities, ascribing them to nurture rather than nature: This “passivity” (the word itself, the reader should note, used only within scare quotes) is “a product in great measure of lifelong accommodation to the many competing voices, needs, demands, and aspirations of the large extended family. If all clamored at once, none could be heard.”

This is a theory, and a plausible one. Yet so concerned is Wolpert to preserve the fiction of the objective or at least judiciously uninvolved spectator that it is neither properly laid out nor justified. So too for his statement that “Indians for the most part are an obedient, deferential people, accepting of ‘higher’ authority.” Once again he offers an explanation through environment—“such obedience is family- inculcated”—as if the gesture on his part to offer any explanation at all makes unnecessary a justification either of the initial assertion or of the status of this particular explanation as the correct one.

Wolpert’s brief consideration of contemporary politics at the end of the book, perhaps because it deals with slightly more tangible subjects, seems more satisfying, explaining the deep fissures within Indian democracy that led to the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. This act, of course, occurred after the book was published, yet Wolpert’s thumbnail sketch of the status of Indian Tamils in the southeast (who claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing) goes a long way to making it plausible in retrospect.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVII, April 1, 1991, p. 1540.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLIII, August 22, 1991, p. 30.

The Guardian Weekly. CXLIV, April 7, 1991, p. 18.

Library Journal. CXVI, March 1, 1991, p. 102.

San Francisco Review of Books. XVI, Number 1, 1991, p. 53.

The Washington Post Book World. XXI, March 3, 1991, p. 5.