(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1675 words.)