TRYST WITH DESTINY
In 1948, 20-year-old Stanley Wolpert was on an overseas sight-seeing trip when he arrived in India. At the time, Wolpert admits, he knew almost nothing of a country whose history he has now chronicled in 17 books. But Wolpert's introduction couldn't have been more dramatic.
He reached Bombay just days after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. From his vantage point atop a nearby hill, Wolpert witnessed the beloved leader's ashes being sprinkled from a ship into the water below. "The crowd was enormous, the ship was painted white with bunting all around it, and I watched as literally hundreds of people swam after it, hoping to touch one of the ashes," Wolpert recalled.
"And I knew nothing about either Gandhi or why he had been assassinated."
That breathtaking moment in Wolpert's life set the stage for the remainder of his career, the last 39 years of which he has spent as a UCLA history professor. Most recently, Wolpert earned rave reviews for Nehru: A Tryst with Destiny (1996: Oxford University Press), which sheds new light on the complex character of India's first prime minister and second-most important 20th century leader.
Wolpert began his journey into Indian history immediately after his experience in Bombay, when he had trouble reconciling the fact that a Hindu nation's spiritual leader had been felled by a "devout Hindu." In his search for answers, he began to explore the recent history of India, which had just emerged as a nation-state. He then moved back in time to the pre-Gandhi nationalists, which further fueled his interest in India's historical roots. Upon his return to the United States, Wolpert began work toward his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, with a dissertation on the leaders of the revolutionary and reform wings of the Indian National Congress.
Wolpert first met Jawaharlal Nehru in 1957, when he was back in India as a Ford Fellow. But for many years, he shied away from writing about the life of the man who led India's struggle for freedom from British rule and, from 1947 until his death in 1964, guided India on a course of rapid industrialization.
"I was in awe of him," Wolpert said. "He was a remarkably talented leader, an excellent orator and a fine writer who had himself written a number of works on Indian history, including his autobiography. For a long time I thought so highly of him and his work that I was afraid to undertake his life."
That changed when Wolpert began to look more closely at the statesman's letters and prison diaries, which suggested that there was much that Nehru had either not discussed in his autobiography, or had masked. In Wolpert's new book, he points out compelling examples of a man who seemed to struggle within himself.
"In some ways," Wolpert said, "Nehru embodies the ambivalence and complexity of modern India" -- a country with the longest continuing history in the world, and a country that Wolpert, nearly 50 years after that first encounter, describes as having "infinite fascination."