A new biography of Nehru by Stanley Wolpert has attracted scorn in New Delhi. Katherine Frank, who is herself writing a biography of Indira Gandhi, asks what we can learn from Wolpert's failures. If post-modern biography has liberated itself from portraying a "true self," does this mean that anything goes?by Katherine Frank / May 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
So far the 50th anniversary of Indian independence appears to have stimulated more excitement outside the country. The cultural imports have come flooding in: a special India number of Granta, new books by expatriate Indians such as Gita Mehta and Rohinton Mistry, popular histories of partition and biographies of prominent figures in the freedom movement, including India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. I am currently writing a life of Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, and I arrived in Delhi in late January along with the first copies of Stanley Wolpert’s Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny-the import which has without doubt attracted the most scorn.
For weeks the newspapers and magazines were full of reviews with headlines such as “Experiments With Half-truths,” “Warts and All” or “A Below the Belt Attack.” Just when the furore showed signs of waning, Wolpert, who is distinguished professor of Indian history at the University of California in Los Angeles, sent a stream of faxes to Indian papers from southern California and gave a series of telephone interviews condemning “the vicious and malicious attacks against me and my most important book.”
The principal topic of conversation in academic circles, at smart New Delhi dinner parties, at the Gymkhana Club and India International Centre has been Wolpert’s Nehru, or more precisely Wolpert’s allegations that Nehru had homosexual relationships at Harrow and Cambridge and slept with Edwina Mountbatten, the last Vicereine. Even more damagingly, Indians object to Wolpert’s portrayal of Nehru as an Anglophile outsider. For Wolpert takes at face value Nehru’s self-mocking description of himself as “the last Englishman to rule India,” and argues that he would have been more at home at Broadlands with Edwina than at Teen Murti, the prime minister’s house, with Indira.
Biographies have been described as the books little people write about big ones, and being attacked by those to whom the big person remains dear is one of the occupational hazards of biographers. Nehru is not the first big man Wolpert has tackled: his book on Mahatma Gandhi, Nine Hours to Rama, was banned in India as was his life of Jinnah in Pakistan. There were rumours that Nehru would also be banned and that Wolpert had been denied a visa to come to India to promote it. But the book presents no threat to Indian law and order (the only legal grounds for banning a book) and Wolpert’s failure to…