Magazine article The Spectator

After Such Lack of Knowledge, What Forgiveness?

Magazine article The Spectator

After Such Lack of Knowledge, What Forgiveness?

Article excerpt

NEHRU: A TRYST WITH DESTINY by Stanley Wolpert OUP, 25, pp.498

There is a lot to be said for selfrestraint. Even brilliant historians who fail to heed their own limitations are apt to expose their inadequate understanding of subjects beyond their knowledge and, worse, reveal that in their foolhardy attempt to appear informed they have in fact relied on cheap innuendo, unbalanced research and slender insight. Unfortunately, Professor Wolpert's study of Nehru is an example of such thoughtless excess. I fear that a well-earned reputation based on his earlier biographies of Jinnah and Bhutto will now be seriously damaged.

The book lacks balance both in the sense of structure and subjects covered and in the more important area of judgment. Most of it is about the pre-Independence period, with only 100 pages devoted to Nehru's 17 years as prime minister. Yet even those pages present a giddy round of foreign travel, with frequent references to weekends spent with Edwina Mountbatten at Broadlands, but hardly a mention of Nehru's domestic policies and no attempt to analyse his economic thinking. The years between 1950 and 1964 - arguably the high-water mark of Nehru's career - are covered in just 40 pages whilst the preceding 450 are devoted to the freedom struggle and Nehru's adolescent years, which are of interest only as years of apprenticeship. It makes one wonder why Wolpert has subtitled his book 'A Tryst With Destiny', a quotation from Nehru's Independence-eve speech referring to a hope that would be fulfilled in the years to come.

Equally irritating is the fact that his research seems to be entirely dependent on Nehru's writings, particularly his letters. Whilst these are often helpful, even occasionally revealing, they do not place the subject fully in context and result in a biography with chronology but without a sense of history. Even some of Wolpert's insights, that Nehru's intransigent attitude to Jinnah led to opportunities being missed in 1928 and 1939, are hardly elaborated upon or incorporated into the structure.

Instead, Wolpert imputes motives to Nehru's words or actions. For instance, he explains the young Nehru's espousal of Gandhi as

vicarious revenge . . . against his father and foreign rule . . . choosing to follow the revolutionary leadership of that great soul rather the more timid path of the moderate Motilal. Quoting from a letter to his daughter, Indira, where the elderly Nehru asked for extra bookshelves to be built in his study, Wolpert adds, `No matter how busy he was, Nehru's mind could always focus on fine points of detail where his pleasures were concerned. …

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