History Department Chair William Pinch specializes in Indian history, from the Mughals to British imperialism. He sat down with The Argus to discuss some of his favorite books, Bollywood films, and his resemblance to Jeff Bridges.
Argus: What are you reading now?
Professor William Pinch: I’ve been reading “Sunlight on a Broken Column” for my class [HIST 285: India and the West]. During the break I get a lot of outside reading in. I became chair of the department over the summer, and one of my colleagues gave me a copy of a book that I had to read about being a department chair, it’s absolutely hilarious. It’s “Straight Man” by Richard Russo. The lead character, Devereaux, is the chair of a dysfunctional English department in a small state college in Pennsylvania. It’s kind of a seventh circle of hell as far as academics is concerned—it’s a state university that is strapped for funds. It’s a really funny book and quite charming. I think a few people die but all is well in the end. Actually, I can’t remember now if any of the major characters die; but there is a hilarious scene with a duck, or goose—possibly the funniest scene I’ve ever read. I love to read historical fiction. This past summer I read a book called “The Historian,” by Elizabeth Kostova. It’s about Dracula. I particularly liked it because it involved three generations of historians in the Balkans, Bulgaria, and Romania. I enjoy books that involved people struggling with documents, partly because that’s what I do: translate things and trying to tease out meanings. Another book I read that I liked was “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” by Louis Des Bernières. That was a novel about a Greek island in World War II after the Italian and German occupation of that island and the Greek resistance. It went over a few generations, and it had a romance story, which was nice. My wife is from a Greek family, and it reminded me of her family history in some ways.
A: Have you seen the movie adaptation?
WP: Yes, the movie is terrible. It’s got Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz. I really wanted it to be good, but I couldn’t finish it. My daughter checked it out for me, I love Nicolas Cage, but the movie was miserable.
A: Have you seen “National Treasure,” his new series?
WP: Yeah, my kids love them. I mean they’re fun, it was brain candy. I liked “Leaving Las Vegas.” I loved “Raising Arizona”.
A: What are some of your favorite movies?
WP: One of my favorite films is “The Big Lebowski.” I love that film. I really want to see “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, because that has George Clooney and Jeff Bridges. I used to have a ponytail and one of my in-laws told me I looked like Jeff Bridges in “The Big Lebowski”. That was probably one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me.
A: As an expert on India, what Bollywood films would you recommend?
WP: I love “Shatranj-ke Khilari” [The Chess Players], which I use in class. I love “Monsoon Wedding.” “Amar Akbar Anthony” with Amitabh Bachchan. “Vidhaata” is another favorite of mine, it’s a really trashy film but I love the soundtrack. “Nagina” is one of my favorites. It’s based on a legend, where if you kill a snake and don’t take out its eyes, its mate will see its eyes and kill her mate’s killer. This woman snake turns herself into a woman to kill the killer and she falls in love with him. In one song, called “Main Teri Dushman” or “I am your enemy,” she can’t decide whether to love him or kill him, a classic Bollywood dilemma. She’s singing this when she’s dancing for a mysterious snake charmer. When my family was in India in 1987, this song was constantly playing everywhere. It’s played on the “beenbean,” it’s an instrument that the snake charmers use, it’s a big gourd with a pipe sticking out of it. My kids love “Dhoom”, and “Dhoom 2”, they are sort of like James Bond films, completely over the top. It has the stars from “Jodhaa Akbar”, Aishwarya Rai and Hrithik Roshan, the actor who has six fingers.
A: Six fingers?!
WP: Yes, he has a “supernumerary thumb” on one hand.
A: What are some of your favorite books on India?
WP: One writer I enjoy is Amitav Ghosh. I’ve read a bunch of his stuff. My favorite is “In An Antique Land,” that was a combination of first person traveler’s tale intertwined with the history of the Indian Ocean networks of trade in the 12th century, following a Jewish merchant who goes to India and purchases a few slaves, one of whom becomes his wife and one who becomes his business partner. The study of slavery is dominated by the Atlantic slave trade, but there was an Indian Ocean slave trade that is quite compelling. At that time, in the 1980s, there was a lot of discussion about what constituted slavery. Amitav was engaging in those debates as well while he was writing the history. He interweaves it with writing about being an anthropologist in Egypt. You get a contrast of the Indian Ocean in the 12th century, and then in the present, in the Middle East. I really liked his “Glass Palace,” about the Indian National Army in Burma. It also has several generations of characters. He wrote a very interesting book called “The Calcutta Chromosome,” it has a little bit of science fiction, about the discovery of the cause of malaria in the late 19th century by a doctor working in Calcutta. It’s a kind of science fiction detective story. More recently I read his “Sea of Poppies.” It just came out last year or this year. It’s the first of a trilogy about the Opium Wars in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The first installment is set mostly in North India and Calcutta, in an eastern Uttar Pradesh village where opium is cultivated, and also in Calcutta where a ship in Baltimore has docked as part of the opium trade. The captain is a young mixed race guy from Baltimore whose mother was a slave and his father was a slave owner, if memory serves. A number of different characters are introduced in the novel, many are loosely based on historical figures, and it’s quite interesting in that sense.
A: What novels would you recommend to students interested in learning about Indian history?
WP: I love Kim [by Rudyard Kipling] and Gora [by Rabindranath Tagore]. They are really two of my favorites. They complement each other so beautifully. There’s a really interesting book I haven’t used in class. It’s called “The Dancing Girl” by Hasan Shan. It’s a semi-autobiographical account of a romance between an author who is a munshi, a Persian clerk, and a young girl who belongs to a family of courtesans, a troupe of dancing girls called natch girls. This troupe joins up with a company regiment and the munshi works for the captain. He falls in love with one of the girls in the troupe. It’s a wonderful heartbreaking story that catapults you into the late 18th century. That’s quite an interesting book. I very much like Naipaul’s “A Million Mutinies Now.” He wrote three books on India: “An Area of Darkness”, the second one was “India: A Wounded Civilization”, the third one was “India: A Million Mutinies Now”. It’s a much more complex work. He goes back to the people he met and interviews them again, and provides a much more multi-dimensional account of their families and their lives. It gives a good account of post-colonial India, and goes back even to pre-Mughal times, you get a good account of the layered quality of Indian history. Dalrymple’s “City of Djinns” is a great introduction to the city of Delhi. It was written in the ‘80s, he begins with the anti-Sikh riots in the wake of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination, and he discusses partition, the war for Delhi in 1857, and the creation of New Delhi. It’s a great introduction for anyone going to Delhi.
A: What about nonfiction works?
WP: One I enjoyed was William Dalyrmple’s “The Last Mughal,” which is nonfiction. Even though he engages in some historiographical heavy breathing that was a little distracting, it was very interesting and quite good. A great book on partition is “Indian Summer” by Alex Von Tunzelmann. It’s a good, fun treatment of partition, Gandhi, Nehru, and the Mountbattens. I think it’s a pretty fair treatment. There are not many good treatments of the high goings of Partition and the transfer of power. Erik Erikson’s book on Gandhi is a classic. It’s incredibly interesting, about the psychobiography of Gandhi. In the middle of it he decides to write a letter to the Mahatma, who has been dead for some time at that point. He writes a letter because he’s kind of annoyed by the Mahatma and his treatment of his wife and young girls in the ashram. The thing he was annoyed about was that Gandhi is famous for his celibacy, his decision to abstain from sex. It becomes evident in the course of his autobiography that he never asked his wife how she felt about that, that he imposed it upon her. There were episodes in the ashram [spiritual community] in South Africa where he was very manipulative and cruel, he punishes the girls for tempting the boys when he finds them frolicking in the bathing pool in an inappropriate way. He only punishes the girls, and he cuts their hair. Erikson is quite upset about this and discovers Gandhi’s dictatorial qualities, and interrogates Gandhi about it. Of course, it’s a one-sided interrogation. It’s a way of cluing in the reader that Gandhi had a bad side, too. He was very coercive.