When asked about his childhood abroad, Professor of History William Pinch couldn’t help but smile fondly. Pinch was born in India and moved from Pakistan to Iran and then to the United States before attending college at the University of Virginia. His youth in India and Pakistan played a dramatic role in his decision to specialize in South Asian history; in fact, Pinch’s childhood nickname “Vijay” remains popular among his American colleagues and friends. Outside of his life as an academic, Pinch is a grandfather, an avid reader of historical fiction, and a squash enthusiast. Pinch sat down with The Argus to discuss his travels, current projects, and personal interests.
The Argus: You’ve moved quite a lot. Can you take us through the countries you’ve lived in?
William Pinch: I was born in New Delhi. We moved around quite a bit because my dad was in diplomatic service with the United States Information Service. Their responsibility was to run what was known as cultural diplomacy, and United States libraries overseas. In fact, some of my dad’s main work was to run and establish the library in Lucknow, India. There was an old, run-down, decrepit mansion that my dad fixed up and turned into a library, and we lived in the back of it for three or four years. It was really great. These were all wonderful, happy times. There was a lot of optimism.
Periodically we would move to the United States while my dad was getting retooled for the next assignment, and that was usually in the Washington, D.C., area. After a brief stay in Falls Church, Virginia, we moved to Pakistan, just before the war broke out between India and Pakistan. And again, these were some of the happiest years.
The war broke out in 1971 and we were right in the midst of it. My neighborhood was actually bombed by the Indian Air Force, so the American diplomatic and expatriate community was evacuated from Pakistan to Tehran. I still keep in touch with my friends from my Pakistan days; there’s actually a reunion for my high school happening this September.
A: You seem to look back on your years in Pakistan fondly.
WP: It’s so funny because certain American songs, like Glen Campbell’s “Galveston,” always remind me of Karachi for some reason. I heard Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for the first time while living in Karachi and visiting friends in Lahore. Whenever I hear Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, I think of Lahore.
A: Do you think your travels affected your decision to pursue South Asian history?
WP: I would be crazy to say my travels didn’t affect my decision. I’ve always been interested in history, although informally. I never particularly cared for the subject in school. When we came to the United States in 1975, I was in high school. I literally spent the next six years trying to get back to India. I went to college at the University of Virginia and immediately enrolled in Hindi and Indian history classes and just excelled. I ended up discovering my love for history in an academic way.
A: Can you tell me a little bit about some of your publications?
WP: My Ph.D. dissertation ended up being my first book, “Peasants and Monks in British India.” I was interested in the historical understanding of peasants and ascetics in North India, particularly middle-caste peasant communities, agriculturalists, and cultivators, who were actually doing the farming. We had a very good understanding of the history of Indian nationalism with the [Indian National] Congress and Gandhi, but we were trying to understand the local roots of those nationalist politics.
That was my first book. Even as a child, I had an interest in asceticism, oddly enough. At one point I even thought of what it would be like to be a Jesuit. I didn’t really entertain it in any serious respect, but I thought it would be an interesting lifestyle. In the process of writing the first book, I came across these armies of ascetics known as warrior ascetics. There had been some literature about the topic but not much. I was interested in the broader understanding of the significance of these groups, so that ultimately became my second book, “Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empire.”
A: What was the research process like for these publications?
WP: For me, it’s very important to visit the places and try to gather oral histories and also original records in the remote locations connected with the subjects. I made it a point to go to these places. I’ve been to Bundelkhand several times and visited the fortresses, gathered up papers and photograph copies of records, and talked to lots of people who have connections to oral history.
A: What are you working on right now?
WP: [I am] in the process of doing research for the book; I actually discovered a long poem that no one had ever worked on before and another shorter poem, written at the same time. The poetry was written in an early form of Hindi known as Rajbhasha. I had done some other work with the language on a different set of poems, so I had sort of taught myself to translate this poetry. Poetry is, of course, extremely difficult in any case because the meanings are meant to be fluid, multiple, and evocative. I had done some work on these poems, but I realized it would be fun to do a really good translation of these poems.
More recently, in the last year or so, we’ve regrouped. We’re revising the translation we had and trying to figure out the best way to publish. We’ve decided that we’re going to shoot to publish the shorter poem first.
A: We’ve talked a lot about your research. What are some of your favorite things to do outside of your work?
WP: Well, we just had a grandchild, and I love hanging out and playing with our little grandson. I used to go fishing a lot, and I’m looking forward to fishing with my grandson. We have a little canoe so we’re going to go out fishing in the mornings at some point. He’s only seven weeks old, so he’s a little young.
I live near a lake so I like to swim. It’s actually fairly recent that I’ve taken up swimming. It’s also fairly recent that I’ve started living near a lake.
I also love to read, especially historical fiction books. I find that it’s a wonderful way to learn about other histories that I’m not familiar with. I get a little frustrated when I read historical fiction set in India because I know too much. I love detective fiction, though. I think history is in part detective work, you know, figuring out mini mysteries. I’ve just started reading a novel by Deepti Kapoor. It’s called “Age of Vice,” and it’s about modern Delhi. If you check it out from the library, you’ll know why I’m reading it. I’ll just leave it at that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lyah Muktavaram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.