Remembering Hal Gould, a friend of South Asia

When some of us launched a South Asia initiative earlier this year, Hal Gould came to mind

Beena Sarwar Sep 07, 2021
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(Left)Dr. Harold A. Gould: A man of many parts (Right) Hal Gould with wife Ketayun, his “Persian queen”.(Photo Credit: Courtesy Philip McEldowney)

When some of us launched a South Asia initiative earlier this year, Hal Gould came to mind. I wondered how he was. We were in a pandemic, and I knew he was over 90. I hadn’t heard from him in a while. Hal and I had been in touch since early 2008 when he emailed me after coming across my oped in Dawn "An inconvenient truth." (Feb. 22, 2008) about Pakistan’s ‘return to democracy’, marking the country’s first-ever peaceful electoral transfer of power.

I had written it in response to an American friend’s outraged comment: "What kind of democracy is it that puts the fate of the country in the hands of a Nawaz Sharif and an Asif Zardari?” Trying to put the issue in context, I had written: "It's surely not worse than a democracy which puts the fate of America – and the world –in the hands of a George W. Bush... TWICE!"

I added that India had twice elected a right-wing BJP government-backed by religious militants. This was, of course, before Trump and Modi.

Hal had quoted my piece in his fortnightly column in the online magazine South Asia Monitor. He wanted me to see it “right away” before it was published. His piece urged America and the world to allow democracy to take root in Pakistan without outside interference.

I replied appreciating his piece and correcting a couple of misconceptions. He replied immediately, quick to accept the difference in opinion, and ended with a warm: “Call me Hal, everyone does”.

He was then 82, a Visiting Scholar at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia, with seminal work on grassroots politics in India, centered around eastern Uttar Pradesh. His specializations included political anthropology, South Asian civilization, and particularly India’s caste system.

I was honored to be added to his email list of nearly 80 friends and South Asia scholars that he regularly copied (not blind-copied) his writings to – Friends of Hal, or FOH for short. He in turn joined my Beena-issues yahoo group where I curated news and information and shared my pieces.

Beyond the mass emails and newsletters, we developed personal correspondence, bonding over shared values and common friends and acquaintances. His wife Ketayun, a Parsi, was also a Ph.D.

He shared his delight about the rave reviews of his recently published book in India, "Sikhs, Swamis, Students and Spies: The Rise of the India Lobby in the United States, 1900 to 1946" (Sage, 2006). Even then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said it was “his favorite read of 2007!” The book got its title from a phrase Hal found in a 1911 Modern Review article by Lala Har Dayal, a central figure in the formation of the Ghadr Party. Dayal had written that there are four types of Indians in the USA: "Sikhs, swamis, students and spies..."

I learned that he had many interests, a passionate commitment to democracy and freedom of expression, and was a consummate humanist unafraid to take on controversial subjects. In December 2013, he wrote a piece titled “Is homosexuality really unnatural?” To see heterosexuality as a hereditary norm and homosexuality as abnormal and pathological “was/is based upon pre-scientific, culturally normalized ignorance of sexual biology… a failure to understand the flexibility of sexual biology and the crucial social function heterosexuality performs.”

“Now there’s no longer any need to brainwash everybody on the morality of reproductive behavior because we now know that it ain’t necessary,” he wrote in an email later. “But after millions of years of otherwise, it’ll take a while for human societies to get over it.”

Despite feeling technologically challenged, he took the plunge and started a blog. Hal Gould’s Corner (http://haroldgouldscorner.com/ which has sadly lapsed) aimed to “advance our knowledge and promote discussion of issues pertaining to South, Southwest, Southeast and East Asia with special emphasis on India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.” He continued to post his pieces to the FOH list.

Hal was four years older than my father, Dr M. Sarwar, a medical doctor who had led Pakistan’s first nationwide student movement, Democratic Students Federation, DSF. After my father passed away in May 2009, I shared information about the student movement to my email list and created a blog,  www.drsarwar.wordpress.com. Hal read the material with “great interest and empathy”.

“The more I read the more I regret that I never had a chance to meet him and get to know him,” he wrote about my father. “Our political careers were running parallel back in the '50s; had we met we would have had much to talk about and share. It is clear that he was a consummate secular and democratic man, an exemplification of what Pakistan desperately needed, and still needs, instead of the military-mullah nexus that has delivered Pakistan to its present dreary state”.

Hal’s last email to FOH was sad and brief paying tribute to President Barack Obama, in February 2017. He built upon it for what was perhaps his last oped for South Asia Monitor headlined Rise Of Populist Demagogue: US Paying Price Of Flawed Electoral System, published in February 2017.  

Hal suffered a stroke at the end of May this year. Less than two months later, on July 2, 2021, he passed away peacefully at his home in Delray Beach, Florida, aged 95.

In early 2017 Hal gave up his office chair due to failing eyesight, writes his son Armeen in an obituary emailed to FOH later. He also shared his father’s last holiday greeting in December 2016. It provides a neat synopsis of Hal’s life, marked with his hallmark wry humor and courage -

"I am now 90 years old and will be 91 in February and so my life has slowed to a walk (with a cane!). So like all fading beauties like me my life is mostly a congeries of memories and reminiscences of all the good and bad my life and career have been heir to. And I have to believe that the good has, by and large, outweighed the bad.  How many persons after all commenced life in a small Rhode Island Swamp Yankee town and escaped the throes of the Great  Depression, fought in World War II, finagled an education for himself under the GI Bill, spent half his adult life in India, married a Persian queen, published nine books, rooted for the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Steelers (and still does!),  professored in three great universities (Pittsburgh, Illinois, Virginia), circumnavigated the globe six times, and enjoyed so many precious and wonderful friendships in the process?

It’s been a delightful journal through life and time. And what a pity that it’s nearly over!"

Hal had survived a serious automobile accident in August 2009 in which the vehicle was demolished. He had been in the passenger seat wearing a seat belt but the airbag didn’t deploy. A broken neck and other injuries kept him from his work until the following summer. “To be very frank, this is a hell of a setback!” he wrote understatedly.

In our last correspondence, April 2014, apologizing for a delay in replying to my email, he explained that his wife had contracted Parkinson's disease and he spent much of his time caring for her. "My Karma has gone a bit awry. Not to mention the fact that I am just plain growing old. I believe your father had to face that, did he not”.

That is true, I replied, adding that my father had once said in Urdu: "It's ok. The car gets old, the parts get worn out”.

Forgetting that Hal spoke the language, it hadn’t occurred to me to include the original words. He wrote back asking for the remark in Roman Urdu. Unfortunately, I missed seeing the email.

I think Hal would appreciate and enjoy the Roman Urdu rendition of what my father had said: “Gari purani ho jaati hai, purzey ghiss jaatey hain”.

It is good to know that his son is creating an archive of Hal’s articles from the past 20 years, and that South Asia Monitor is also re-archiving the material lost due to a server change. Hal’s work also lives on through his books, that hopefully will continue to be used at universities as part of the Asian Studies curriculum.

Dear Hal, thank you for your scholarship and vision, humanism, humour and courage, for Friends of Hal, and for connecting me to South Asia Monitor. Rest in peace.

Books authored by Harold A. Gould

• The Hindu Caste System, Vol. 1: Sacralization of a Social Order (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1987)

• The Hindu Caste System, Vol 2: Caste Adaptation in Modernizing Indian Society (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1988).

• The Hindu Caste System, Vol. 3: Politics and Caste (Delhi: Chanakya Publications, 1990).

• India Votes: Alliance Politics and Minority Government in the Ninth and Tenth General Elections (co-edited with Sumit Ganguly, Westview Press, 1993).

• The Hope and the Reality: US-Indian Relations from Roosevelt to Reagan (co-edited with Sumit Ganguly, Westview Press, 1992).

• Grass Roots Politics in India: Century of Political Evolution in Faizabad District (Oxford & IBH, 1995)

• India and the United States in a Changing World (co-edited with Ashok Kapur, Y. K. Malik, and Arthur G. Rubinoff, SAGE, 2002

• Sikhs, Swamis, Students, and Spies: The India Lobby in the United States, 1900-1946 (SAGE, 2006

• The South Asia Story: The first sixty years of US relations with India and Pakistan (SAGE, 2010),

(The writer is a journalist from Pakistan who teaches journalism at Emerson College, Boston. She is the founder-curator of the recently launched South Asia Peace Action Network wwww.southasiapeace.comShe blogs at  www.beenasarwar.com and tweets at @beenasarwar.com