By Beena Sarwar
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 op-ed 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.