Yes, I do know that Tom Alter, the gifted film and television actor and theater artist who died in Mumbai
a little more than two weeks ago, was not an Englishman but rather an American. I doubt, however, that most people in India knew that he was an American: he was a firangi (“foreigner”, of foreign origins), and the firangi, when all is said and done, is an Englishman—at least in India. Jawaharlal Nehru once described himself in a conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India—and others too have said this of him—as the “last Englishman” in India. He had not reckoned with Tom Alter, who, in his love for cricket, was thoroughly English—and Indian.
Tom Alter was born in India to American parents. He attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and I suspect that his attachment to Mussoorie remained throughout his life. His parents moved to Rajpur, a small town which is 25 kilometers from Mussoorie on the road to Dehradun, when he was 14 years old, but it is in Landour, which is but a few kilometers from Mussoorie and can be reached by foot in a little more than half an hour to those who are familiar with the terrain, that he chose to get married to a fellow Woodstock student, Carol Evans. They were married at St. Paul’s Church in Char Dukan, literally “Four Shops”, which is more than a charming little place where many people engage in guftagoo. And “guftagoo”, the art of conversation, is something of which Tom Alter, from what I have heard, was a keen and admirable exponent.
I never had the good fortune of meeting Tom Alter. I wish it had been otherwise. He had a few hundred roles in Indian films and was the actor of choice for those Indian film directors, working mainly though not exclusively in Hindi, who were looking to cast a role for a white man. But Tom, let it be clear, did not take on only the role of a firangi, or white man; he could easily pass himself off as Indian. In a long interview that he gave recently for Rajya Sabha TV, Alter described how he came to love Indian cinema. The films of Rajesh Khanna got him hooked to mainstream Hindi movies; as he put it in an interview in 2009, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.” This may be thought of as an unusual confession: of course, Rajesh Khanna had an extraordinarily large following, particularly in his heyday, and the stories of young Indian women swooning over him are legion. I have some recollection of his visit to Indonesia in the early 1970s when I was living there and of the absolute crush of young women who had gathered at the airport to receive him. Where Khanna went, pandemonium followed. Rajesh Khanna not Amitabh Bachchan was the first superstar of Bollywood, even if that is not known to those in the present generation.
Rajesh Khanna’s following, however, was overwhelmingly young women—or at least that is the impression one received from television, newspapers, and popular film magazines. The popular film magazine Stardust had been launched in 1971, and scandal and gossip, always a characteristic feature of Bollywood and Hollywood, received a new boost. One early Stardust cover had this headline, “Is Rajesh Khanna married?” Now Alter may not have thought of himself as an intellectual, but in some circles it would be something of an embarrassment to admit that one had a weakness for Rajesh Khanna, that “evergreen” star who, with his trademark tilt of the head and cherubic countenance, seemed positively silly; when he ran around trees in the gentle pursuit of women, he looked, even more so than other actors, hilariously comical. Rajesh Khanna’s following seemed to be comprised largely of those very women who entertained ideas of romance derived entirely from Mills & Boon novels, if perhaps a notch below in their class background. So there is something unquestionably something charming, even disarming, in hearing Alter speak of his unbound affection for Rajesh Khanna.
Alter’s first role in a Hindi film was in 1976; the following year, in one of his most memorable roles, he played Captain Weston, the aide-de-camp to General Outram, the British Resident at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”, 1977), itself based on a short story by Munshi Premchand. I saw the film a year later, in late 1978, and the scene is memorably etched in my mind. Weston is summoned by Outram, who in his own fashion attempts to fathom the mind of the inscrutable Oriental Despot. Outram has heard that Wajid Ali Shah is a poet—well, whoever heard of a king who fancied himself a poet. “Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here—I mean, what kind of poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the King they say he’s good?” “I think he’s rather good, sir.” “You do, eh?” So Weston is asked to recite a poem; he complies with the request, if reluctantly. When he’s done, and has rendered the poem in translation as well, Outram—who has pronounced himself not much of a “poetry man”—pompously declares, “Doesn’t strike me a great flight of fancy.”
Alter was known to aficionados of Indian cinema and theater lovers as someone with an enviable command over both Hindi and Urdu. He delivers the lines in Shatranj ke Khilari, as well as in other films where he appeared, with absolute ease and comfort; indeed, it was pointed out that his interlocutors, many of them native speakers of Hindustani, often resorted to English words when Alter didn’t. In his love for Hindustani, for Hindi and Urdu alike, for Urdu literature and the everydayness of Indian life, Alter showed that it was possible to repudiate the idea of exclusive loyalties. Perhaps, as an Englishman born of American parents in India, he could be singularly free of the virulent disease of nationalism.
It is no surprise that in recent years Tom Alter was called upon to play the role of Maulana Azad more than once, most recently in a TV series on the Indian Constitution (“Samvidhaan”), and that he did so with brilliance. In fact, it could not be otherwise in many respects. If Alter was celebrated for his chaste Urdu, much more so was the case with Maulana Azad, whose mastery of Urdu has been commented upon by those who are familiar with the language. But we may say that Tom Alter stands in for the figure of Maulana Azad in yet more touching ways. Though Alter was born in India three years after partition, it is his American grandparents who had first made their way to India in November 1916, settling down in Lahore. Alter’s father was born in Sialkot; at the time of partition, Tom’s grandparents elected to stay in what became Pakistan, while his parents opted for India. One doesn’t ever think of English families in undivided India that were divided by the partition: that is another story in the making. Maulana Azad famously stayed behind in India, and he remained firmly committed as a secular and practicing nationalist Muslim to the idea of India. Maulana Azad was too fine a match—as a thinker, writer, scholar, and principled man—for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but that, too, is another story.
Alter’s life is interesting and salutary, above all else, not only for his affection for India and his understanding of the country, but because as an “Englishman” he had the liberty of putting forth views which Indian secularists and liberals have eschewed and often vigorously attacked. Over a decade ago I published a very long scholarly article on the trajectory of the word ‘tolerance’ in contemporary Indian political discourse. The Hindu nationalists no longer want to hear anything about the much-touted “Hindu tolerance”, since in their view “Hindu tolerance” has over the centuries made Hindus vulnerable to rapacious foreigners and especially Muslim conquerors. The idea of Hindu tolerance, on this reading, has been the graveyard of Hinduism. The left, however, repudiates the idea of Hindu tolerance for altogether different reasons. Some argue that it is a complete fiction; others find it a mockery, pointing, for instance, to centuries of caste oppression. The idea of “Hindu tolerance”, they argue, is nothing but a frightful and bloated conceit. This is what I termed “intolerance for ‘Hindu tolerance’”.
Alter had a different reading of what India has stood for and, notwithstanding the tremendous assaults on Indian pluralism of the last few years, still embodies to those who can recognize India for what it is. In the aforementioned hour-long interview that he gave to Rajya Sabha TV in August 2016, he speaks about the time of partition and the aftermath [start at 58:30]. The killings and the bitterness would not preclude the Constitution of India from stating that every Indian had every right to be a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or the practitioner of any other faith. Alter speaks of his father who unhesitatingly described himself and other Christians as living in a land between the Ganga and the Yamuna: it is a Christian father who recognizes that to Hindus this land is holy, pure (“pak”). This is a Christian father saying this; for Christians these are not holy rivers; but “crores” (tens of millions) of people believe that they are holy rivers, and there is a force in that belief. That, to the mind of Tom Alter, was secularism in practice. In India, Alter noted, there has never been a point of view which dictated, ‘My path alone is right, yours is wrong’. It is doubtful, Alter said, that there is anywhere in the world another country where such a worldview, such a sensibility of tolerance, has prevailed for such a lengthy stretch of time.
Alter feared that this delicate fabric which has been stitched over time is beginning to tear apart. But he had no difficulty in characterizing what he saw as a wondrously unique culture of tolerance that had defined India. Alter, in his interview, appears with a bandaged thumb. His thumb had to be amputated, as melanoma tore into his body. The cancerous rise of militant Hindu nationalism, if Indians are not watchful, will lead to the amputation of India.
Alter’s grandparents had come to India as Christian missionaries. It is fitting that Tom Alter should have departed this life as a missionary for an unheralded India.