June 9, 2015
Guest: Nisid Hajari - Les Paul
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Mahatma Gandhi became a symbol of peace when he used passive resistance - civil disobedience - in the fight for Indian independence from its British colonial rulers. But Americans know much less about the violence that erupted when the British announced their intention to pull out of India, and Muslim leaders demanded to have at their own state. And all hell broke loose - riots and massacres in which Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs attacked each other.
The 1947 partition that created Pakistan as a separate state, the violence surrounding partition, why those tensions persist today and how they've led to Pakistan's support of extremist groups, including the Taliban, is the subject of the new book "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy Of India's Partition." My guest is the author Nisid Hajari. He led international coverage at Newsweek for more than a decade as a foreign editor and managing editor and now oversees Asia coverage for Bloomberg View.
Nisid Hajari, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about the partition between India and Pakistan?
NISID HAJARI: Well, I started thinking about this book in 2010. And this was after 10 years of working at Newsweek, where a great part of my job was overseeing our coverage of the war on Afghanistan after 9-11. And I found that a lot of Americans, in particular, didn't quite understand something fundamental about that conflict, which was why did Pakistan, an ostensible U.S. ally on the War on Terror, accept billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. and, at the same, support the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups that were killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan?
And this made more sense to people in the region because it goes back to Pakistan's of strategic worldview, in which India poses the greatest threat to its security and stability. And they support these militant groups in order to gain influence in Afghanistan and block Indian influence there. And this strategic worldview goes that all the way to 1947, to the months just following the independence of both India and Pakistan. And that was the story that I wanted to explain.
GROSS: So before India and Pakistan were partitioned, they were one unit, ruled by the British. They were colonial. And the Hindus and the Muslims were united against British rule. So where there already seeds of animosity, or did that just come to the surface when British rule was coming to an end?
HAJARI: Well, what - there had always been tensions between communities in India, as there are, you know, elsewhere in the world. And there were Hindu - you know, there have been Hindu-Muslim riots throughout history. But they tended to be localized, fairly short-lived and had sort of, you know, immediate provocations - you know, Hindus marching in a religious procession, banging drums and cymbals past the mosque during prayer time and things like that, which would set people off.
What was different about what happened in 1947 was exactly what you said - that people knew that the British were leaving, and there was a fight for power, for control that was about to take place. And that heightened the tensions and the fears and the insecurities, particularly of the minority community, which was the Muslim community in India, which made up about a quarter of the population before independence.
GROSS: So Muhammad Jinnah, who was one of the leaders of the Muslim League, the Muslim contingent in the Congress in India, advocated partitioning. What were the fears he played on about what Muslims would face in a majority Hindu, independent country?
HAJARI: What he was doing was pointing out what would happen in a democratic system if the British left and India remained united. There were - had been elections. The British had held elections and allowed Indians to elect their own representatives to provincial legislatures, so sort of the equivalent of state governments here in the U.S. And, of course, the Indian National Congress Party, which was open to all faiths, not just Hindus, but which was dominated by Hindus because they dominated the population, won these elections.
And what happened naturally was that they then would appoint their colleagues, their supporters to positions within the administration. They controlled the schools, so they controlled the educational curriculum. They oversaw the police, and they gave out jobs and patronage to their own followers. And Muslims could see - particularly, professional Muslims, Muslims who would otherwise have perhaps won of these jobs - could see that they would have very little power in a democratic system, a parliamentary system after independence.
GROSS: And Jinnah was not religious himself?
HAJARI: Not at all. That's actually one of the most interesting things. We think about partition, in a lot of ways, as a religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims. But the leaders on both sides - Jinnah on one side and Nehru on the other - were two of the most secular figures in this whole drama. Both where educated in London, were extremely modern men.
Jinnah drank alcohol. He reportedly ate pork - all these things that Muslims are not supposed to do. He only went to mosque to give political speeches, not to worship. And he also didn't think of Pakistan - he never imagined Pakistan as a religious state. He wanted a state where Muslims would be in a democratic majority and so would be in control of their fate. But any time anyone asked him whether it would be a Muslim theocracy, he would laugh them off. He would say that's absurd, and that's not at all what he was intending.
GROSS: So Gandhi was revered - is revered in India and in many places around the world as fighting for independence from the British through civil disobedience, through nonviolent struggle. And he was an inspiration to Martin Luther King, who took those tactics to the civil rights movement. But you write that he alienated Muslims by introducing religion into the independence movement - in what ways?
HAJARI: Gandhi came back to India in 1915 after spending a couple decades in South Africa. And he - part of his genius was that he was able to broaden out the appeal of the independence movement, which, until that point, had been restricted to fairly wealthy lawyers and landowners and so on who would debate things like percentages in these legislatures in various drawing rooms. But he broadened it out to the masses, but the way he did it was by using Hindu iconography and stories, mythology.
Every evening, he would have a prayer meeting where they would, you know - granted, they would chant Hindu hymns, but also read from the Quran and so forth. He was personally very unprejudiced about this, but his natural background was Hindu. And his audience was almost entirely Hindu, and he, you know, appealed to them in the language that they understood. But for Muslims - ordinary Muslims who would see this and listen to these speeches and so forth - he seemed like a Hindu figure more than a national figure - not all Muslims, of course, but a great many of them.
GROSS: So Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was the leader of the Muslim contingent in the Indian Congress, called for a Direct Action Day, demanding a separate Muslim state. This was in 1946. And after he announced at this, there were riots on that Direct Action Day. Describe a little bit of what happened on that day.
HAJARI: Yes. So the first thing to understand is that Jinnah had never been comfortable with mass popular action. Part of the reason he split with Gandhi and the rest of the independence movement was that he mistrusted this tactic. He was afraid that once leaders riled up ordinary Indians and got them out on the streets, that it would be hard to control the movement. But in 1946, as it was becoming clear that the British were leaving, and he was desperate to bolster his position, he said, you know, that I'm going to call this protest movement out into the street, essentially as a way - as blackmail, as a way to threaten the British and get them to concede his demands.
And so for weeks ahead of time, you know, various Muslim figures around the country, particularly in Kolkata, were issuing these are vague threats - vague, but very menacing-sounding threats about what would happen to Hindus in these Muslim majority areas after independence and so forth. And Hindus in Kolkata were listening to this and feared that there would be violence, and so they armed themselves, as well. And all over the country, actually, there were - there were meetings held on this day, and there was no violence whatsoever. There were just political speeches given, and Jinnah himself very clearly said that's all he wanted. He wanted his followers to go out and make the case for Pakistan, and that's all.
But in Kolkata, which was a very turbulent city, there was - you know, it's a great industrial center. It had been bombed during World War II. People were still semi-traumatized from their experience during the war and at the famine that occurred during the war. And there were lots of leftover weapons lying around that Americans had - soldiers had left behind huge cases of ammunition, so it was a tinderbox. And on that day, the speeches that were given were fairly inflammatory. And some of the Muslim listeners to these speeches went out and started burning and looting in Hindu areas. At the same time, Hindus in different parts of the city were also sort of throwing bricks and stones at Muslim marchers, so it's unclear - it's very hard say exactly how it started or who started it.
GROSS: But both sides behaved violently.
HAJARI: Both sides behaved violently. And what was interesting about these riots - these riots, I should say, were, at the time, the worst riots that had ever happened under British rule in India. They lasted for four days, and anywhere from five to 15,000 people were killed. But the reason they were different from what the British had been expecting was in previous protests and riots, they'd been directed at the British presence - at British official buildings, at British people. That's not what happened here.
And in fact, after the first day or so, you didn't really see Hindus and Muslims fighting each other, either. What you had were mobs going after vulnerable individuals or small groups of people. So if there were a few Hindus living in a Muslim area, the Muslim mobs would go after them, and vice versa. So it was more of a pogrom than a riot, even though riot is the word we always use about it.
GROSS: And the violence was brutal and gruesome.
HAJARI: It was, and that part is a little hard to explain. It's - you know, it may have had something to do with what people had experienced during the war and the sort of - what they had seen, what they had sort of gotten used to. But there were - you know, there's stories of people finding the heads of their servants placed on their desk. Or, you know, there was one story about a butcher who was slicing up meat for a customer and then walked across the street and used the knife to slit the throat of a passerby.
If you look at pictures of these riots, there are bodies piled, you know, up to the second story of buildings. And in places, people said they had to use a respirator just to go to the morgue because the stench was so terrible. It was really - you know, once it got out of control, it devolved very, very quickly. And I think even afterwards, the people who had taken part in it were stunned by what had taken place.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nisid Hajari, who's the author of the new book "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy Of India's Partition." Let's to take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nisid Hajari, who's the author of the new book "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy Of India's Partition." And India was partitioned to India and Pakistan in 1947. And the tension and animosity dating back to those days still exists and explains a lot of what's happening in that region now. And Nisid Hajari is with Bloomberg View, where he oversees Asia coverage. He's based in Singapore now. Although Gandhi represented nonviolence, you write that he may have done the most damage at what is normally considered to be his moment of triumph, the waning months of British rule. And you write about how he, during a subsequent period of rioting, accepted what were actually exaggerated claims of violence to be the truth and that that led to more violence. Would you describe what happened?
HAJARI: Yeah. So what happened was, you know, these Calcutta riots took place in August of 1946. And a couple months later, in October, sketchy reports came out of a different part of Bengal Province - a very remote area called Noakhali - and the report suggested that there were huge Muslim mobs roaming across this countryside and massacring the Hindu minority in the area and raping women, forcing people to convert to Islam and so forth. You know, again, this is very remote. Most of this was rumor. It was mostly exaggerated.
But figures within the Congress Party that Gandhi still sort of unofficially led exaggerated these reports and there was talk of, you know, 3 million dead and tens of thousands of Hindu women ravished and so forth. Gandhi, who was in Delhi at the time, you know, very clearly told his followers that - you know, non-not to engage in violence, not to engage in revenge, but he didn't question these reports. He sort of accepted them. And his advice, actually, to the Hindus of Noakhali was to let themselves be killed, and in particularly for the women, he suggested that they commit suicide, that they drink poison rather than allow themselves to be raped.
And this - you know, it's similar to advice he gave to the Jews during World War II, you know, not to fight back, to sort of shame their oppressors by the courage of just standing up and allowing themselves to be killed. But, you know, this translated at ground level into something very different. It inflamed passions among Hindus in the area. And in the province next-door, a province called Bihar, politicians decided to call a day of remembrance for the victims of Noakhali at the end of October, and they gave inflammatory speeches there, and there was talk of revenge and blood for blood. And what happened there was that huge mobs did form in the countryside. And these were Hindu mobs who outnumbered the Muslims, I think about 7 to 1 in the area. And over the next couple weeks, they went through and massacred something like 7,000 Muslims in this province. And, you know, it's hard to hold Gandhi personally responsible for this, but I think he was typical in that the leaders in the national capital - in Delhi, didn't always understand the impact of their words on, you know, peasants in the countryside in a place like Bihar. You know, people just got the impression that Muslims were out there rampaging and killing their brethren, their coreligionists.
GROSS: Did these pogroms, these mass killings and revenge killings basically eliminate the hope of compromise between the Muslims and the Hindus in the Indian Congress?
HAJARI: Not within the Congress per se, but within the country, it made it very difficult. So there was a chain reaction of riots starting in August 1946, exactly one year before independence. Then there was these Noakhali incidents and then these riots in Bihar. And then a few months later in March of 1947, the violence spread to the West to a province called Punjab, which was an especially volatile province because even though Muslims were a majority there, they were a very slight majority. There was a big Hindu community and a big Sikh community. And it was also a very martial province. It had sent a quite a few people to serve in the Indian army, so there were people that were - had military training and had weapons and so forth. And there were riots in March of '47. These riots were in retaliation for the riots in Bihar, so they were Muslims leading the pogroms. And they were directed against the Sikhs, so as these things spread, the feelings between the communities grew more and more bitter. Even, you know, the politicians at the local level would be sort of acting as a demagogues and inspiring these mobs - you know, it wasn't - it wouldn't have been impossible perhaps to still find some political solution at the national level and then hope that with good law enforcement and time that tempers would cool. But it made it extremely, extremely difficult because people were hearing just crazy stories about the sorts of atrocities that were being committed. And what they learned from that was that they could not trust the other community - that if they were a minority in a particular area, they would never be safe.
GROSS: The Sikhs started to clamor for their own homeland since they were a minority even smaller than the Muslim minority. And they were afraid of being divided between the Muslim state and the Hindu state. And in fact, there were riots pertaining to that, where Sikhs wanted to make sure that they were - that their own communities weren't divided in half when the country was partitioned.
HAJARI: Right, exactly. The Sikhs really were the accelerant to the riots in August 1947, which is - when people talk about partition, this is what they're talking about. These are the massive riots that broke out around the time that the British withdrew from India and in which, you know, anywhere from 200,000 to a million people were killed. And the reason they broke out in the Punjab, which is where the new border ran, was because the border split the province in two. And the Sikhs were a small community - about 6 million nationally, but 5 million of them lived in the Punjab - they were split almost in half by this border because they were concentrated in the center of the province and their holy sites and their farms and so on were in this border area.
And they - as you say, because they were such a small community, were particularly fearful of being a minority and there had historic had tensions with Muslims. They, you know, had felt oppressed under Mogul rulers before the British. Then they had taken over the area themselves and ruled for a while and had, you know, allegedly oppressed the Muslim community in the province at that time. So there were, you know, stories about what would happen to them under Muslim rule. There was, you know, a lot of bad blood. And at independence, all sides - as independence was approaching, all sides were forming militias which they claimed were for self-defense. The Sikhs, because so many of them had served in the army, were the best trained and the best armed and the best organized of these militias. And therefore, the rampages that they engaged in were more effective and bloodier and more damaging.
GROSS: My guest is Nisid Hajari, author of the new book "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy Of India's Partition." After a short break, we'll talk about that legacy, including the tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nisid Hajari, author of the new book, "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition." When India's British colonial rulers pulled out, Muslim leaders in India succeeded in breaking away and forming the new state of Pakistan. It ignited religious and ethnic divisions, leading to massacres on both sides of the border. Hajari's book is about the history of Partition and how it explains the continuing tensions between India and Pakistan, and between Pakistan and the U.S. Hajari oversees Asia coverage for Bloomberg View and is former foreign editor and managing editor of Newsweek. So, when Jinnah, the leader of the Muslims in the Indian Congress, was pushing for Partition, the British offered some kind of compromise. What was that compromise?
HAJARI: It was a extremely complicated constitutional compromise that involved a three-part structure. You would have a national government that was fairly weak - it would control defense, foreign affairs and communications, but not much else. Most of the powers would rest with the individual provinces, sort of the equivalent of American states, and then, to satisfy Jinnah's demands, there was a sort of in-between level, whereby the groups of Muslim majority provinces in the Northwest and the Northeast, if they chose to, could form sort of an intermediary government that would have certain powers that the provinces would give to it. And this would be a sort of ersatz Pakistan, so the country would be united, it would have one army, it would have one foreign policy, but Muslims in these areas would have a great deal of autonomy. And it almost worked - Jinnah did accept it at one point.
GROSS: But it didn't work. Jinnah was really worried that if Pakistan did become a separate state, that it would be weak, that it wouldn't have enough resources, it wouldn't have enough power, it wouldn't have a big enough military and that India could easily overpower Pakistan. So, when the final agreement to Partition was reached, did Jinnah feel confident that he had a state that could survive?
HAJARI: He acted confident. It's interesting. It's very hard to read exactly what Jinnah's motivations were because he didn't leave behind very revealing letters, he didn't keep a diary - his papers are all very formal and legalistic. So, you know, it seems like he was demanding a bigger Pakistan - he wanted to include the whole province of Punjab and the whole province of Bengal - up until the very last minute. But this may have just been a bargaining position because once it became clear that he was not going to get that, he accepted very quickly what, you know, the size of the Pakistan that he was going to get, and very confidently said that it would be able to survive and it would have the army that it needed and that it would be fine. And if relations between this new Pakistan and the new India had been friendly, that could've well have been true, you know, these two countries could've shared trade and economic relations, they could've had a common foreign policy - they had more in common with each other than any other two countries in the world at that point in time.
GROSS: The boundary between Pakistan and India was never really fully resolved. There's still tension over that. Two wars were fought over that. How did that happen?
HAJARI: This is the boundary in Kashmir that you're referring to?
HAJARI: So, one thing that happened in the Partition - one thing people - a lot of people don't realize - is that only about half of the subcontinent under the British was controlled directly by the British. The other half were kingdoms that were - ostensibly had independent rulers, who had established treaties with the British. And at independence, they were supposed to decide which country they wanted to join - India or Pakistan. And Kashmir, which is up in the Himalayas, so in the northern part of the subcontinent, had a Hindu ruler, but his population was 85 percent Muslim. So both sides believed that it should belong to them. Jinnah assumed that it would naturally become part of Pakistan. Nehru wanted it as part of India. His family was originally from Kashmir. And in order to encourage, I guess you would say, the Maharajah to not join India, some Pakistani officials started a covert plan to get tribesmen from the North-West Frontier to invade Kashmir, and try and drum up a local insurgency that would overthrow the Maharajah and then bring the state into the fold in Pakistan. And that's what started the conflict there between the two sides.
GROSS: And is it still contested in Kashmir?
HAJARI: It is. I mean, if you were a magazine or newspaper, you'd try and show a map of Kashmir that doesn't show all of Kashmir as part of India that, you know, Indian censors will block it out, and, of course, Pakistan claims all of the state, as well. I mean, the problem was that after this invasion took place, the Indians sent troops to repel the invaders and were able to control part of the state but not all of it, and, so, the dividing line right now is about where the two sides ended up in a stalemate in 1948. But, there was supposed to be a vote - a referendum of the people of Kashmir - to ask them which state they wanted to join - India or Pakistan - and that never took place, and that is the sort of bone of contention now, that people have supposedly never been given the right to decide which country they would like to belong to.
GROSS: Here's a question that might sound stupid, but why do India and Pakistan care so much about having Kashmir as part of their state?
HAJARI: It's a matter of - almost pride at this point. I mean, you can make the point that there are, you know, military advantages to controlling the high ground in various areas and so forth, but at this point - well, even at that point in 1947 Kashmir was, as I said, a majority Muslim state. It was very important to Nehru that India be a secular, multiethnic, multi-faith nation...
GROSS: And Nehru became the first prime minister.
HAJARI: Exactly. Exactly. Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minster of India and he was a Hindu, but very secular, and his family was originally from the Kashmir. And the idea that a Muslim-majority state, like Kashmir, would voluntarily choose to join India was very important to him. It would validate his idea of how the various communities of the subcontinent could and should live together. For Pakistan's leaders, on the other hand, the idea was that any Muslim-majority area would naturally belong to Pakistan, that the people of the state would have their rights better protected with a Muslim government. So they have always felt that the state was stolen from them.
GROSS: We're talking about the Partition of India into India and Pakistan with Nisid Hajari, who's the author of the new book "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India's Partition." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nisid Hajari. He's the author of the new book "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy Of India's Partition." And it's about the events leading up to the 1947 partition of India, leading to the creation of two countries - India and Pakistan.
So as you write in the book, a lot of the tensions between India and Pakistan today and a lot of the tensions between America and Pakistan today relate to the partition of India into India and Pakistan. So let's use as an example Pakistan's support of the Afghanistan Taliban. That has led to a lot of trouble in Afghanistan. That has led to an increase in terrorism around that whole region. That has soured relations - that and many other things have soured relations between the U.S. and Pakistan. How does the partition of India and Pakistan relate to Pakistan's support of the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s?
HAJARI: So the Pakistani support for the Taliban had to do with their desire to have an influence in Kabul and to block Indian influence in Afghanistan. Pakistani strategists had this idea of strategic depth, that if they were engaged in a major conflict with India that they would be able to use Afghanistan as a sort of rearguard area to fall back to. And they have a fear of being encircled by Indians, and there's sort of always been rumors that the Indians were trying to gain influence with various Afghan governments and, you know, and that they had spies in Afghanistan and so on. And Afghanistan has never fully agreed to the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, so that creates more tensions. But this fear of Indian encirclement, that's what goes back to partition in 1947. The seeds of that rivalry were planted in these weeks and months of violence and bloodshed, you know, back when both countries were still being born. And they were exacerbated over the years by further conflicts and by various military dictators and politicians and so forth. But the basic pattern was set very quickly. As the smaller, weaker country, this sort of asymmetric strategy of using surrogates to do your fighting for you seems appealing, but it has, you know, very destructive repercussions.
GROSS: Well, the surrogates were largely extremist groups, Islamist extremist groups.
HAJARI: Exactly because to take Kashmir as an example, again, from the very beginning, the struggle there was pitched as almost as a sort of jihad. It was - the idea was to defend the Muslims of Kashmir against their oppressive Hindu king and his allies in the Indian government. And it was a way to rally support and to get volunteers to go fight there. And so the conflict has always been cast in religious terms, even though it's really more of a territorial issue.
GROSS: And that's starting to backfire on Pakistan now, isn't it?
HAJARI: Exactly. And they're starting to realize this now because all these various militant groups - you've got the Afghan Taliban, you've got groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, which conducted the 2008 attacks in Mumbai - who have all received some degree of official favor. And then you've got other groups - the Pakistani Taliban -who are fighting the government. And there's no clean division between the two. I mean, these groups are mixed up. They share logistical operations and training and so forth. And this distinction between good Taliban and bad Taliban that the Pakistanis have tried to maintain for decades now is starting to fall apart. And they're starting to realize that all militant groups are responsible for creating instability within Pakistan itself.
GROSS: And enabling these extremist terrorist groups has also really hurt the United States's relationship with Pakistan, even though we armed Pakistan against the Soviets in the '80s. So just - can you discuss a little bit how the U.S. relationship with Pakistan has been undermined by the aftermath of the partition?
HAJARI: It's - you know, it's interesting, Pakistan always knew - even Jinnah, you know, the first leader of Pakistan, knew that in order for it to survive and for it to compete against India, it would need strong friends. And so he tried back then to pitch Pakistan as an ally of the U.S. in the Cold War against the Soviets, which was just then getting under way. And at the time, the Americans favored India and didn't really respond. But, you know, not that long afterwards - and, you know, by the 1950s, when there was more of a fear of Soviet influence spreading within Asia, this appeal worked. And the Pakistanis have ever since then always used this idea, whether the enemy is - was the Soviets, which, you know, was true up through the Afghanistan war in the '80s, or since then - whether it's the al-Qaida and other militant groups in the area, the idea has always been that you must support us, you must arm our military and we will do your fighting for you here and prevent these threats from reaching you in the homeland. So it's an appealing argument to some, but the Pakistanis have always known - or always considered India to be their main threat. And a lot of the weaponry and so forth that they have procured from the Americans has been designed to counter India as a rival.
GROSS: And one of the reasons why Pakistan hasn't been exactly the partner that the U.S. has hoped for is that a lot of Pakistan's troops are on the border with India because it perceives India as the major threat, not Islamist terrorism.
HAJARI: Yes, exactly. That's starting to change now. They - you know, Pakistani troops have launched an assault on militant strongholds on the other side of the country. And they're now saying that they understand that India's not their main threat, that these militant groups are. It remains to be seen whether that will really be true and how long it will hold for, but it's possible. I mean, I think the Pakistanis now have a friendlier government in Kabul that they seem to trust more. And they're being pressured by China as well to get a grip on this militant problem because the Chinese themselves are worried about violence spreading out of Pakistan and Afghanistan into western areas in China. So this dynamic may be changing for the better, but it's still pretty early to tell.
GROSS: Well, Nisid Hajari, thank you very much for talking with us.
HAJARI: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Nisid Hajari is the author of the new book, "Midnight's Furies: The Deadly Legacy Of India's Partition." Today marks the hundredth anniversary of Les Paul's birth. He was a guitarist who also invented the solid-body electric guitar, overdubbing and reverb. Coming up, we listen to an excerpt of our 1992 interview. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Les Paul was born 100 years ago today. He spent his life playing guitar, inventing guitars to play, and inventing devices to record himself on. He invented the solid-body electric guitar, overdubbing, reverb and multi-tracking, inventions that helped make rock 'n' roll possible. As a musician, he usually stuck to jazz and middle-of-the-road pop. In the 1950s, he had several hits with his wife, Mary Ford, including âHow High The Moon,â âVaya Con Dios,â and âBye Bye Blues.â Les Paul died in 2009 at the age of 94. Weâre going to hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded with him in 1992. He was still performing and was living in New Jersey in his home that had four recording studios. He used one of them to talk with me. We began with his 1948 recording of âLoverâ recorded in his garage. He describes it as the first recording that combined all his inventions and recording techniques into one bag of tricks.
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GROSS: Les Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. So is that you playing all the parts?
LES PAUL: Yes.
GROSS: Was this the first record that you over-dubbed on?
PAUL: Oh, no. No, I started it in 1933. I started it in the '20s by punching holes in my mother's piano rolls, but I did it because the rhythm guitar player and bass player would go home, and I'd say darn it, I wanted to have them play "Lime House Blues,â and I'd say, well, as long as they're not here, what I'll do is I'll play the bass, and I'll play the guitar, and, you know, do that, but I never recognized that that could be such a tremendous tool.
GROSS: What was different on this recording of "Lover" from anything that you'd ever done before?
PAUL: Well, the sped-up sound, the echo, playing the bass line, making a guitar sound like a bass. This is the first time in history that anybody had ever done anything like that. And then to speed the guitar up and slow the guitar down, and you get all these different sounds by muffling your strings with your wrist, and these were all new things to be exposed to the world. And of course, I had my problems because so many people weren't ready to accept it.
GROSS: So on "Lover," the high, fast, trebly sounds that we hear, that's a sped-up guitar?
PAUL: Uh-huh, along with the normal guitar. The whole idea there is to be able to get octaves and to go an octave below and an octave above and to do all the harmony parts and everything, you know? And that was not the very first record I ever made that way, but, like I say, it was the first - that was the first one to come out. And that came out about a week after I had an automobile accident, where, for two years, I was to be in the hospital just in a basket (laughter). Everything, everything I had was broken, and I was in bad shape for about two years. So I had a lot of time to think, and I unfortunately didn't have that many records in the can, so to speak. What I had are records that were completely done except for the last part, which was the melody. And the reason I left that melody off is I figured that every week that went by, I got better. And if I got better, why, I had newer ideas. And so I'd leave that last part off. And after the automobile accident, I had to do the next recordings in a cast, a body cast. And so with one arm fixed right up even with my face, the only thing I could move with my right hand was my thumb. So I put a thumb pick on that, laid the guitar, and I had a rack built to hold the guitar horizontal, and it laid there flat. And I just stood up and played my part, and that's how I made the parts for the next four or five records.
GROSS: This might be the dictionary definition of obsessive.
PAUL: Boy, I'm telling you, you learn in a hurry to live with the obstacles, and they can be overcome.
GROSS: Now, let me get to one of the hits that you had. Let's talk about "How High The Moon," which you recorded with Mary Ford, one of your big hits.
PAUL: Thank you.
GROSS: Let's hear some of it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, âHOW HIGH THE MOONâ)
MARY FORD: (Singing) Somewhere there's music, how faint the tune. Somewhere there's heaven, how high the moon. There is no moon above when love is far away, too, till it comes true that you love me as I love you. Somewhere there's music, how near, how far. Somewhere there's heaven. It's where you are. The darkest night would shine if you would come to me soon. Until you will, still my heart, how high the moon?
GROSS: How would you record Mary's voice to get that echo?
PAUL: Well, that was something that I spent two years trying to find out, find - I didn't want reverb like an empty room. I didn't want Carnegie Hall. I didn't want that sound. I said to my friend, very dear friend, he and his girlfriend - Mary was my girlfriend - and myself, and a fellow named Wally Jones. We were all sitting in a little tavern at Santa Monica and Western out in Hollywood. And Lloyd was arm-wrestling with me, and we had a pitcher of beer and some popcorn, and we're watching the fights on Friday night. And he pulled my arm down real easy, and he says, Les, you're not concentrating. You're usually pretty rough to bring that arm down on. And I said, well, I'm thinking of that echo, and I said, I haven't figured that delay out yet, like, I havenât figure it out. And he says, well, you're still worried about that thing? And I says, yeah, I need it. I need it, and I don't know how to get it. And he says, well, explain it to me again. And so this night, Lloyd, I explain it to Lloyd again. I says, picture that you're on the Alps. I say hello, hello, hello, hello. And I said, I want it to repeat, and I want it to repeat, and I want the delay and the decay, I want to be able to vary it. And lo and behold, he says to me, you mean like putting the playback head (laughter) behind the record head? Oh, boy, I threw $10 down on the table. I said to Wally, pay the bill and bring the girls, you know? And we left him with a $10 bill and the girls and the beer and the popcorn and the TV. We're gone. And by the time they got home, you could hear all over the neighborhood - hello, hello, hello, hello, you know?
PAUL: And we'd found the echo, the disc delay.
GROSS: You know what I want to know? Why did you want to have echo on her voice?
PAUL: Oh, that's interesting because the - I felt as though when you play the note dry, just dead, it just drops like a rock, and it ends right there, and a lot of times you'd like to have that note hang on after you've left it and go to the next note. So you have command over what you wish to do. And, in this case, I didn't want that note to say, hey, and just go on, like Carnegie Hall. I wanted to go, hey, hey.
PAUL: See? And now, if you want, you put a little tail on it. You go hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. You know?
PAUL: And, you know, it gives you such command of so many things, the toys to work with. Today, they're not - I call them toys because the kids, they have all these little boxes that you can go in and buy in the store. When I was a kid and I visualized this thing, the reason I had to invent it is because you couldn't buy it in a store. If I wanted it, I had to make one.
GROSS: Les Paul, recorded in 1992. He was born 100 years ago today. He died in August 2009. Tomorrow on FRESH AIRâ¦
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, âINSIDE OUTâ)
AMY POEHLER: (As Joy) Do you ever look at someone and wonder, what is going on inside their head?
GROSS: The new Disney Pixar animated film, âInside Outâ is all about what goes on in a childâs brain when itâs controlled by joy, fear, disgust, anger and sadness. Each of those emotions are voiced by a different actor. Amy Poehler is the voice of joy. Iâll talk with Pete Docter, who directed âInside Out,â as well as âMonsters, Inc.â and âUp.â Join us tomorrow.
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