Wednesday, January 19, 2011

India, A Portrait by Patrick French: A review and an interview

By John Cheeran
Historian Ramachandra Guha the other day in Bangalore described Patrick French as the Gundappa Vishwanath among historian-biographers. Guha explained—Vishwanath scored a century on his Test debut. And unlike many other Indian batsmen who had begun in such a fashion but never scored a century again – Abbas Ali Baig, AG Kirpal Singh, Hanumanth Singh, Deepakh Sodhan, etc -- Vishy went on to score 13 more Test centuries.
(What Guha didn’t tell his Bangalore audience and French was that Vishwanath scored 0 in his first Test innings!)
French, too, had an impressive debut in 1994 with the biography of Younghusband-The Last Great Imperial Adventurer.
India: A Portrait is French’s fifth book and Guha considers all of French’s work worth a ton each.
French has written a very engaging account of contemporary India but to call India, A Portrait an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people is stretching ambition a bit too far.
In recent times there have been many takers for the India story. In Spite of The Gods by FT journalist Edward Luce was an early forerunner. Ramachandra Guha in his India After Gandhi, however, balances his optimism about India with the remark that “India is a 50-50 democracy.”
Only Fareed Zakaria, editor-at large at Time magazine, in recent times has cautioned that India has a Nigeria within its boundaries and advocated caution and correction to redress the fault lines.
French is in love with India and, may be, the fact that he is married to an Indian woman plays a role. The wonderful thing about India that is Bharat is that you can build any narrative – ranging from bleak to cheery -- about India since the country carries within many divergent and contradictory worlds.
French neatly divides his portrait of India into three sections --- Rashtra, Lakshmi and Samaj – and goes about meeting people and retelling stories to paint his picture. He has a great way of telling a story and his wry observations about the country such as the acronym of the now defunct Congress splinter group in Kerala, Democratic Indian Congress (Karunakaran) – DIC(K)-- makes you keep on reading. Somewhere, he describes Mahatma Gandhi as an anaconda. And he is struck by the fact that Sonia Gandhi and Indian Constituent Assembly has the same birthday and Christopher Lee, who earlier had played Dracula, played Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the film Jinnah.

But what’s essentially new in French’s India?
For those who are familiar with the India story in recent times, there are few fresh insights. To a large extent the book rests on the research French done to uncover the background of the 545 members of Lok Sabha. French shows that heredity plays a significant role in determining your chances to contest and win elections in India.
It’s nothing new. All of us knew that. It’s no big deal anymore and that’s why the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly admitted that if not for his father, grandmother and great grandfather he would not have been in the current political role. But French is not too critical about the role hereditary MPs (HMPs) are playing.
In an interview with this writer French says nepotism in democracy is not surprising. “Already there is backlash against nepotism in many parties, including the Congress. Reform in the Youth Congress is driven by Rahul Gandhi. If that goes well, there would be a rapid decline in nepotism,” says French.
French is so besotted with the India that he has seen from a vantage point that he ends up saying that the integration among communities in India is much better than the multiculturalism practised by Britain. French says, in Britain, multiculturalism has resulted in immigrant community ghettoes, rather than integration. He says London has more purdha-clad women than many parts of India. “No woman wears burqa in Bangalore,” says French looking at the small gathering of men and women that has assembled for the launch of India Portrait, in Park Hotel in Bangalore.
Ah, I can only say that French has not seen enough of India.
As could happen with a book of this nature, most of the stories that French talks about have been already published and discussed. A classic case in point is the story of Venkatesh the enchained quarry man in Mysore. It is quite amusing that the reporter who initially wrote the story accompanies French for a retelling of it. It is apt that French ends his book with the chapter titled it can happen only in India.
French, however, uses the story of Venkatesh to point out what he considers as the most striking feature of his India portrait—a particular kind of inhumanity.
French says this form of inhumanity is something specific to India. “It’s a kind of indifference just taken for granted and accepted,” says French. This indifference, French adds, may have roots in caste system. “In India you find impeccably clean shops, outside of it you will also find heaps of filth. This, again, is particular to India.”
In India A Portrait, French has played the dual role of historian and biographer deftly. Says French: “I’m curious about people. My focus is always on individuals but not in a judgmental way. I always give the individual a hearing. Obscure, little detail can tell you much.”
French, who has written the authorised biography of VS Naipaul, The World Is What It is, said Naipaul was quite a handful to deal with, with his roots and links to Trinidad, Britain and India.
And as a biographer which Indian interests you most?
“BR Ambedkar. He was an Indian hero, not just a Dalit hero. Personally, too, he had an interesting life, with two marriages and the second one to a Brahmin,” says French.
Here, one cannot miss the French connection.

India: A Portrait has been published by Penguin India

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