joker123 Review of ‘India: A Portrait’ by Patrick French (Sunday Telegraph Jan 2011) » Jonathan Foreman
Back to previous page
Share |

It is no small undertaking to attempt a ‘portrait’ of contemporary India in all its dazzling complexity. Still more a book that is simultaneously ‘an intimate biography’ of its vast population. To achieve either of these grand, not easily combined tasks in a single readable volume would require an author to provide representative accounts of the almost infinite variety of peoples who happen to live in the lands inherited or annexed by today’s Indian state.

As if it were not enough that India’s peoples are radically divided by whether they live in mountains, deserts, plains or jungles, cities or villages, and by religion, language, politics, economics, history and caste, this is a society in which different people living in the same geographical spot inhabit different eras. You can stand on a Delhi street corner, choked by dust, pollution and the smoke from innumerable little fires, and beyond the crush of traffic see fearful astonishment in the eyes of ragged men just arrived from villages where agriculture is still in the era of the wooden plough.

If you were looking for an author to take on the challenge of depicting such a fascinating, simultaneously dynamic and static society at such a moment, the name of Patrick French would be near the top of the list. French is the author of a superb biography of the soldier-explorer Francis Younghusband, a less successful history of the Indian independence movement that read as if it were rushed out in time for the 50th anniversary of Partition, a marvellously clear-eyed book on Tibet, and the rightly celebrated and controversial official biography of Sir VS Naipaul.

So it is all the more of a surprise and a disappointment that French’s India: A Portrait should turn out to be a disjointed, incoherently structured, sloppy and unsatisfying book that bears the hallmarks of another rush job.

Some of this may be laid at the door of the publishers. There is little sign that the book has been edited beyond a quick spellcheck. Two thirds of the book is mysteriously and awkwardly in the past tense even though it concerns the present. No one has noticed non-sequitur sentences that belong in other paragraphs and which make no sense where they are. Basic facts of Indian history and life are laboriously spelt out in early chapters while in others the author assumes that readers know the meanings of Hindi words such as sannyasi (someone who has renounced worldly things) and be acquainted with the workings of Indian ‘vote banks’.

The book seems to have been jerry-built around articles that French has written over the years, combined with a dozen or so interviews carried out in 2009. For instance, a quick internet search shows that a moving section about the retarded Kashmiri mental patient who unfairly became known around the world as ‘Islamic rage boy’, turns out to be a version of an article that French wrote for the Daily Mail in 2007. This is hardly a crime, but it is surely better to be open about the book’s real provenance than to assert comprehensiveness and then fall short.

Some parts of the book, not least a powerful section on Dr Ambedkar, the heroic leader of India’s Untouchables, are fascinating but frustratingly undeveloped. In contrast a section recounting the story of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is overlong and also weirdly adulatory. It jars with other parts of the book where French is clearly well aware of the dynasty’s role in keeping India poor and in institutionalising corruption over half a century.

Careless use of language opens French to charges of poor historical judgment: Queen Victoria did not object to the proposed execution of 50,000 Indian mutineers because it was ‘impractical’ but because it was immoral. Nor did the C I A ‘allow’ small arms from the Afghan war against the USSR to go to Kashmir: it had no choice in the matter. He also plays down episodes such as India’s Sri Lanka intervention and the death squad pacification of the Punjab and leaves out altogether the United States’s role in the Sixties of saving India from starvation.

In the closing chapters French seems at last to find his stride. He eviscerates the history books crammed with nationalist distortions that were until recently forced on every state-educated Indian child. With equal bravery he condemns the Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen for using ‘the logic of the clever schoolboy’, to play down the importance of Hinduism in Indian culture.

French has a profound understanding of Indian politics, especially the way it has become something of a hereditary business. Moreover, in contrast to many foreign journalists writing about India, he eschews simplistic condemnation of the BJP as a ‘fundamentalist’, even fascist, party.

There is no question as to Patrick French’s brilliance, his capacity for research and his sympathetic imagination. The inadequacies of this book are all the more frustrating because there are so many passages, and whole chapters, that reveal what it could and should have been. India: A Portrait does him a disservice.

Back to Top

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Back to previous page
Share |