The renowned Indian economist Amartya Sen probably isn’t used to hearing his writing described as ‘the logic of the clever school boy’ but, in
"http://www.amazon.co.uk/India-Portrait-Patrick-French/dp/1846142148">India:A Portrait, this is Patrick French’s response to academic notions that don’t ring true. In his
new book about the evolution of India since Independence, French amalgamates history, biography and reportage to create a dynamic and immediate commentary. He has no interest in applying scholarly
statements to the state of modern India; his method is all about deducing information from the experiences he himself has had.
‘I don’t find theoretical writing very appealing’, said Patrick French during a conversation I had with him about his new book. ‘There are large intellectual, political and
moral questions in India: a Portrait, but I’ve looked at these through personal stories.’ This is true throughout the book, from the unexpected rise of female politicians like Sonia
Gandhi and Mayawati, to the tragic death of a middle-class girl whose life looked full of promise; from the double life of a Hindu pimp to the neglected nightmare of an imprisoned dalit quarry
worker. Each of these people has a story that exemplifies an aspect of India’s intriguing and contradictory culture; yet French’s background as a biographer shines through in his
observation of human quirks and habits. His attention to minutiae stretches to detailing Rajiv Gandhi’s part-time job in the bakery section of the Co-Op, whilst a student at Cambridge
University. It is fleeting and light-hearted references like this that bring you into close proximity with the people who populate the book.
But French’s real strength lies in the transformation of these single portraits into the narrative of a nation. The author’s writing style is enormously agile; continually changing
perspective and stepping back and forth through time. I started reading the book just as I found out that I could interview him at lunch time the next day. Instead of my usual leisurely pace, I had
to rush through the pages in one sitting. I admitted this to the author during our interview, expecting a disapproving response. On the contrary: ‘it was conceived as something to be
taken in a gulp’, he said. This doesn’t entirely surprise me. The first chapter is entitled ‘Accelerated History’, which aptly describes the book on a number of levels.
French relates the history of the last half century through the perspective of today’s world: the formation of Pakistan is drawn into the present tense through discussion of the
‘Af-Pak’ problem. The pace of the book is lifted still more by the swift changes in focus: French will cross from a memory of the election campaign in Kanpur in 2009 to a long view of
the 1857 mutiny in the same North Indian city. On another occasion, he moves fluently between a discussion of Keynes’ economic theories (embellished by details of his subversive
lifestyle), to the downward spiral of India’s economy under Nehru and his Congress Party successors. Yet, despite his flexible handling of chronology, the book is given clear structure
by three key headings: Part One: Rashtra (Nation); Part Two: Lakshmi (Wealth); and Part Three: Samaj (Society).
India: A Portrait is about the current and future state of a nation as much as it is about 20th century history. French adopts the stance of a journalist, ferreting out information through his own
investigations. The question of caste in Indian Society is first treated historically (through the frame of the life and writings of Dr Ambedkar) but then considered in genetic terms: French visits
the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi, where a team of scientists is working on a map of the genetic make-up of each and every community across India. French is given the
opportunity to ask the all-important question: does caste have a genetic foundation? Professor Samir Brahmachari, a biophysicist, says no.
Despite the caste structure, democratic elections are a powerful force in Indian society. The idea of a general election in a country of around 714 million potential voters is enough to make the
mind boggle but the results – so French told me – are provided very efficiently online. This is an extraordinary feat and one that French describes in all its frenzied logistical
complexity: a total of 2 million steel ballot boxes were manufactured for the first election in 1952; no fewer than 41 candidates stood for the Chandni Chowk constituency in 2009; and voting had to
be organised in five phases over several successive weeks.
Most startling to French, however, is the dynastic nature of India’s major political parties, above all the Congress Party. Thanks to the meticulous calculations of a young statistician
named Megha, French is able to show that 37.5 per cent of the Congress Party elected in 2009 reached their positions through family connections; and even more surprisingly, that this percentage
rose to 100 amongst MPs younger than 30. French has put this data on his new website (www.theindiasite.com) which, he told me, is receiving overwhelming attention from all around the world.
When the next general election comes round, he plans to repeat the same data-gathering process and make a comparison.
In the first chapter of the book, French inadvertently poses an analogy between Nehru in 1947, faced with the task of unifying a newly independent nation, and the role of a writer who attempts to
depict its history up to the present time: ‘Were the ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru and the founders too ambitious?’, French asks. You might very well turn this question on the author
himself and suggest that a portrait of 1.2 billion people (as promised on the cover of the book) is not a feasible target. However, in this case you’d be wrong: Patrick French goes
about his work with a light touch, a wry sense of humour and a deep compassion for the people and country which form his subject. The result is both richly informative and highly