India: A Portrait by Patrick French

15/01/11, The Times

That Patrick French was going to write another book on India after his wonderful Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division 13 years ago could have been predicted by many. He opens his new book, India: A Portrait, announcing his long-held intention of writing ‘a sequel which looked at India in a new way, for what it was becoming rather than for what others wanted it to be.’ Acutely conscious of the clichés and stereotypes that have marred writing about India, he seeks to steer clear of them programmatically. A previous generation of writers, readers and travellers located in India the centre of gravity of exoticism (colour, spices, peacocks), spirituality and crushing poverty. That mindset still lingeringly colours the new, zeitgeist-friendly template for the country: ‘New India’ with its jaw-dropping wealth (69 billionaires in India now, up from 13 in 2004) and hyperconsumerist overdrive hiding seething and massive inequality beneath the surface. French acknowledges the Scylla and Charybdis on his itinerary and sails magnificently away from them.

The architecture of the book is instructive. It is divided into three sections, ‘Rashtra’ (Nation), ‘Lakshmi’ (Wealth) and ‘Samaj’ (Society), with each section getting four chapters. The first chapter and a half of each section compresses the history of India between independence, where Liberty and Death left off, and now to create the context for his essay on contemporary India that follows. These must have been fiendishly difficult to write and although I call them summaries, they are engaging in their immediacy, freshness and immense readability. So, for example, in ‘Rashtra’, we are given a quick yet careful and responsible tour of the country that Nehru and the Indian National Congress inherited after the British departed and, crucially, the kind of country Nehru’s socialist vision wanted India to become. It is the constantly unfolding drama of becoming that interests French and his book has at its heart this dynamics of change and reinvention. This degree of précis-making and synthesising power can only come from a deep knowledge of the political scene and, crucially, one that enables him to step back and take panoramic long-shots, showing us both the trees and the woods.

It is astounding how much he does manage to get in: the steady ossification of the Congress Party; the inexorable backward slide during the premiership of Indira Gandhi; the iron fetters of statism that kept the country down for decades; the corrupt and obstructive ‘permit raj’; the astrology-loving prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, who, perhaps unknown to himself, initiated India’s awakening from its long slumber by appointing two ministers who were to change the course of its history, Manmohan Singh, the quiet, gentle, incorruptible man who is the current Prime Minister, and P. Chidambaram, the current finance minister; Sonia Gandhi’s immense political acumen. His biggest and most shocking find in this section, however, is the hereditary nature of the political system in the world’s largest democracy. In a chapter entitled ‘Family Politics’, he analyses, using sophisticated statistical software, the 545 seats in the Lok Sabha, the elected chamber of the Indian Parliament, and extrapolates that the current state of affairs, where there are 36.8% hereditary MPs between the ages of 41-50 and 65% between 31-40 (for the Congress party, the respective percentages are 43.9 and 86.4), will only become worse as the older generation of MPs die and younger ones replace them. ‘Nepotism was written into the workings of democracy’, French concludes justifiably.

‘Lakshmi’ deals with the hopeless economic basket case that India turned into after independence and then, shocking everyone, its reversal and current rise and rise in the new century. Singh, who was first appointed as finance minister in 1991, was responsible for ushering in the era of economic liberalisation and dismantling the ‘licence raj’, getting the state off the back of free enterprise and bringing India to its present status of boasting annual growth between 8-10%. The stories French’s interviewees tell him of the ways they were hampered in their entrepreneurship projects before the economic reforms make for both harrowing and hilarious reading simultaneously. Sitting side-by-side are interviews, among others, of Sunil Mittal, owner of Bharti Airtel and worth $8 billion, and Venkatesh, a quarry worker in South India, who was shackled in fetters-and-chains for 21 months by his boss and used as a slave to break stones until the matter was noticed by some farming activists.

These human stories are what lift the book from any other book on the multitudes that India contains to the extraordinary; French has travelled the length and breadth of the country talking to an astonishing range of people. A random and short sample: a gay rent boy turned pimp in Delhi; the parents of a dentist couple who found their fourteen-year-old daughter murdered in her room (the case was declared closed last week because of lack of evidence); the widow and son of Indira Gandhi’s assassin; a BJP Big Cheese ‘who only became animated about one thing – the cow’; an entrepreneur, male, who runs a business making low-cost sanitary towels available to poor women in rural areas; a young woman who turned to armed Maoist activism when she was twelve and surrendered to the police seven years later; Mohammad Afzal, who stands accused of trying to blow up the Parliament in 2001, an issue which brought India and Pakistan close to war; the secretary of the ‘dabbawallas’, the men who deliver lunches in tiffin carriers in Mumbai; the man who came up with the probabilistic algorithm for packing a microchip most efficiently; an MP who is also a mafia don (all too common in India) serving time in prison … the list is as diverse as the country itself. In many instances, French will tell you the sub-caste of the interviewee if it has a bearing on the matter at hand. I do not know a single person from, say, West Bengal, who would be able even to read the caste-status of someone from Tamil Nadu, never mind parse it with such acuity and relevance.

While acknowledging and giving you harrowing pictures of the ways the country has not changed for centuries, he will also bring you face to face with the deep, undreamt of transformation that is shaking the country and making it such a labile, unignorable place. He never loses sight of the hysterical, operatic nature of much of Indian politics, and some of its crazy rococo variations, and treats them with exemplary dryness. It is, in a vital way, a very funny, witty book; also dense, gripping, thrilling, so intensely alive, so questioning of sclerotic received wisdom, so energetic with its own spadework. What blazes through from each page is his absolute, deep, open and utterly uncondescending engagement with India, Indians and its mind-boggling plurality of practices.