Thursday, April 28, 2011

Patrick French's India

Pic sourced from the internet

At best, I am very unusually skeptical of books that promise to unravel why India and Indians are the way they are. I am wary of their authors and tend to, however mistakenly, dismiss them as ‘intellectuals’ (not a very favourable word to be described in these days) who set out to write over-priced books to show off that they have read many other similar books by similar authors. If the writer is Western, I wonder whether there are too many Western stereotypes in those pages, instantly berating them for the slightest criticism.
There are books that you are supposed to have read if what you say is to be heard at a party. But honestly, I found Friedman’s The World is Flat terribly boring and haven’t yet finished it. It is not likely I ever will, no matter how fashionable it is to say you have. The attempts to box India into a thick book has never ceased to be a tad too boring for me, though I am willing to accept that such sentiments could well be totally unfounded.
So it was with a little trepidation that I asked the library-wala to bring me Patrick French’s new book India: A Portrait. The jacket claims the book to be an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people; I almost said uh-ho. I have now read through the introduction and the first chapter and I am bloody impressed! I am willing to take all that I said about such books back, at least as far as French is concerned, who I knew till now only as one of the better looking writers.
India, the book, is divided into sections on the nation, on the wealth/economy and into society. It is about India after independence and deals with questions on why a staunch socialist country turned aggressively capitalist, and such like. The years after 1947 were long droning chapters in my history textbooks and I vaguely remember all the names and a rough outline of how everything happened.
But reading India has been like a fresh breath of air. There are no boring passages, no long sentences written to show how well-read he is or how many tall words he knows. French has talked to celeb historians, politicians, scions of political families and also the man on the street and written history from the latter’s point of view. There is a story of one Sikh man who was witness to the beheading of each of his female relatives during Partition,by his own father, to prevent them from being caught, raped and dishonoured when the family tried escaping to India from the newly created Pakistan. I always assumed that India was meant to have been a democracy. But French talks of how there were few precedents for the newly independent country to follow and the Constitution makers had considered other models of government as well.
I liked the fact that French doesn’t judge the country, its people or its progress. That would be something I would have hated, even coming from an Indian writer. French loads the chapters with interesting trivia and there were pages where I couldn’t shake off a sense of wonderment at my country and its early struggles. For instance, after highlighting how the way Indians have lived hasn’t fundamentally changed over millennia, he writes of how the recipe for kulfi used by the wife of the emperor Jahangir, Noor Jehan, is the same as the recipe used today. “The mricchakatika, or little clay cart, is a common child’s toy, but Mricchakatika is also the title of a Sanskrit play dating back to 200 BCE, a play with Nehru was reading when he flew above the carnage of Punjab in 1947.” These are things which did not shape the story of India and if you didn’t know what Nehru was reading, you wouldn’t be any less the wiser. But such interesting lines make the book an almost racy read. If you can term a book on history and politics racy, I think that author has his job nailed.
Needless to say, I am turning a fan of French. I highly recommend the book.

Reading up on the book, I found this review by Pankaj Mishra in Outlook. It would be wrong to call it a review instead of more of a personal attack on French. I yawned and stopped reading three quarters of the way. French responded brilliantly here. Like one reader said in the comments section, Patrick French’s demolition of Pankaj Mishra’s bombastic rhetoric was brilliant, delivered in that most English of ways (though French is not an Englishman), hitting hard where it hurts but leaving no tell-tale sign of injury.

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