Author and Indophile Patrick French reveals that his newest book on India turned out to be more optimistic than he thought. In the city to kickstart a line-up of literary events with a debate based on his most recent launch, A Portrait Of India: An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People, the writer deconstructs his observation on a new India that’s earned him many bouquets and a few brickbats. From secularism to why Indian politicians should be paid more, French gets frank about the state of the nation.
Secularism is a uniquely Indian phenomenon: “There’s an assumption that this debate is going on in other countries as well, but it’s specifically Indian,” says the author. Ask if that stems from Hinduism not having a written code despite being the dominant religion in the country, and he says, “Yes, one of the problems that Hindu fundamentalists have had is trying to find codes or rules within Hindu texts to support their theories. That’s why you find the Hindu nationalist movement is less attractive to younger people than what it used to be in the 1990s.”
Politicians and judges should be paid more: According to French, the judiciary hasn’t been reformed, so almost one-third of senior judge positions remain unfilled. “They should be paid more. If you are a successful lawyer, why would you want to take a huge pay cut to be a judge?” he asks, adding, “Inevitably, that attracts people who are corrupt and looking for financial opportunities aside from the job. But it’s still one of the more respected institutions in the country, perhaps because the Supreme Court is going after politicians.”
Despite the diversity, there is one India: “There is an underlying ‘Indian-ness’ despite the variety of language, culture and appearance among the people of the country,” French says, adding, “You find residual elements of this ‘Indianess’ in Pakistan and Bangladesh too, though in Pakistan particularly, they don’t want to recognize their Indian heritage. There, history is rewritten to imply that everything about contemporary Pakistan emanated from Arabia, when clearly for generations, they were Indian.”
Indian women have more freedom than ever before: French says, “To take it outside India, 85 per cent of women of Bangladeshi origin living in the UK are economically inactive and dependent on their husbands. But if you look at women of Indian origin, I think there’s a higher level of economic activity than the white population. And that comes out of the political and social ideals prevalent in India itself.”