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Portrait of a nation by a young historian

jaipur Updated: Jan 21, 2011 16:53 IST
Aarefa Johari

Going by its title, Patrick French's new book India: A Portrait seems to aim for the impossible. To present a homogenous portrait of India in less than 400 pages would mean either glossing over its innumerable complexities and social contradictions, or leaving the picture incomplete.

French chooses a different route. His ‘portrait’ is more of a multi-hued mosaic - an ensemble of individual stories and personal narratives that bring out a range of different Indias - and the result is a book at once piercing and insightful.

"I was trying to span a huge, overwhelming subject in a way that would touch the hearts of everybody," says French, whose book was Patrick Frenchlaunched across the country this week. "You can make a larger historical narrative more reader-friendly by referring to individual stories that are microcosms of various aspects of India."

The award-winning writer and historian’s penchant for straight talk__that ruffled several feathers with Liberty or Death (1997), his account of India's Partition, and The World Is What It Is (2008), his reveal-all biography of author VS Naipaul__is evident in the chapter on the parents of Aarushi Talwar, whose murder in 2008 still remains a mystery. Rajesh Talwar, who the CBI suspects for killing his daughter, was French’s dentist in Delhi.

“It has been painful to watch the assassination of the character of two grieving parents who I believe with 100 per cent certainty are innocent,” said French, who claims the CBI has introduced “bogus information” to frame Talwar. “Institutions of the state, like the police, judiciary and CBI, do not always protect the rights of Indian citizens.”

Yet, for French, India remains “the most interesting country in the world”, a phrase he used even before marrying Meru Gokhale, daughter of Indian novelist Namita Gokhale.

“It's a great thing to be alive in India right now. Everything is up for grabs,” says French, alluding to the newfound possibilities for social change that opened up with the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s.

In his three-year yatra around the country, French came across underdogs such as Venkatesh, a bonded labourer in a quarry near Mysore, who were left behind by the economic reforms. But speaking with admiration of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the “canny and subtle technocrat” who brought about those reforms, he says, “In the 1970s, there was a sense of hopelessness that has now given way to hope and strong middle-class aspirations.” French cites the case of Dattu, the unlettered Adivasi who had the “good fortune” to become a cellar master at a Nashik winery.

So is rising up the Indian social ladder a game of chance and fate? “In India, fate does seem to determine a lot, but I feel the system is now growing increasingly meritocratic.”

This, of course, does not ring true in the Indian Parliament, as French’s chapter on ‘Family Politics’ attests. In a fascinating survey of the backgrounds of our current legislators, he discovered an “alarming trend of nepotism” where almost all MPs below the age of 40 are ‘hereditary’__children of politicians.

“However, there is quite likely to be a backlash against it,” says French, referring to the youngest heir of India’s first family. “Rahul Gandhi wants to change the internal mechanisms of the Congress, and if he succeeds in his idea of having open primaries for distribution of tickets to the Lok Sabha, it could lead to a democratic revolution in Indian politics.”

French remains buoyantly optimistic about India and Indians. The country’s cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, he believes, will take it places. “Indians tend to be more versatile and adaptable, and their alacrity in business is particularly applicable in this century.”

Patrick French will be in conversation with Amitava Kumar on Sunday, January 23 at 12 pm