India – A Portrait

There was a time when India attracted travelling scholars from all over the known world. Xuansang came from China, studied at Nalanda and wrote about it. Al Beruni came from Arabia studied the scienctific literatures and wrote about them. Then somewhere in between the invaders started ‘travelling’ and scholars excused themselves. After India ‘liberated’ from the socialistic shackles, after India regained its potential as a scientific and economic achiever, the travellers are returning. And they are writing about the country. Thomas Friedman, Dainel Lak, Mark Tully, William Darlymple, Patrick French, and the list go on.
Patrick French’s latest book ‘India – A Portrait’ reads like part history, part travelogue and part anthropological and social survey, the mixture of these genres not distracting but providing a cohesive reading, something perhaps suitable to kitch Indian lifestyle.  It starts slightly after Independence and Partition, almost like a sequel to his Liberty or Death which ended at Partition. However, India is more about people’s story
 minglnig with history, kind of Midnight’s Children in reverse engineering, of course without that exhuasting hyperbole and magic! When talking about post Independence exercise of building the nation, French talks about the builders and not the actual exercise. So you read some intimate personal accounts of Jawaharlal Nehru and Patel and Mahalanobis (Quiz question: Who is PC Mahalanobis?). Not the intimate details you’ll expect in Hello! but like what thought process went through their minds, what problems they faced, and, with the benefit of hindsight, how did their ideas or constructions pan out? For instance, imagine how upper caste Hindu leaders would have reacted to an ‘untouchable’ drafting the constitution for their recently liberated nation? To make things worse, Ambedkar not just began to draft it, he even went onto, with Nehru’s guidance, make several archaic Hindu practices illegal! An ‘untouchable’, who is not even allowed to read the sciptures was now nullifying those practices prescribed in those very scriptures! So how did Nehru respond to the immense pressure from the Hindu leaders and even Congress leaders such as Rajendra Prasad?
Similarly, when talking about the ascendance of Indira Ga
The favourite whipping girl for all historians working on post-indepdence India is Indira Gandhi and she doesn’t escape the analysis of French. What made her who she is, what motivated her to wreck such havoc on India. Yes, she had a bad childhood.Well, not hunger and malnutrition but loneliness and lack of caring. And of course, the constant taunndhi, it is not her rise to the political spectrum but what made her who she was that French focuses on. What role her marriage played in her life (and determined the future of India), how Nehru’s dislike of his son-in-law affected the political decisions made by Indira Gandhi or how Sanjay Gandhi’s early attachment to and the later distancing (due to their divorce) from his father Feroz Gandhi defined the kind of person he turned out to be. At times French writes as if it’s a historical drama. When Beant Singh pulled out his gun at Indira Gandhi, ‘There was silence. Birds sang in the trees. Mrs Gandhi looked at him, and said ‘What are you doing?’
ting by an intelligent aunt, Vijayalakshmi Pundit. Well, obviously you were lonely because half the time your father was in jail. But how many of us have busy fathers who were never there and also had insufferable aunts? And if my father was Jawaharlal would I even care? We can understand that French is trying to dissect her personality to see if he can reason out the abnormality of it but his analysis is not very convincing and we may need more evidence to explain, or justify, the phenomenon called Indira.
In another level, French tries to describe complicated economic models to talk about India’s stride towards socialism. And attempts to explain how Srikanth Nadhamuni, the Indian who helped design Pentium II chip, drew his idea of packing the chip from the manufacture of Samurai sword. He talks about John Mynard Keynes’ relationship with India and how it affected the Indian thinking, right up to Manmohan’s economic liberalisation. Those complex ideas just breeze through the book. If you’re Indian and even a wee bit concerned about what’s happening, those things don’t bore you at all, rather they read like Michael Crichton.
The chapters on economic strides are aston
ishing. There are stories such as CK Ranganathan, an average Chemistry graduate, who started by going around in cycle, selling shampooos in saches and subsequently went onto found a cosmetic company worth $150 million (Cavin Care). Something you find only written about American entrepreneurs and don’t expect to happen in rural Tamil Nadu. French goes onto explore the mind of the Tam-Bram (a difficult venture) and, curiously, chooses Anu Hasan for that exercise. Amused by the passion shown in the south towards education and intellectual pursuit, French reckons ‘if India is the land of nerds, south India may be the source, the fountain.’
India – A Portrait is not all hunky-dory.  It’s not the British version of ‘The World is Flat’. The book indeed contains odes to the economic and intellectual achievements, but at the same breath, French talks about bonded labourers and slum-dwellers. He meets construction workers in Bangalore who work in apartment complexes, which cost $2 million onwards, but live in single-room asbestos roofed houses, with half of their salary swindled by their contractors.
One of the scariest parts of the book is about hereditary MPs (HMP), which means MPs who were given seats and got elected due to family
connections, such as being the sons or daughters of politicians. You’d think it happens only with Nehur family or DMK. But, take a deep breath, according to the empirical statistical evidence drawn by French, nearly 100% of MPs under 30 today are HMPs! And the trend is continuing. This means in a decade or two, India will be completely ruled by the sons and daughters of current rulers. We will be the only country which will call itself democracy yet will in actuality be a dynasty.
In the chapters on society and religion, surprisingly, French draws parallel from Pakistani society to understand why India works and how Hinduism plays a key role in defining what it is. He takes Amartya Sen to debating table and feels his argument in Argumentative Indian that religion cannot be the defining factor doesn’t have a solid construction. I felt the same whilst reading Sen, but French goes to the extreme of simply dismissing Sen’s argument as simply a ‘schoolboy logic’, clever, but baseless. Without the burden of being branded as RSS man, French feels that Hinduism plays a solid role in everyday Indian’s life and determines everything from eating to designing computer processors. Although a bit uncomfortable to think how the Sangh Parivar must be gloating reading those p
ages, it is hard to disagree.
French’s understanding of India is nearly flawless and it is intriguing to think whether it is possible for an Indian, however dispassionate or scholarly, to make such an observation of another culture, say Britain. Considering India is vastly more complex than even US, it is intriguing how French must have worked towards his conclusions. Did he learn Hindi? Can he understand a bit of Kannada (he quotes some lines)? How much of Hindu scriptures such as Vedas and Upanishads has he read? It is easy to imagine how Xuansang would have felt looking at the huge Nalanda campus. Today’s India is vastly more intricate and multifarious than the seventh century India. French reads India with an intriguing intellect and decipherance and, with the advantage of an outsider, identifies patterns that could baffle and surprise even the Indians. India – A Portrait is really what it is, a portrait. Quite exciting to watch, not pretty everywhere but no Indian could have painted it better.