Posted by: John Elliott | February 7, 2011

A historian’s sketchbook becomes a Portrait of India

India, A Portrait – An intimate biography of 1.2 billion people by Patrick French. Penguin Books India Rs699   Penguin Allen Lane UK £25

Foreign journalists are often criticised in India for rarely travelling far from their comfortable homes and offices in New Delhi, apart from visits to big cities, disasters, and war zones. The criticism is usually unfair, but few have travelled as widely as Patrick French did for his new big book, India, A Portrait – an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people, that has just been published in India and the UK.

French’s visits range  from remote areas that are controlled by Maoist Naxalite rebels to dabbawallas (lunch “tiffin” delivery boys) in Mumbai, and from Delhi’s Tihar jail, where he meets convicted Kashmiri terrorist Mohammad Afzal, to Kashmir itself where he interviews Shakeel Ahmad Bhat (above) who had been portrayed on international television as “Islamic Rage Boy”.

He meets stone crushers at a Karnataka quarry that neatly contrast with the high tech millionaires of nearby Bangalore, has coffee with a male stripper and pimp in Delhi, meets a shampoo sachet tycoon in Tamil Nadu, and finds a Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, Rajnath Singh, who only talks to him about “integral humanism and humanity’s integration”. He also tracks down telecom entrepreneur Sunil Mittal of Bharti AirTel in shiny London offices that Mittal had just acquired when Bharti took over Zain, a pan-Africa telecom business.

Along the way, there is a notable story of how Sonia Gandhi, dynastic leader of the Congress Party and India’s governing coalition, decided as far back as 1999 that Manmohan Singh, who she made prime minister in 2004, would be given that job if Congress won a general election. French also reveals amusingly how, as a teenage student travelling In India in 1986, he sold smuggled electronic gadgets and exchanged dollars in Delhi’s underground Palika Bazaar.

French garnered these encounters and stories, plus countless other interviews, over many years, some going back to 2002. He  met Bhat in Kashmir in 2007 and has edited the report he wrote then in the UK’s Daily Mail into the book. Sharpened with more recent research, these stories fill the 400 pages of India, a Portrait in a fascinating and often revealing kaleidoscope.

French is primarily a gifted historian and biographer, with two specially acclaimed works – a fascinating portrait of Sir Francis Younghusband, an early-1900s British explorer and spy, in Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer and, more recently, a penetrating biography of V.S.Naipaul, the writer, in The World is What It Is.  French’s new book picks up the history of modern India in 1947, where an earlier work, Liberty or Death, India’s Journey to Independence and Division, ended.

He combines an historian’s broad sweep and research with a journalist’s interviewing skills and eye for detail, but he does not deploy the Younghusband book’s sense of history-in-the-making, nor the Naipaul book’s critical assessments.

Instead, his mix of history and reportage leads him sometimes to miss the wood for the trees, to shy away from interpretation and comment, failing sufficiently to examine and interpret the real argumentative conflict-ridden India.

An important part of the book covers India’s economic and business development but, having interviewed Sunil Mittal, he misses an opportunity to illustrate India’s intense corporate rivalries. The Reliance group’s two Ambani brothers tripped up Mittal twice – first when he was building the business in competition with Mukesh Ambani, and then when Anil Ambani (after the two brothers had split) undermined his negotiations to buy South Africa’s MTN telecom company.

He describes in detail some not very exciting technology used on a highway project in central Delhi without explaining it was an environmentally controversial project, was completed several months late, leads nowhere, and was part of the disastrous and highly corrupt preparations for last year’s Commonwealth Games – all points that could have been used to look at what is wrong with modern India.

Historically important events in the 1980s, such as Punjab’s Khalistan terrorism, the Bofors gun bribing scandal, and India’s intervention over Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatists, are dismissed in just a few lines, even though the Punjab and the Tamil troubles triggered the assassination of former prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and Bofors continues to rattle the Gandhi’s and Congress.

There is little examination and assessment of the impact of corruption that is dragging down Indian society at all levels, compounding appalling misgovernance. Poverty is understated, and there is a parallel question of how the country will develop and cope as the hundreds of millions of people who still do not share in India’s modern economy gradually do so. There is a teeming, complex, selfish and often cruel side to India, along with the brilliant brains, entrepreneurial achievements, economic success, and culture richness shown here.

Dynastic surge

The book’s most important contribution to current history (as I noted here last month) is its detailed research into how dynasties have swept across Indian politics in the past few years. This research was done with the help of regional journalists and a brilliant young statistics cruncher in Delhi, Arun Kaul.

Led by the ruling Gandhi dynasty, more than a third of Congress Party’s MPs elected in 2009 came into politics through a family link. Even worse, literally all the MPs (not just Congress) aged under 30, and more than two-thirds of those under 40, were from hereditary families. All five of north India’s Rashtriya Lok Dal Party (RLD) MPs had family links, as did seven out of nine MPs of the Maharashtra-based Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) led by Sharad Pawar and Praful Patel.

French suggests wryly that Parliament’s Lok Sabha (House of the People), is becoming a “Vansh Sabha – a House of Dynasty”. This tendency to “turn politics into a family business”, he says, “was being emulated across northern India at state level, with legislators nominating children and spouses.” Sadly however, French pulls his punches and does not explore why this has happened. When I asked him at the launch in Delhi, he admitted he was puzzled, especially about why the trend boomed in the 2004 and 2009 general elections.

It is important to know why it has happened because this dynastic surge is partly both the cause and effect of a sharp decline in the standards of Indian politics and governance that began in Indira Gandhi’s time as prime minister. Standards have worsened enormously in recent years as personal greed has replaced many politicians’ concern for the country – especially in regional parties, whose role expanded dramatically after the 1980s when Congress declined.

People sometimes seem scared to tackle this subject because they might be thought to be attacking The Family, as the Gandhi dynasty currently headed by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul is known. But it is surely easy to draw a distinction between families that do seem to have a sense of service and destiny, led by the Nehru-Gandhi’s and including some of the younger politicians such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Omar Abdullah, and Jay Panda, and those who look as if they are primarily interested in maintaining the power and illicit wealth that comes from prestige, patronage and corruption.

This is a well written book, though readers new to India may find there is insufficient context, while other may regret the limited analysis and interpretation. It stands alongside and updates, with colourful reporting, In Spite of the Gods (2006) by FT journalist Ed Luce and the thought provoking older The Idea of India (1997) by Sunil Khilnani.

A shorter version of this review appeared in India’s Mail Today Sunday newspaper on January 23, 2011


  1. I thought the critical review by Pankaj Mishra, which appeared in Outlook recently, was very useful and important. However, Patrick who appeared to have been ruffled by it did not manage to answer the points raised by Pankaj, a well known India-watching Indian! – see

  2. I agree absolutely that this was a good read with lots of original and unusual material but that the author failed at the last hurdle of trying to find a reason or reasons for the multiple and increasing dysfunctionalities of India today. Pictures are painted of astonishing corruption, nepotism, hypocrisy etc but Patrick French then avoids drawing any even tentative conclusions on the whys and wherefores.

    Is this a lack of courage or a modern historian’s wish to wait before coming to conclusions? The historians of the 19th and 20th century were more generous in what they offered. There is a huge and I think often sterile debate among modern historians, particularly of contemporary history, about the factors that lead an author to make a judgment: media hype of course and official manipulation, particularly post 9/11, are two of those factors, but also all sorts of (to me) somewhat obscure theories like social constructionism as well as post colonial unease and even gender inequality. The temptation for an intellectually honest historian is therefore understandably to avoid making a judgment, leaving the reader to make his own. That is not exactly courageous even if understandable.

    And here a further difficulty is that this is not a history book, more like a source book for future historians to draw material from and draw their own conclusions.

    As for choosing a limited number of “good” books to read, surely the problem is that the country is extraordinarily complex and there are many angles from which it can be analysed quite honestly and objectively, without any two books agreeing entirely on either the problems or the solutions? The only way to try to make one’s own idea is not to limit one’s reading but to read as many well regarded books as possible: I would add to the two mentioned above three more: Pavan Varma’s Being Indian, Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian and then to put things into their historical context Maria Misra’s Vishnu’s Crowded Temple. Perhaps modesty prevented John from mentioning another interesting angle: the view from outside, as summarised in the Foreign Correspondents anthology he co-edited, 50 Years of Reporting from South Asia.

    And sometimes I feel that fiction is truer than words: how about Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games?

  3. I’ve been following Riding the Elephant since it started on Fortune. You have a fairly honest point of view.

    There is an extreme proliferation of books on India and it becomes hard to chose good ones. There are actually so many books, that just reading the reviews becomes too much. It would be nice to have a list of ‘good books’ on India, or the sub-continent.


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