Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On Patrick French's India: A Portrait

A slightly different version of this essay appeared in The National last weekend as "Your Mother, Your Sister, And All" .

As with the proverbial three blind men before an elephant, unable thanks to the vastness of its size and the diversity of its parts to make a reasonable guess as to the reality of the whole, all books about India “get” some things about the country and miss others. Each observer distinguishes or incriminates himself in his own way, and, for the reader, the task lies in making a reckoning of exactly what they see and what they choose to make of it. Advertised as “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people” (the adjective alone is worth investigating), Patrick French’s India: A Portrait sets itself up from the very beginning alongside the most ambitious books written about the country.

Whole cupboards of non-fiction are now published every year about Indian politics, society, culture, religion, philosophy and business. Indology is a crowded market, buzzing with grand claims. French’s own contribution to the literature of Indocentrism is the somewhat nebulous: “India is a macrocosm, and may be the world’s default setting for the future.” But for most part French is sharper than this, and, indeed, he often has a merciless way with cant, whether the jargon-laden calls to war of Maoist revolution or the play-it-safe boilerplate of the Congress Party. Cutting up his book into three major axes of inquiry entitled Rashtra, Lakshmi, and Samaj, French deploys impressively the grasp of history and social context and the love of bright detail that he last displayed in his 2008 biography of VS Naipaul.

The only clunky section of French’s text appears right at the beginning. French’s long essay on Indian politics requires him to make a survey, for reasons of context and continuity, of events from the time of independence onwards: nation-formation and constitution-framing, the crisis of succession post-Nehru, the Emergency, the rise of dynastic politics. Here, even French’s talent for elegant synthesis and summary, often finished off with brief, probing glosses  – Jawaharlal Nehru’s classic The Discovery of India is “a fine, slanted and sometimes romantic version of history”– is not enough to reanimate an extensively reported period of national history, the personalities, contours and faultlines of which are familiar to even the casual reader on India.

Once it has emerged from this impasse, though, French’s narration begins to pick up steam, every page delivering something valuable. One of his most diverting studies is that of nepotism in Indian democracy. As a case study he takes the Lok Sabha or the Indian parliament, home to 545 elected MPs. With the assistance of a team of researchers, French attempts to figure out just how many of them might be considered to be what he called hereditary MPs or “HMPs” – that is, MPs with a strong family, if not directly filial, connection to politics.

He finds that almost 30 per cent of MPs fall into this category, including two-thirds of the 66 MPs aged 40 or under. Thus, he demonstrates just how much weight a family name carries when it comes to the restocking of Indian democracy with new blood. Sixty-three years after its ambitious inauguration, then, Indian democracy remains semi-feudal. “I am not suggesting that a ‘hereditary MP’ is a bad MP,” French says, concluding tidily, “merely that this system excludes the overwhelming majority of Indians from participation in politics at a national level”. With a new law mandating that 33 per cent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women about to come into effect in the 2014 general elections, the situation could grow worse as the mothers, wives and daughters-in-law of India are catapulted into the hustings. “India’s next general election,” warns French, “was likely to return not a Lok Sabha, a house of the people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty.”

A pair of brief but trenchant sketches of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh sets off a convoy of polished portraits, the strength of which holds the diverse strands of the book together. The double-sided method that French employs is to let his subjects, when they open up to him, to speak for long stretches in their own voice, and to gird this with a few paragraphs of telling detail sourced from books, reports, and personal observation.By throwing together the famous, the modestly well-known, and the anonymous in complex formations, French achieves an effect of intimacy with both the powerful and the powerless that justifies the word “intimate” in his subtitle.

A Congress functionary in Uttar Pradesh, Yusuf Ansari, talks revealingly about the complexities of local politics and the weaknesses of the Congress Party at grassroots. The Indian telecom baron Sunil Mittal, head of Bharti Airtel, recalls, in a passage that is almost novelistic, wandering about street markets and trade fairs in east Asia in the eighties, looking for a business opportunity, before finally picking on phones as a growth area for the future. A fatalistic, enfeebled low-caste labourer in Karnataka who spent 21 months in chains, unable to put on underwear or trousers, after failing to pay off a debt to his employer, puzzles over his own story after he is freed. Nor far away, in the buzzing metropolis of Bangalore, a construction worker takes French around the pathetic camp thrown together for him and his colleagues by a company erecting premium apartments.

In Kashmir, the lapsed terrorist and political protestor Shakeel Ahmad Bhat (aka the “Islamic Rage Boy,” who made it to newspapers worldwide in 2007) speaks heartrendingly about outrages visited on his family by police in his childhood, a black-and-white that he still inhabits despite, or perhaps because of, his troubles. Elsewhere, in the closing sections of a forceful critique of Naxalism, French visits Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail to meet one of the movement’s masterminds: the recently arrested Kobad Ghandy. He asks the ideologue how he can continue to believe in Maoism after the arbitrary snuffing out of hundreds of thousands of lives in Mao’s China. Ghandy acknowledges there have been mistakes, but valiantly defends the “philosophy” of the movement. “When taken to an extreme,” remarks French acidly, “idealism is little more than a form of prejudice.”

French’s ear for the exact registers and locutions of Indian speech, reported without smirks or condescension, elevates his work above most other books of reportage on the country, eliding the distance from one’s subjects that often appears in the work of other writers and turning his narrative into an impressive act of ventriloquism in the manner of the Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City or Sonia Faleiro’s recent Beautiful Thing.  Late in the book, an army officer is heard saying, as he describes a face-off between two colleagues, “The 2IC, the second-in-command, started abusing him when he was giving a report, saying your mother, your sister and all.” In such instances it is not the space granted to the subject as much as the attention to cadences of his voice that humanizes him.

Elsewhere, French remarks, inhabiting an Indian idiom instead of merely marking it, “Of the 38 youngest MPs, 33 had arrived with the help of mummy-daddy”. In a diverting passage on Indian school textbooks, he notes the resonant pan-Indian neologism “byhearting”, or committing to memory. One begins to feel that working on India has made an Indian of French. But this notion falls away when, interviewing one of the administrators of the famed dabbawalas of Mumbai, who declares he won't speak without a fee of Rs.5000, French asks for a receipt. Even so, India: A Portrait stands alongside the Australian journalist Christopher Kremmer’s Inhaling The Mahatma and the novelist MG Vassanji’s memoir A Place Within as the most linguistically rich and morally inquisitive books written by writers not native to India about India in recent years.

And an old post from 2008: "On Patrick French's biography of VS Naipaul".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You are such a pleasure to read! At 448 pages, I am wondering if I should or shouldn't pick up that book.

Tho, doesnt the cover page look too cliched, even reminding one of Arvind Adiga's The White Tiger?