Author Patrick French was in Bangalore this evening, promoting his new book, ‘India: A Portrait’. Not having heard of either the book or the author earlier, I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to attend the session, until, through sheer coincidence, I stumbled upon this review on the Guardian website. Aravind Adiga hasn’t been too kind to the book- while praising the author’s style and in-depth research, he has denounced the large number of loose ends he claims to have discovered.
It will be unfair of me to take sides with either French or Adiga in this debate, considering I haven’t read the book. The Englishman came across as a keen, intelligent person in the hour-long session. Beginning with Ladakh, he talked of his journeys down south and among the Khasi tribes. He read out excerpts from his book and described the amount of research that went into it. A great deal of statistics was evidently involved, and French gave examples in the form of an analysis of the dynastic politics rampant in India. He was appreciative of the UID scheme and marvelled at the diversity of the country, and its acceptance without question, unlike in many other parts of the world where people were just learning to come to terms with it. He spoke of how science and religion weren’t treated as separate entities but coexisted in India, unlike in Europe a few centuries ago.
At the end of his reading, French fielded questions from the audience. When asked what differences he saw between India and China, having written about both, he spoke of the difference between India’s democracy and China’s single-party system where public opinion couldn’t be voiced as openly, and about the latter‘s single-child policy which was resulting in an aging population. He explained how a factor in the lack of young politicians in India was the number of career options available to the youth. On being asked what other facets he would have liked to cover, he mentioned that he wanted to write more about the North-East. He explained that he hadn’t written about farmer suicides and some other issues because they didn’t fit in with the tone of this book.
French steered clear of the more controversial excerpts that Adiga has discussed in his review. Perhaps, having published the controversial Liberty or Death – India’s Journey to Independence and Division earlier, French has decided to play it safe this time. This was slightly disappointing, for in bringing out some of the more colourful parts of the book, French might have excited greater enthusiasm for and interest in his work.
Adiga, in his review, has said that most books on India tend to be either literary or journalistic. Considering French writes with style while also laying emphasis on facts and figures, this book seems to be treading the middle line. I must admit that I didn’t think there was anything new explored in the book. In talking about the dabbawallahs and the small-scale entrepreneurs, French is only charting familiar territory, discussing subjects that we’ve seen Suketu Mehta and Mark Tully do earlier. If, instead, French had gone ahead to open up the North-East to the rest of the world and focused on things often ignored in favour of the exciting story of India’s growth coupled with the inevitable comparisons with China, this book would have been something to talk about. As of now, though, it just seems like yet another book on India from a foreigner’s perspective. Not a travelogue, not a book of dry figures, but something in between.