In varying degrees, India has featured in all of British writer and historian Patrick French’s books, including the acclaimed Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division. The jacket of his latest title, India: A Portrait, describes it as an “intimate biography” of contemporary India; the book is divided into three sections called “Rashtra”, “Lakshmi” and “Samaj”, which examine the country’s political, economic and social realities, respectively, in accessible prose that combines objectivity with empathy. Edited excerpts from a conversation in the course of which French observed, “India is the most interesting place in the world”:
What made you write this book?
I began writing in 2000. The essence of the book is the socially transformative effect of the economic reforms. When people have fresh opportunities and possibilities, that creates social change. I was at the DLF mall (in Delhi) yesterday and you would never have seen 20 years ago the way in which people were shopping. I also noticed that the prices in designer shops like Armani and Gucci were double of that in London. The shoppers looked like agricultural money from Punjab and mining money from Chhattisgarh—obviously a lot of new money.
Indophile: Through stories of a diverse group of people, French illustrates the transformative effect of the economic reforms. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
What other changes have you observed?
I first came to India as a teenager in 1986 and it was a completely different country. Consumerism is the outward symptom of something substantial changing. Politics has changed—you have incredibly powerful grass-roots, caste-based parties. At the same time, it has become dynastic in a way it wasn’t 25 years ago. In the past, there was an expectation that the parliamentarian would rise on merit.
Who is the book addressed to, Indians or non-Indians?
It is for everybody. Part of the reason that I wrote the book is that people in foreign countries are much more interested in India. In the past, they saw India as more about religion and suffering, whereas now people are very, very aware of India as a major economic competitor. People from different parts of India might be intrigued by things they learn about life in other areas, (for instance), the quietness of the south; and the subtlety of some business operations in the south. I think in Delhi everyone tends to make more noise whereas if you are in Chennai, they don’t feel the need to impress you in the first 10 seconds.
You have tried to look deeper into the reasons behind Hindutva.
The liberal consensus or the pro-Congress sentiment rejects the impulses behind Hindu nationalism and dismisses the 100 million who vote for the BJP and its allies. But they are an important force in Indian political life. The way I see it, Hinduism is the main uniting force in the Indian identity. You can’t ignore the past excesses of the Hindutva movement…but politics has moved on from the Hindutva agenda. Good and efficient government is more important to people.
Any India books written in recent years that you liked?
I spent 10 years visiting India before I wrote one word about the country. After Liberty and Death, I spent another 10 years thinking and looking. The reason I wrote this book is I wanted to read it. It hadn’t been written— the process of change since the 1990s from the inside and the historical roots of the process. If you read American journalists about India, it is like India in 2011 dropped out of the sky.
Wasn’t economic liberalization prompted by external causes?
No. A lot of Indian bureaucrats in the 1970s and 1980s wanted the unshackling to happen but probably thought that it was impractical. Don’t forget how bad it was in the 1970s. Emergency and the JP movement (named after its leader Jayaprakash Narayan) have their roots in economic failure—people forget that now. The years 1900-47 were the worst period of British rule in terms of poverty. But during 1970-79, the per capita GDP was even lower than that.
Not everything has changed.
Despite economic transformation there are attitudes that endure. On the road outside the DLF mall yesterday, guys were pulling and dragging a cement mixer in the dark. Why isn’t a tractor pulling it? Economic benefits are genuine, but they don’t extend to several hundred millions of Indians.
You are quite sympathetic to Rahul Gandhi.
The tendency is always to pin everything on the Gandhi family. That is the wrong thing to do. Rahul is a symptom. The issue is growth in dynastic families in constituency after constituency. He is fundamentally well motivated. Remember, the job chose him; he didn’t choose the job.
Out of ‘Rashtra’, ‘Lakshmi’ and ‘Samaj’, which section do you consider most important?
“Lakshmi”. And the reason is that, as a writer or a historian your tendency is to write only about personalities and ideas. But if you are doing just that, you are missing the central story. There are two questions—why did the centralized state seem like such a great idea in the 1940s and 1950s? And how has the economic unshackling affected people’s lives?
Any people in the book you met who stand out?
C.K. Ranganathan from Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, a chemistry graduate who sold shampoo packaged in a sachet. Now, he employs a thousand people. And Venkatesh and his wife, who worked in a stone quarry in Mysore and who were chained (by their employer) just 100 miles from Bangalore. There was no action from the local police or bureaucracy.
Describe your method of working on the book.
I searched for people who would illustrate particular points I wanted to make—about business dynamism, caste exploitation, political ambition, and intellectual creativity which I often found more in business than in academics. That was a surprise; how ideas are coming out of people involved in business. This is an optimistic book.