The roots of India’s transformation can be found in the 1950s and 1960s, the author of a history of modern India says over burgers and coffee
Patrick French" title="Patrick French" class="" />Never before have I had such a serious conversation over French fries — not even in graduate school as a history student where the food habits were generally deplorable. Between discreet mayonnaise finger-licks, salt sprinkles from the fries, crackles from the paper around the burgers, gurgles from the cola and slurps from the coffee, Patrick French tells Rrishi Raote about his latest book, on the modern history of India.
We are at, of all places, a McDonald’s outlet on Janpath, a few steps from Connaught Place in central Delhi. Given the choice of any eatery in the city, this is the one French, 44, has picked. It is lunchtime and the place is a-rumble with background noise from people grabbing a bite in the middle of office hours. The murmur from the TVs scattered about at head height is almost soothing.
When the publicist told me on the phone that this was French’s choice, I thought with a pulse of irritation that perhaps the fellow wanted to make some boring point about the new Indian middle class. But no, it turns out he just feels like a burger. And not even a Maharaja Mac — he’s satisfied with a Veggie Burger. “Are you vegetarian?” I ask, surprised. No, it’s because beef isn’t on the menu.
Perhaps he hoped fast food would make this a quick lunch (he has another interview and the book launch after this). But it doesn’t. Conversation does slow a meal down, and then a burger leaves room for a cappuccino afterwards (for him; I’ve had my coffee), which we take at the Cafe Coffee Day just around the corner.
We talk about his book. He thinks the book may sell more copies in India than elsewhere. “I wanted to write a book for everybody,” he says, “a wide-ranging book that caught some sense of the way in which India was transforming, and also how and why that process took place, what were the historical roots of that process. Because quite often when the changes in India are written about, particularly abroad, it’s as if they suddenly appeared out of nowhere.”
French’s thesis is that the roots are to be found in the 1950s and 1960s, the decades in which the institutions of the newly independent nation were established. “Take for example IT or the success of Indian software engineers,” he says, while struggling to open a ketchup sachet. “That can probably be tracked back to the early interest in teaching of people like (Jawaharlal) Nehru and (P C) Mahalanobis, the foundation of the IITs, the focusing of certain tech industries in places like Bangalore and the fact that you had a pool of highly educated people ready to go when economic liberalisation happened. And again with the political changes — the rise of a politician like Mayawati, that comes directly out of a decision to have universal franchise... So it was really trying to track back and and say what are the roots of these changes.”
Tracking back to the roots of this book project, French says, “I wrote Liberty or Death (his 1997 book on the independence movement and Partition), and that book stops in 1947. Then in about 2000 I thought I’d like to write something about how India was changing, because I was in the south and it seemed like there was a great business dynamism in places like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu” — he pronounces the name decently — “and then I got distracted by the V S Naipaul book (The World Is what It Is, a prize-winning 2008 biography of the Nobel laureate) and as soon as that was done I set to work on this one.”
Much of the story ought to be familiar to anybody who knows a little history and has kept up with recent books on contemporary India — such as those by Ramachandra Guha, Ed Luce and others. But there is something novel about French’s approach. For one, he isn’t a historian by training, and thus is not uncomfortable writing about the recent past. Then, unlike these writers, and perhaps because he came straight from the Naipaul book, he tells his story through biography. Nehru, Indira, Sonia get the treatment, and though this is well-trodden ground, even here French is able to dig up new material and revealing angles.
“In the instance of Indira Gandhi’s death,” he says (and by this time we have finished eating), “by describing the way in which her body was brought to the hospital, the way that all of the doctors were trying to bring her back to life even though they knew she was dead, because nobody felt confident to take the decision to say, let’s stop trying to revive the corpse; and at the same time all the ministers and movers of Delhi were milling about on the floor below, saying, oh, we must show our faces to Rajiv, to show that we’ve come here — and it seemed just like a microcosm of everything that was wrong with Indian politics at that time.” There is a stunning moment when Rajiv arrives at AIIMS and everyone abandons Indira. French’s source, a reporter named Vichitra Sharma, is left entirely alone with the former prime minister’s ravaged body. It is gut-churning.
But the Nehru-Gandhis are extensively biographed. Ambedkar, on the other hand, awaits a serious biographer. French would like to know “how it felt to be the only person in your community being a legislator, going to college in the United States — he was the first, he was the groundbreaker.” And Ambedkar’s relationships, especially his second marriage to a Brahmin doctor, “I would like to see all of that biographically.”
I ask him what he sees when he looks around this McDonald’s. He laughs as if he knew this was coming. “What strikes me is that there’s quite a range of people. You’ve got everybody from the guy in the suit to the guy wearing some sort of kurta with white training shoes and a cardigan. You’ve got the kind of adverts (on the TV screens) that would not have ever been allowed when I first came to India in the 1980s.
“Essentially what I see is the dynamism. The way in which people speak and the speed with which they move through. If you went to a McDonald’s in London at this time of day most of the people would be unemployed and being paid by the government. Here the majority of people are men. The majority in London would be women. They’d probably be thinking, if I stay here for another hour I’d have to pay less for my oil or gas when I go home. It’s more like a social service.”
And we saunter out for coffee next door. He asks for a cappuccino, and takes off his puffy, shiny green, faintly comical jacket (it was a cold morning) to reveal a slightly scruffy white Armani Exchange T-shirt. I ask him about himself and his family background, and say rather more than I ought to about mine. I learn that he comes from a small and dull English town, and got out as soon as he could — first to London, and then to China in the mid-1980s as a 20-something, and Tibet (subject of his third, Tibet, Tibet, 2003). I think that it’s good he adopted India — where his second wife is from, and where his youngest son from his first marriage likes to drive a borrowed autorickshaw at full tilt down a back lane in Kochi.
His next book, he says, will be a biography of the Himalayas. Yet another towering subject for French to tackle.