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Details and brushwork

Sunanda K Datta-Ray 

It’s not possible to show India in just one portrait, says Sunanda K Datta-Ray, but Patrick French’s new book treats us to a gallery of portraits.

It’s a brave man who dares chide Amartya Sen for using “the logic of the clever schoolboy” when downplaying the role of religion, especially Hinduism, in Indian life. Less brave, perhaps, but even more startling is Patrick French’s comparison of Mahatma Gandhi to an anaconda trying to squeeze the life out of his opponents “by appropriating the untouchables as his own”.

French is the brilliant enfant terrible who can get away with heresies because they are embedded in his deep affection for and intimate knowledge of India.

He has already devoted one substantial work (Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division, HarperCollins 1997) to this country, and his three other books, a life of the soldier-explorer Francis Younghusband, an exposé of Tibet’s tragedy, and V S Naipaul’s official biography hover round the subcontinent.

This fifth offering at the altar of his love is less successful because ambition soars beyond the bounds of the possible. There is no denying it makes fascinating reading. Or that readers have much to learn much from its pages. I had no idea, for instance, that P C Mahalanobis, the stern author of state planning, established through the “anthropological measurements such as stature, head-length, head-breadth, nasal length, etc., of 300 Anglo-Indians in Calcutta” that they are taller than Bengalis and have variable head-lengths.

But information is one thing; understanding another. French explains in detail that statistical evidence suggests the next Lok Sabha will be so packed with the scions of political dynasties that it might as well be called the Vansh Sabha. He doesn’t examine why lineage is so important to Indians. This native son at least is no wiser about the wonder that was — and is — India after enjoyably wading through the abundance of interviews, anecdotes, facts and description packed into 392 pages of stylish prose, 43 pages of Notes and Index, and a four-page Introduction.

The fault is not the author’s. One suspects he was fulfilling a commission. But it just isn’t possible to produce “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people”, to cite the publisher’s blurb. A biography has to have a single subject and linear progression. Dealing with a myriad different situations and a myriad peoples travelling in many directions, French produces flashes of penetrating and evocative journalism.

His sub-heading “A Portrait” is more prosaic though, again, some might argue that it’s not possible to despatch India in just one portrait. Not that French tries. His brushwork tackles the big picture only in the last chapter, “Only in India”. Otherwise, he treats us to a whole gallery of portraits, all meticulously executed and no doubt true to the originals, but each too dazzlingly different to be regarded as a detail of the same composition.

This is because, as the Notes admit, the book is based on a number of articles written over the years. As a result, one chapter doesn’t flow into another. Each is a book in itself. Though French tries to establish thematic coherence by dividing his 12 chapters into three groups headed “Rashtra”, “Lakshmi” and “Samaj”, the effort at smooth-flowing continuity is further marred by the tendency to end chapters with a bon mot that is sometimes a shade too clever like some of his editorial platitudes; witness, “When taken to an extreme, idealism is little more than a form of prejudice.”

The errors are not so much of fact as emphasis. Some — like the claim that the Indian military intervened only “in the later stages” of the Bangladesh war — may be a concession to political correctness. However, no mention of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s legacy (French cites socialism and a new constitution) after that traumatic defeat can ignore the Bomb. Nor should any chronicler of India overlook the love-hate relationship with the USA that has played such an important part in shaping events and thinking. In fact, the book’s few flaws are of omission rather than commission.

What seems like a lack of insight is probably due to a desire to please. Bristling when “a well-heeled Mumbai editor” comments disparagingly on the designer outfit of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad supporter’s wife, French grumbles about “the unexpressed divide in Indian politics, the idea that the promoters of Hindutva were socially inferior to the Nehruvians”. Nothing of the kind. It’s culture, not class, that is at stake. I am sure Murli Manohar Joshi would agree that proponents of an indigenous lifestyle are expected to be true in their persons to their avowed creed.

Similarly, surprise at Agatha Sangma taking the oath in Hindi can’t be put down to “the patronizing presumption that because she came from the north-east, where people spoke in strange tongues and ate dogs and bees, Sangma would only be able to swear in English”. Yes, people from the North-east do sometimes feel slighted in the capital but not because of their fluency in English which prompts more envy than contempt. The surprise would have been just as great if a Keralan or an Oriya had taken the oath in Hindi. I recall the late K Brahmananda Reddy being cheered for the same reason when he addressed a Delhi crowd in simple Hindi.

Imperfections notwithstanding, I am glad I read India: A Portrait. Patrick French’s delightful sense of humour produces nuggets about Sonia Gandhi (née Maino) being “handcuffed to history” for she was born on the day the Constituent Assembly met for the first time and Christopher Lee, who played Muhammad Ali Jinnah on screen, earlier playing Dracula. His keen power of observation is evident in the pathetic tale of Venkatesh, the chained labourer in Karnataka. Apart from frequent references to Dr Ambedkar, his social conscience bubbles up in an angry account of the Noida double murder.

And, as the whole narrative confirms, he is a delightful storyteller in the tradition of the legendary early 20th-century British editor, W T Stead, who pioneered the personalised blend of reporting and feature-writing and fathered investigative journalism. Who wants meaning when the telling is so gripping?

A Portrait
Author: Patrick French

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 448
Price: Rs 699

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First Published: Sat, March 05 2011. 00:18 IST