India is changing more rapidly now than at any point in its history. Change brings uncertainty. Even if you are doing well—better than your parents could ever have hoped for—many of the old certainties have disappeared. Jobs are less secure, even if better paid. School places are more difficult to obtain. Prices are unstable.
When I wrote India: A Portrait, I wanted to catch some of this uncertainty—the sense that the world was fluctuating. The voices of the very rich, the voices of the very poor and the voices of the many in between are part of a symbiotic story that extends from Ladakh to Kanyakumari. Because writing on India is so often riven by ideology, it was hard to do this in one book. For devotees of the India Shining story, at home and abroad, the rise of a new consumer market is in itself the story. For followers of the political left, prosperity must be discounted since it has increased inequality: why be happy for many millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty following the economic reforms of the early 1990s, if so many others have been left behind?
It should, in theory at least, be possible to write about contemporary India in a way that is neither triumphalist nor apocalyptic. By including a range of contradictory characters, I hoped to draw people out of their ideological comfort zones and look at aspects of the present and recent past directly, without preconceptions. In most cases, this has worked, and readers and reviewers have been generous in their reaction. A particularly tired message came from Pankaj Mishra in Outlook. As most readers will have realised, it was less a review than an ideological cry of pain. So I was depicted as a Bob Christo character, playing several villainous, alien roles: I was the viceroy Lord Curzon, a shocked “foreign visitor”, a writer influenced by “right-wing Friedmans”, whose book was aimed at “western businessmen”—and not just any western businessmen, but the sort who “remain indifferent to the benighted 800 million in rural areas”. Pankaj had, in fact, already written a review of the book in London’s blue-chip Financial Times which contained compliments like “eloquent” and “acclaimed”, but in the Outlook version, such words disappeared.
The technique he used was one of calculated distortion and misquotation, claiming, for instance, that my research into the family background of Lok Sabha MPs revealed what was already “blindingly plain...to any sentient Indian” (though presumably not plain to the Editor of Outlook, who put the story on the cover). Bizarrely, he misquoted me as saying, “Hindus have no concept of compassion.” But I never wrote this sentence, and nor do I believe it. For a reviewer, it is the cheapest shot in the locker to compare any foreigner you disagree with to a British imperialist. For the record, I am the first member of my family to go to the subcontinent. My grandparents came from Ireland—and the Irish did not rule India. Perhaps it is Pankaj, with his high, sanctimonious tone and his migratory bio (he apparently divides his time between Delhi, Shimla and London) who sounds more like the viceroy Lord Curzon.
Pankaj has obviously been on a long journey from his self-described origins—in what he calls a “new, very poor and relatively inchoate Asian society”—to his present position at the heart of the British establishment, married to a cousin of the prime minister David Cameron. But he seems oddly resentful of the idea of social mobility for other Indians. One of the most unexpected aspects of my research for India: A Portrait was the sheer extent of aspiration and achievement across the country, ranging from a girl from a poor background who secured a place at an IIT, to a man who has devoted his life to inventing and manufacturing a low-cost sanitary towel, to Dattu, a landless and illiterate adivasi, who today has a good job in a Maharashtra winery, to C.K. Ranganathan, who trudged the streets of Cuddalore in the 1980s selling sachets of shampoo and now employs more than 1,000 people. Pankaj looks down haughtily on the Re 1 sachet revolution, saying “cheap beauty aids are unlikely to compensate the poor for a cruelly inegalitarian healthcare system”. But whoever suggested they would? It is a fatuous conjunction of two unrelated points.
Having read his review, it is still not clear to me what he wants for India. He mentions what is wrong: poverty, corruption, debt, resource shortages, poor primary education and healthcare. But everyone knows this. Much of my book is devoted to analysing the ways in which progress is—and is not—being made. And the question remains—how to proceed from here? I do not buy the romantic view that an end to poverty is possible without the creation of wealth, or that the era of the permit raj was somehow an easier time. “India registered its most impressive gains from 1951 to 1980,” Pankaj wrote in one of his blogs on the Guardian website. “Until 1980, India achieved an average annual economic growth of 3.5 per cent”. This is a ludicrous statistic to quote, since it makes no mention that the population grew rapidly during the same period: by the 1970s, per capita GDP in India was rising more slowly than at any point in the preceding century. In another exhausting blog post, he makes a paternalistic plea to the British government not to cut its foreign aid, so as to avoid “the severing of Britain’s old links with India’s great mass of ordinary people”. But with the British economy contracting and cousin Cameron having to borrow money to fulfil that particular obligation, it hardly looks like a long-term solution.
It goes without saying that I do not believe—as alleged—that “consumer capitalism is the summit of human civilisation”, but I also have grave doubts whether Marxism, Maoism or Mishraism offer a solution. Can India’s chronic rural poverty really be alleviated only by the state? If so, how will the state get the money to do this, except by further economic growth? It is no use chanting “garibi hatao” and patting yourself on the back if you have no coherent suggestions of how to abolish poverty. You do not choose your history or your geography, and India is situated in a dangerous and difficult neighbourhood. It may be a long way from Utopia, but India has an entrenched and developed democratic system, a long tradition of fervent debate, a vibrant economy and a largely tolerant relationship between different communities.
I have some questions for the vendors of the apocalypse, who make a living abroad selling a constrained, outdated and implacably narrow vision of what India is and could be. Where do they currently see their own political and economic ideas being put into effect in a useful, humane way? Is it in West Bengal, or Dantewada? Or perhaps abroad, in foreign countries? How does poverty stand a chance of being alleviated unless someone does the work of creating wealth? How is the state to pay for social welfare schemes and come up with money if not through taxing the wealth that is generated by individuals and by industry?
I ask this in a spirit of genuine inquiry, because it seems that the Indian Left has failed utterly to come up with a coherent narrative with which to oppose economic liberalisation. It is easy enough to identify problems (which invariably predate the reforms of the early 1990s) but what are missing are active, detailed, constructive, alternative proposals. It is simple to recite the problems, and nobody disputes their depth or seriousness. If Pankaj or his admirers e-mail me with their ideas (firstname.lastname@example.org), the most interesting responses will be put up on www.theindiasite.com. Rough, raw, real life does not fit in with any ideology, leftist or rightist—that is the message of my book.
A note to readers: Do share your ideas not only with Mr French but also in your letters to the editor on this website -- Web Ed.
I have not read French’s book but I did read Pankaj Mishra’s review and I have to agree that it was a shameful attack that mostly seems to have nothing to do with the book itself and more to do with its author being British (Cameron’s Cuz is More the Curzon, Feb 14). I have followed Mishra’s journalism in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian since it first began to appear and while I am not hostile to it, I must say its quality has deteriorated and become shriller over time. The very first time he wrote for the nyrb, I was delighted for Mishra and happy that nyrb had gained a fresh voice from India which had not been socialised in Western institutions; as of late I tend to groan when I read him. I can only assume, as French seems to suggest, that the rise in Mishra’s status has come at the cost of his judgement.
Vivek Sharma, New Haven, US
Patrick French’s demolition of Pankaj Mishra’s bombastic rhetoric was brilliant, delivered in that most English of ways (though French is not an Englishman), hitting hard where it hurts but leaving no tell-tale sign of injury.
Surjit Kohli, Gurgaon
I’m an admirer of the writings of both Mishra and French but I must share my surprise that Mishra—a huge beneficiary of the system he finds so rightly wanting—chooses to take cheap shots for the benefit of the Indian middle-class readers of Outlook (such as myself). Like so many Indians, Mishra arrogates the right to be critical of India to those like him: firangis are welcome so long as they invite you to their salons.
Girish Kumar, Kovalam
Well done, Mr French! A response to Pankaj Mishra’s review was quite in order. It doesn’t take a genius to spot the ‘warts’ in India today. One can do that easily even in the US if one looks at the inner cities.
Raghu, Santa Clara
Hear, hear! Pankaj Mishra has been successfully pankajed in this review by Patrick French. I specially admire Mr French for his remarkable ability to free himself from White Guilt and really go for it.
Omar Ali, Los Angeles
Many talented Indians, once they produce something good or are recognised as brilliant, seem to be overawed by success and then stop producing anything creative or useful.
Vijay, Arlington, US
If anything, you have to understand the snobbery of Pankaj Mishra. This ilk has been desperate to ensure they alone and no one else has any upward mobility in India. It was heartening to see French put him in his place.
Excellent riposte. One has a new-found respect and regard for Patrick French, after those earlier wishy-washy defences of the demagogue Jinnah.
Varun Shekhar, Toronto
So rightly and eloquently thrashed!
Kumar Siddharth, Montreal
French need not worry about Mishra’s appraisal of his work. Many of us set aside his view and viewpoint.
Priya Madhavan, Rochester
People like Pankaj Mishra forget that India has changed for his kind of upper-caste Brahmins who are unable to see anybody superior to them.
Pankaj Kumar, Mumbai
Great, Mr French. You have done what many of us have been wanting to do for sometime: take on Mishra and his hifalutin leftist “bakwas”.
Gaurav Ghose, Columbia
Very well done, Mr French! Somebody needed to take down Pankaj Mishra a peg or two. Many Western analysts, particularly those belonging to the “global left”, have an outdated view of India which does not consider the extraordinary political, social and economic changes that have taken place in India in the last 20 years. In their view, India = (child labour) + (caste system) + (corruption) + (high inequality and alleged indifference of the elite towards the poor) + (dirty unhygienic roads/garbage) + (spirituality/fascinating culture). Not that these things don’t exist in India, but lot of other things do too, and India shouldn’t be viewed solely through this prism.
How many jobs have Pankaj Mishra and his ilk created? How many poor people have they found employment for? What have they done, in real terms, for “the benighted 800 million in rural areas”? These questions are not intended as sarcasm; I genuinely want to know the answers.
Amit Ganpat, Delhi
Mishra is continuing in the grand old tradition of Left intellectuals—good at pointing out problems; solutions are none of their concern.
People like Mr Mishra will travel the world to earn royalty on their books and live the high life while being preachy to other people who may have done well for themselves. His review, unfortunately for him, seems to have backfired badly.
Pankaj Mishra’s only achievement is in being supercilious towards those who have come up on merit, a quality he singularly lacks. He needs to analyse why French’s book has struck a chord among many people who see a celebration, at least in parts, of what India should be, devoid of entitlement and reservations.
In his book, Patrick French’s affirmative attempt to coalesce Indians into a smooth stereotyped mass misses out the soul of real India. One of the greatest attributes of India is its diversity and in that lies its ineffable genius. India was described as “a mixture of pearls and dung”, by Arab scholar-scientist Abu Raihan al-Biruni. The contrast continues in the 21st century: Indian citizens top both global rich lists and malnutrition tables. Indian identity is an idea forged in diversity, according to Shashi Tharoor, who has argued that “every one of us is in a minority”. Caste and language divisions put everyone in a minority. “The whole point of Indian pluralism is you can be many things and one thing.” India is an idea that has emanated from a strong society that is deep-rooted in old religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups. The idea of the nation-state is a relatively new invention.
M. Nauman Khan, West Wimbledon, London
Patrick French’s rejoinder (Cameron’s Cuz is More the Curzon, Feb 14) to Pankaj Mishra’s shockingly disappointing review of his book was perfectly amusing, as well as being a fitting reply. That aside, French’s portrayal of the India of our times, the positivity he exudes and the proactiveness he encourages are just what we Indians need to accept and act on, for the prevailing cynicism and negativity would get us nowhere. French correctly argues that in a globalising world treatises on nations can come from foreigners, which cannot be dismissed as dross on that ground alone. In fact, the objectivity implied therein might well be an asset.
Asha Hariharan, Bangalore
Pankaj Mishra had it coming. His knowledge of economics has always been shallow; it certainly does not complement his passions. Leftists like him should stop bristling with rage at the new prosperity of middle-class India and stop blaming them for the country’s problems. Instead, such people should face up to the fact that most Indians are poor because of their own failed policies.
Mihir Samel, Mumbai
It is a good sign. The readers have become critics. It is required from every writer in this present age to provoke debate amongst readers. However bitterness should be avoided because then your perception and vision gets clouded.Pawan Kumar Varma, in his brilliant book - 'Being Indian' has quoted Kapila Vatsayan that 'envy' is the 'only enduring emotion among Indians. Well, French has indeed succeeded in exploiting this 'emotion' after writing his response.
I bought this book after reading Pankaj Mishra's biting review. I must say that I am glad that I read this book. It is one of the best journalistic writing on India to have come up in recent times. French is knowledeable about his subject and has covered it in astonishing breadth and depth. I really doubt if Pankaj has actually read the book.
Pankaj starts his review with a complain that "The worldwide corporate hunt for new sources of profit has now created another one-dimensional image: India, we are now told, is rich and materialistic, ...". I would surely agree with Pankaj's view if the book actually took this view. However, the author has taken a much wider view than the usual "India Shining" stuff. In fact the most poignant part of the book is Venkatesan's story.
Next Pankaj claims that "French deals summarily with some long-established commentators on India, such as Amartya Sen, whom he compares to a “clever schoolboy”, someone out of touch with the “reality of how people live and think”. I think the author has quite convincingly challenged Amartya Sen's argument that religion is NOT a primary identity in most people's lives. Anyone who has lived in India for any length of time and has kept his eyes open knows pretty well that in Indian context "majority" community indeed means Hindu community even if Pankaj doesn't agree to it.
Pnakaj's next complaint that "Even India’s popular cultures, reliably bracing guides to a range of Indian attitudes, don’t get a look-in; Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and the IPL as well as Apur Sansar are sidelined" is even more ridiculous. I can in fact come up with a list of a billion more things that I would like to be addressed in a book on India. The only difficulty is that it will not remain a book then. It will be a hardbound compilation of Times of India and a dozen more newspapers.
The fact that Pankaj has not actually read the book becomes clear when he claims that "there is something very retro about his conclusion that corruption in India is caused by “poverty and social imbalance”; it reminds you of the small-time bribe-taking babus, netas and thanedars of a relatively innocent, pre-1991 era." because in the same paragraph the author has talked about big business corruption as well. I do not know what is there to argue against "poverty and social imbalance" conclusion as the cause of corruption unless someone is totally clueless about the meaning of "social imbalance".
Pankaj even finds fault with French's approach of analyzing nepotism because the author "produces computer-generated charts and graphs to underline what to any sentient Indian has long been blindingly plain." All I can say that Mr. Mishra seems to have a very robust disdain on any conclusion derived from hard data. His own inability to understand "computer generated charts" can hardly be taken against the author.
Pankaj's argument that "not all young men from destitute rural families can join the software industry, which currently employs all of 2.3 million people, or take up wine-making" is true. However, if he has an alternative vision that can actually enable all young men to do so, he must have kept it a secret.
In the end he gives a list of alternative reading that are much superior in his opinion. I am sure they must be definitely having some good points but I sincerely believe that Pankaj is doing a disservice to these authors by recommending their works because being recommended by Pankaj may give an impression that those authors are as shallow and opinionated as Pankaj himself is, though actually they may be excellent writers.
Thank you Mr French,
Pankaj Mishra had it coming. His knowledge of economics has always been shallow, unable to complement his passion. His theory of "India acheived best growth before 1990", has ealrier been totally refuted by Salil Tripathi in an exchange a couple of years back. But he hasnt learned one bit.
Leftists should stop balming the new found prosperity of neo-riche Indian for the countries problems, and face up to the fact that the majority of the country are poor because of their own failed policies.
We seem to have a Stalinist "SARKAR" commenting from Paris. He does not explain how the Communist system starved millions of peasants to death (Ukraine) nor tortured and liquidated tens of millions (the Gulags). Finally Sarkar's utopia collapsed under the weight of its own contraditions.
"I always wonder why all the brahmin wear the tag of communism in INDIA"
Something about the phrase "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" must have tickled their fancy. Here is a modernist ideology that is very Brahminist. They took to it like ducks to water.
Dictatorship of the Proletariat is of course a transitional state in Communism, but not if the Brahmins have their way .
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