Jitender Gupta
On the road In the reportage sections, French recreates the experiences of foreign visitors
review
A Curzon Without An Empire
Patrick French's armchair exercise parrots the rosy Western view of India, shunning rigour and ignoring depth for shallow deftness. His 'portrait' is a catalogue of absences.
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India: A Portrait—An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People
INDIA: A PORTRAIT—AN INTIMATE BIOGRAPHY OF 1.2 BILLION PEOPLE
BY
PATRICK FRENCH

PENGUIN/ALLEN LANE | PAGES 448 | RS 699

The Cambridge economist Joan Robinson would often say that “whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true”. For a long time India was seen as poor and spiritual in the West even as the IITS and IIMS disgorged thousands of aspiring tycoons into Europe and America. 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, briskly flattening the world, in Thomas Friedman’s indelible phrase.

Never mind that more desperately poor people—421 million—live in India today than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. The new western accounts of India speak of the magnates of Mumbai and Bangalore; they hail an India rising, finally, to the consumer capitalism that is apparently the summit of human civilisation, if not the terminus of history. India becomes in this 2.0 version a vibrantly democratic country full of confident tycoons, adventurous entrepreneurs and friendly English-speakers, which might even counterbalance China while assisting the economic recovery of the West.

Patrick French’s book India: A Portrait forcefully amplifies this newest idea of India; its vast echo chamber admits few discordant voices. 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”. Romila Thapar and Wendy Doniger are more brusquely dispatched. Riffing on India’s social and political histories, French ignores the vast trove of Indian art and literature that can help illuminate them. 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.

This kind of haughtiness can be enticing. V.S. Naipaul, French’s previous biographical subject and a striking though unacknowledged influence on this book, often gives the impression that no one else has ever written about India, or at least not as incisively as he has. He then goes on to redeem this conceit with an original and provocative way of looking at people, landscape and architecture.

India rarely offers the aesthetic pleasures of a steady, crystalline vision. French doesn’t make himself, like Naipaul, an engaged and engaging protagonist in his narrative of India. His tone is detached, pedagogical; it often reminds you of the omniscient geopolitical sages of another time—Lord Curzon, for instance, in Persia and the Persian Question. Yet India is most absorbing when French picks up his reporter’s notebook, and exposes himself to raw actuality.

A visit to Kashmir brings him face-to-face with the brutality that the vociferous demand for ‘law and order’ often amounts to in practice. A sharply written account of the (Aarushi) Talwar family in Noida underlines the vulnerability of even well-connected Indians to a venal police and judiciary. In these chapters French recreates the experiences of many foreign visitors to India, who, preparing themselves for a vibrant democracy, are shocked to encounter its hollowed-out forms: rampant corruption, widespread practices of torture and extrajudicial execution, degradations of class and caste, and the hatred laced with fear of the very privileged for the poor majority.

Shocked by a press report about a labourer called Venkatesh, who has been shackled to his place of work, French travels to Karnataka to interview him. He is appalled by the living conditions of workers constructing a fancy condominium in Bangalore. French also describes a visit to Andhra Pradesh in 2002 when he met some evidently deluded Maoists, and a Tennyson-quoting IPS officer accused of encounter killings. “I don’t doubt that any of the people we have killed are guilty,” the officer says in the course of a long tirade, which convinces French that “vicious policing” would soon help diminish the Maoist movement.

There are some vivid descriptions and interesting encounters, including with Afzal Guru at Tihar jail, in India. More fieldwork, you suspect, would have given some extra ballast to the book, which flits distractingly between journalism, history, analysis, stern generalisations (“Hindus have no concept of compassion”) and bold prophecy (India “may be the world’s default setting for the future”). Unfortified by first-hand experience, French often succumbs to the intellectual languor and overworked templates of foreign journalists in India.

He prefers to rhapsodise about the making of the Constitution, although the strength of Indian democracy today is found in the many civil society movements, and sections of the press that still retain a degree of public-spiritedness. Likewise, many intrepid and powerless Dalit individuals and organisations today fight for social and economic justice; but for French it is, predictably, Mayawati who embodies low-caste assertiveness.

 
 
There is something retro about French’s conclusion that corruption in India is caused by ‘poverty and social imbalance’.
 
 
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. Rising India, however, has been developing much larger and coarser appetites. The Commonwealth Games fiasco, the Reddy brothers scam, the Adarsh, Lavasa and 2G scandals merely highlight how some of the most prominent businessmen, politicians, bureaucrats and journalists synergistically plunder such national resources as land, oil and gas, and mines.

Though surprised by the Maoist resurgence today in places other than Andhra, French foregoes any close examination of the corporate scramble for land and commodities, or the accelerated dispossession, in recent years, of landless adivasis and farmers alike. He deplores Salwa Judum, but it is not clear if French has visited Chhattisgarh, or investigated the many human rights atrocities there. He approvingly quotes a CRPF constable on “the strictness of the rules of engagement” against the Maoists; and this seems to close the file on the appalling collapse of moral sense as well as civil liberties in the state that led, most recently, to the conviction of Binayak Sen.

Even stranger gaps exist in India, which, though subtitled An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People, finds no place for the nearly 800 million Indians who still depend on agriculture for a living. The quiet catastrophe in rural areas—the collapse of water tables, spiralling debt, the poisoning of cultivable land, and tens of thousands of farmer suicides—is absent from India. French does talk to one man with a farming background at length; but the latter turns out to be an upwardly mobile adivasi at a Californian-style vineyard owned by Sula Wines. Claiming that Mahadev Kolis “normally prefer” Chenin Blanc and Madeira, he leads French into upbeat speculation about the “democratisation of wine-drinking” in India.


Metropolis ‘The exuberance, tawdriness, cruelty and melancholy of India’s own Jazz Age’

Such possibilities of high-end consumption may entrance the primary audience of India—western businessmen, who, given the size of India’s middle class and aspirational market, can afford to remain indifferent to the benighted 800 million in rural areas. For its Indian readers, French’s book may pose an obvious problem: all that he knows and retells, whether about Sanjay Gandhi or Sikh fundamentalists (“Some Sikhs do drink alcohol,” reads one anxious endnote), is likely to be less than what they already know.

 
 
French’s book may pose a problem for the Indian reader: all that he tells and retells is likely to be less than what they know.
 
 
Wondering why nepotism in Indian politics has “never been fully quantified”, French produces computer-generated charts and graphs to underline what to any sentient Indian has long been blindingly plain. His interview with L.K. Advani, gingerly handled, reveals no new facts about the BJP leader’s life and personality; the latter’s responsibility for the demolition of the Babri Masjid and subsequent violence remains unexamined. More surprisingly, French berates secular Indian intellectuals for blinding themselves to the damage inflicted on India by the “Muslim invasions”.

Some other familiar ideological strains emerge in French’s historical survey of the Indian economy, which opens idiosyncratically with John Maynard Keynes’s sex life but includes the obligatory account of how a Superman-like Manmohan Singh rescued an economy “stripped bare by socialism”. French has no time for the well-attested wisdom that British imperialists imposed a damaging regime of ‘free trade’ on the Indian economy. He focuses instead on the money Britain owed its Indian possession by 1945, apparently “a substantial potential asset for the newly independent nation” that Nehru frittered away. 

Echoing Thomas Friedman, he sees the second half of the nineteenth century as the ‘First Age of Globalisation’ rather than ‘The High Noon of Imperialism’. He also quotes the free-market ideologue Milton Friedman against Nehru’s central planner P.C. Mahalanobis, lamenting the fact that postcolonial nation-builders “went not to Chicago for guidance, but to Calcutta”.

It is imperative to examine just how ‘socialist’ India was until 1991. It is also important, in light of the ongoing Great Recession and the destruction of Latin American economies in the 1980s and ’90s, to question whether the Chicago School’s notion of unregulated capitalism isn’t another dangerous fantasy. Nevertheless, French is right to be critical of Nehru, whose errors have had all too real and grave consequences for generations of Indians.

The influence of the right-wing Friedmans on French, however, results in a lopsided critique. Nehru is blamed for discouraging private entrepreneurship, but not for neglecting land reform, agriculture, healthcare and primary education—the early sins of omission partly responsible for the fact today that half of India’s children are malnourished, and the overwhelmingly young Indian work-force remains largely unskilled, exposed to brutal exploitations in the unorganised private sector.

The sensitive journalist—as distinct from the pundit—in French is alert to the broadening inequality of income and opportunity found in India today. Describing his encounter with Venkatesh, the shackled serf, he worries, “how many generations would it take to turn a junior Venkatesh into a software engineer?” Later in the same chapter, he concludes a rags-to-riches story of a rural migrant in Bangalore (whose son works in Silicon Valley) with the words, “The answer was, in this case, only one”.

Well, yes. But, surely, 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. Indeed, it seems impossible to move hundreds of millions of Indians from rural to urban areas, and create labour-intensive jobs for them in manufacturing and services, even as technology continually increases output per worker.

 
 
India is imbued with the faith that a ‘dynamic’ class of producers/consumers will bring both economic and social change.
 
 
Like many recent accounts of the country, French’s book is imbued with the mystical faith that a ‘dynamic’ Indian class of producers and consumers will somehow accomplish social as well as economic change. The book’s true heroes are the maharajas and gurus of the corporate world who liberated themselves from the licence-permit Raj, and who now seem ready to emancipate the rest of us as well. Though contemptuous of secularist historians, Maoists, Amartya Sen and others, India deferentially reproduces the rhetoric of India’s business elite. The Airtel billionaire Sunil Bharti Mittal quickly convinces French that the world can be changed through corporate philanthropy. The maker of Chik shampoo charms French into hailing “the sachet revolution” as a “major feat of democratisation” since previously poor people can “now aspire to the pleasure of having shiny hair and softer skin”.

But democratically cheap beauty aids are unlikely to compensate the poor for a cruelly inegalitarian healthcare system, which pushes, according to a new report in The Lancet, 39 million Indians below the poverty line each year. French’s book has little or nothing to say about the major challenges facing India today, such as the task of adequately educating the country’s large youth population, not to mention making economic growth environmentally sustainable.

It is as though its unilinear discourse about the dynamism of Indian markets and democracy—one that excites audiences at Davos and Aspen and the HT’s ‘Luxury Summits’—cannot accommodate too many potentially complicating facts. Not surprisingly, French’s admiring account of Mayawati’s power skips over the evidence of her brazen ransacking of UP’s exchequer, her deals with the Manuwadi BJP and persecution of OBCs, and her solitaire diamonds.

THIS is a pity because French’s book, unavoidably partial as all portraits of India are, would only have been enriched by a deeper account of the India that is indeed rising: the aspiring as well as already privileged classes with their inordinate craving for wealth and fame, and their very fragile self-esteem.

Some of the best works of narrative non-fiction in recent months—Rana Dasgupta’s Granta essay on Delhi, Siddhartha Deb’s article in Caravan on Arindam Chaudhuri and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing—have plunged us into this teeming universe of euphoric desires, resentments and fears, the cities where thousands of Gatsbys and Babbitts are reinventing themselves madly in a manic quest for status and prestige. If there is one thing the Radia tapes reveal most clearly, it is that writers and journalists have only begun to capture the particular exuberance, tawdriness, cruelty and melancholy of India’s own Jazz Age. French’s book manages to remain unaware of this country, even as it heralds the New India where adivasis may not have potable water but can drink Sula wine.


(Pankaj Mishra is the author of several books, including Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India)

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