This is an extended version of a January 2003 article.
Nandini Lal: You’ve never been one to shrink from revisionist takes (Liberty or Death on Gandhi or Jinnah, for example). Will we hear the familiar crackle of controversy again in your Tibet book? And are there any myths you’re planning to debunk in your Naipaul biography?
Patrick French: It’s not so much that I deliberately set out to debunk! It’s more that if I see a reality of how something is, then I will say that, rather than going along with the orthodoxy. One of the things that drives me as a writer is never to assume that orthodoxy is always right. There’s a load of political and social orthodoxies that people subscribe to without really examining them.
People think something’s an orthodoxy, when in fact it’s an orthodoxy of a previous generation. And the orthodoxy of the present generation is different. So people will think they’re challenging something, when in fact all they’re doing is saying the same as everybody else at that particular historical moment.
Is it true that Naipaul told you, "Don’t let the New Yorker worry you. The New Yorker knows nothing about writing. Nothing."
(Laughs) Actually, nobody knows the punch line was after that: "Writing an article there is like posting a letter in a Venezuelan postbox. Nobody’s going to read it!" He meant it was a publication for which there’s more reverence than readership.
Before you were signed on as Naipaul’s biographer, the names that had been bandied about included Ian Buruma, Pankaj Mishra, Tarun Tejpal, Sunil Khilnani, Andrew Lycett. You managed to pip them to the post. Was it something in particular that they were looking for in a biographer?
Naipaul read my work, saw I had a seriousness about my writing. I had some experience and knowledge of both India and Britain, which for him is crucial. How on earth can you write a biography of Naipaul if you don’t understand something about both societies?
How hard is it to be truly objective and credible about Naipaul -- to steer between hagiography and, well, doing a Theroux? Ironically, Naipaul is perhaps the most obsessive seeker of truth, and puts honesty above all else.
It’s a professional undertaking, but unless you have a reasonably straightforward relationship, it would be quite hard to do the interviewing.
How big a role did Nadira play in your being chosen? She went out of her way to say that you were "all moral centre and no malice".
I don’t think it’s really about like or dislike. It’s a professional relationship.
Both Naipaul and you won the same Somerset Maugham award in your twenties (he in ’65, you in ’91). Both of you are writers. Both live in Wiltshire. Do you feel you have a lot in common?
But those are superficial things. But I’m a different sort of writer, with a different kind of temperament. (Laughs.)
Ah, temperament. Is Naipaul easy on the nerves? How do you handle the pressure?
I’ve always found him straightforward.
Seriously? I mean, we’re talking about the world’s prickliest man here.
Seriously! I’d say the same thing to you privately or publicly. I think he’s somebody who, when he gets into an awkward situation or conversation or relationship, can be fiery. On the other hand, when he gets on well with somebody, then he’s very direct. There’s no bullshit. Everything is what it is. I can honestly say I’ve never found him particularly difficult.
I read somewhere that you said you’d have "complete freedom" while writing on Naipaul. I was wondering if that’s at all possible with living people.
Clearly, writing a biography about a living person is very different. They can change, do unexpected things (and Naipaul has always been unexpected in his career), so you don’t know what’s coming next. It also means that, as you say, people answer back.
My way around that is, I’m doing the book in two halves. The first volume will go roughly until about 1980, early 80s. The second volume will probably be posthumous. Maybe when the second volume comes...
...he won’t live to see it? Your earlier books -- on Younghusband, on Indian history -- dealt with people long dead, who weren’t around to defend themselves. Won’t things be different this time around?
But in the first volume, when I’m writing about him growing up in Trinidad in the 30s and 40s, or coming to Oxford in the early 50s, or as a writer having a hard time in London in the 50s, that’s sufficiently removed from my own life to be able to treat it almost as if I was writing about somebody in the 19th century.
If I’m writing about current events or things that he’s done or said or written in the last 5 years, I can’t pretend I have that distance. And that’s why I’ve decided to break them up into two volumes. Maybe that makes it easier.
But I don’t feel any kind of restrictions on what I write. You know, for example, when I’m writing on the freedom movement, I don’t feel the need to subscribe to an orthodoxy.
Do you share his political beliefs?
I’m not coming from the same direction as him -- the whole question of Hindutva and what it represents. But I’m not here to defend his politics. I’m simply here to analyse or look at the motivation of why he said or wrote certain things at a particular point in his career.
I’m not particularly ideological. I’m not really seeing it that way. To me what’s interesting in a biography is looking at a way in which he develops as a character. Looking at things like the upbringing they have. The way in which they see themselves and invent themselves when they’re a teenager, in their early 20s, in their formative years. And the way that plays out in their lives. So in a sense, I see the most interesting part of his life as being perhaps the 40s and 50s when politics didn’t really come into it. Politics in his life or him being perceived as political is quite a recent thing.
Still, isn’t it dangerous when the Hindutva brigade misappropriates his words?
He's said things which can be used in certain ways. People try to say, oh, he’s lined up with the BJP. I’m not trying to defend or condemn. I personally don’t share his position on a lot of subjects to do with India. But to see him as a mouthpiece for the BJP as he’s being presented sometimes I just don’t think is right.
He goes somewhere, he studies the history, the society, the culture, he forms a certain point of view, and he expresses that view in very forceful terms. But it’s not because he is an ideologue.
Naipaul used those damning words "inevitable retribution" in reference to Babri. Surely there’s nothing open to misinterpretation there, it’s pretty unambiguous.
There are several different points here. One, I didn’t think it’s particularly useful or creative to take a phrase that a writer says...
Out of context?
No, not out of context, it was probably made in context. There’s a great vogue at the moment -- it happens partly to politicians, to writers -- take a quote that somebody’s made a long time ago, and invest it with this huge significance. For example, I’ve seen this thing happen to Naipaul with a throwaway line to a journalist 20, 30 years ago who asked, "What’s the future of Africa?". He said, "Oh, Africa has no future." So it’s a damning line, but it’s ONE throwaway line, and this comes in every single time there’s a profile of him. If somebody wants to condemn him politically, they quote this one line. It’s not that he didn’t say it, but I don’t think that you can analyse somebody on one sentence they said 20 years ago.
The key thing is to look at their body of work. I would argue that Naipaul is not politically or ideologically motivated, certainly not party political -- although he has very strong views.
It's been said, "Naipaul demands an absolute answer, and we live in a relative world." Is that the essence of the problem?
That may be true.
Do you feel in fact it’s the opposite, that he is too nuanced for people who want black and white answers and leap too easily to simplistic conclusions?
(Pause) Interesting point. I don’t think it’s true to say that he sees everything in absolute terms. His views are nuanced, but he expresses things more forcefully. He says things that other people would be afraid to say. He never equivocates. Most writers do, because they are nervous of being labelled one thing or another. He says things -- however painful, difficult or embarrassing. It’s always like he’s saying, well, forget the consequences, I’ll say whatever I want to say.
You mean, when he says them tongue-in-cheek?
You’ve got to remember he began his career as a comic writer!
Some of the things which are quoted back with great solemnity haven’t been meant in that particular way. But others are. For example, he said something like, all jokes are serious. People will sometimes say things, and then say it’s only a joke. But in fact, there’s a serious intent behind him.
Did you expect the kind of reaction you got in India to your Liberty or Death?
No! I didn’t expect the strength and volume of reaction. I didn’t expect letters coming in hundreds condemning me, saying I was a Pakistani agent! I mean, can you believe it? I thought figures from 50 years ago could be treated with seriousness and neutrality that enables you to point out their faults. Point out certain facts about the way in which the Congress and the Muslim league operated then.
Very much so. Yes, partly the way it was extracted. People concentrate on that you said this negative thing about Gandhi. The thing that I thought was odd was that I was harsh in my analysis of figures such as Lord Linlithgow, the Viceroy, Churchill, Attlee. I found it surprising that Indian reviewers didn’t even seem to notice that. They only said you’ve said things not very complimentary about the Mahatma. If you review a book you must review a book, you’re not reviewing extracts in a magazine.
Some of the criticism seemed to be: examine Gandhi’s philosophy if you must, why examine his stool?
I think I make one reference or maybe two! If you read Gandhi’s collected works, he talks about his bowels a lot. It’s something that was very important to him.
What made you take on a sacred cow like Gandhi?
Gandhi was essentially a social activist. A part of his life was as a political negotiator, but essentially he was a social reformer. That was what he wanted to be. From about the mid to late 30s he got kind of mentally disturbed. The Gandhi that I admire is the Gandhi in the 20s. It’s him in the last 10 years of his life that I have a kind of difficulty with.
You criticised Churchill too, didn’t you?
It’s more the damage that Churchill did to India by simply ignoring the aspirations of Indian nationalism at a time when it was very strong. For him to say in 1942-43 (the time the Quit India movement was active, during the Bengal famine) that if the British empire lasts for a thousand years, people will say this was our finest hour. It’s completely illogical. If your empire is falling apart, then you have to deal with it in a certain way.
But Liberty or Death had excellent sales inspite -- or perhaps because -- of the controversy.
Yeah, it did very well commercially.
Jinnah once famously said that he and his typewriter made Pakistan. Perception often becomes reality when you look back on the past. (Attenborough’s Gandhi and Kamal Hasan’s Hey Ram are creatures apart.) Is it possible for an author to make or unmake the history of a country or person the way a politician can claim to?
Yeah, I think that history is always changing. It’s never a static reality. Each generation has a different take on the past. You feel as a writer you’re changing things and people’s ideas. Sometimes you meet people and they’ll say quite consciously that you’ve altered their perceptions.
But equally, when you write a more accurate representation of somebody like Gandhi or Maulana Azad, you’ll still find people coming out with the same tired ideas about them. And you think well, "Why did I write that book if nobody’s going to notice the things that I said in it?"
But maybe with the Tibet book, there’ll be an impact. I think there is a feeling among Tibet campaigners in Britain, the US and Europe, that things have run their course, there needs to be a fresh approach. That may make people think again of the reality of how Tibet works. Yeah, I think it’ll be part of that process. I think it points out certain facts which people are trying to pretend aren’t there.
At 28 you won the Somerset Maugham award for your book on Lord Younghusband. Now you’ve written on Tibet. How did an Englit student from Wiltshire with a name like French end up in Asia?
What triggered off my interest in Tibet? Well, I met the Dalai Lama when I was 16. That developed an existing interest in Tibet. I went there for the first time at 19. From that I became involved in the whole Tibetan freedom movement -- an organisation called Tibet Support Group which then became Free Tibet movement in the UK. At one point I was one of the directors. That’s how it began.
This book came out of a gradual nervousness that the western idea of Tibet, particularly the views of Tibet campaigners, was becoming too detached from the reality of what Tibet was like. So I did a long journey through Tibet in 1999. And this book that I’ve just written did came out of that journey.
Where do you think the movement is heading?
Maybe in 20 years time, there’ll be democracy in China.
Tibetans -- like Jamyang Norbu -- hate the fact that Tibet has become an icon for pretty photo-ops for calendars, an outlet for the "fuzzy, feel-good sympathy" of foreigners.
The Tibetan issue has been hijacked by foreigners. Tibetan exiles have played along to a large extent. But it means that people can tell lies about Tibet and have them repeated around the world as if they’re true.
So for example, the exiled Tibetan government in Dharamsala lays claim to large parts of what they call Greater Tibet territory in places like Szechuan and Gangzhi province in China. They say when Tibet is free, all this will be ruled by the Lhasa government. But a lot of these territories have never been ruled by Lhasa. Never! So why are foreign campaigning groups endorsing a territorial claim that the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala is making -- when it’s based not on any past political reality, but simply on the fact that in cultural or religious terms, wherever Tibetans live is seen as being part of Tibet?
Similar claims are made by the exile government about population transfer -- that the Tibetans are a minority in their own land. Yet when you look at the statistics, clearly they aren’t. There are far more Tibetans than Chinese. Yet, because that supports the prevailing idea that the Chinese government is harsh and ruthless (which it is), people say Tibetans are outnumbered by the Chinese in their own land. Nobody actually goes and bothers to look at the statistics! It ties in with the earlier point I was making.
Norbu argues that the nationalist cause has been replaced by "a squishy agenda for environmental and spiritual concerns". Is that the kind of point you’ll be making too?
Yeah. My analysis of the Tibetan problem would be similar to his. It’s just that my conclusions would be different.
In other words, nobody doubts the rightness of the cause, only its effectiveness?
That’s right. You have to look at the political reality which is not "should the Chinese communists be ruling Tibet?" -- which clearly they shouldn’t -- but the central question is, "is there any chance that the Chinese government will give up Tibet and allow it to become independent as a result of people campaigning in London or Washington?" The answer is no. That central reality is avoided by the Free Tibet movement.
So what’s the option -- lobbing bombs, blowing up people?
I don’t think there are any options left for Tibetans.If you’re a Tibetan inside Tibet you have the cruelty of the famine, of the Great Leap Forward, the cruelty of the cultural revolution, the destruction of monasteries and nunneries. We then had a period in the mid-80s of comparative liberalisation. Then we had protests and riots, suppressed very brutally. Now there’s no form of protest possible. So non-violent or violent resistance is impossible. That reality has to be recognised: there’s very little that can be done internally. Equally, some governments are amenable to foreign pressure, but I don’t think the Chinese government is. You have to stick with the reality of that.
Is there no way out?
I think Tibetans inside Tibet have no choice but to work with the existing system, to try to become part of it, to get into positions of relative power within that system.
How can they do so without being compromised?
Either economically by becoming successful in business, or by joining the bureaucracy. For example, in your town or your village, you start to attain positions of power, you see a difference. You do see Tibetans officials inside Tibet’s autonomous region in relatively senior positions now. Whereas only 10 or 20 years ago they were stooges, they had these positions but they meant nothing then.
On the one hand, Tibetans like Norbu support the more aggressive Rangzen path. On the other hand, most feel the only solution lies in "escape". Do you agree?
Meaning physical escape? That does happen. You still get Tibetans coming across to Nepal or India and they suffer badly.
Sometimes escape can take the form of suicide, as in the case of Ngodup . I read your moving article on him. What a sad waste of a life.
Yes. That comes into my book too, actually! It’s very difficult. I suppose he felt that he had to make a protest, his options were so limited, that was what he did. It’s hard to say whether that actually brings any benefit. It’s a sign of extreme desperation when somebody does that.
Norbu says of the Dalai Lama, "Unfortunately, tolerance for criticism is not one of his virtues."
There’s definitely an ambiguity in the Lama’s reaction. It’s not that he personally seems to reject criticism. It’s just that he doesn’t allow much of a forum for alternate views within exiled Tibetan society.
You meet the Dalai Lama often?
Yeah, I’ve met him on and off for the last 20 years. I do feel a lot of admiration for him as a person. But I think that he’s made some political mistakes in his handling of the Tibet issue. He always says, "I’m a simple monk." And it’s true, he’s essentially a monk, not a politician! He’s a better monk than he’s a politician. He’s done well to keep the Tibetan cause alive. But I don’t think he has a natural talent as a political negotiator. Especially for the last 40 plus years since he left Tibet in 1959.
Does your book make the case that the Dalai Lama mishandled the Tibet issue?
The arguments in the books are quite complicated, so it’s difficult for me to paraphrase them. But one of the points I make is, there was a period after the death of Mao Zedong when Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang were willing to do a deal with the Dalai Lama and with the Tibetan exiles in the early 1980s, and that process lasted up until about 1989, when the Panchen Rinpoche died. But for whatever reason, the Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala and the Dalai Lama completely misread what was happening and didn’t do a deal.
After that, they got the Free Tibet movement in the West growing more powerful, and the Chinese position absolutely hardening, to the present position where they won’t have any contact or negotiation at all with Dharamsala. The period of negotiation is no longer here. That’s what I mean about the number of options having been cut down, there’s very little you can do externally.
And peaceful protests obviously don’t cut it with the Chinese.
Well, the Dalai Lama talked of using Gandhian techniques. But for Gandhi it was the British political system which made it possible to use non-violent non-cooperation as a very effective political weapon of mass protest. Clearly, if you try similar methods of non-violence in Tibet, you’ll either be killed or put in prison. There’s no equivalent in China to the House of Commons with people saying, "Look at the disgraceful things happening at Jallianwala Bagh" with "Look at the awful things that have been done to Tibetan monks in Lhasa."
Would you call yourself an Indophile?
I’m India obsessive -- completely fascinated by Indian history and Indian politics. But I’ve always tended to see India in a harsher light than many European or British writers. The power play of politics at the local level still shocks me.
I mean, the response to Gujarat baffles me.
The whole thing of tehelka.com, the idea of being able to catch somebody on film receiving cash, you can hardly have anything more graphic, yet the response to that is not to say these people are being caught redhanded, but to say maybe the tape has been doctored, to say maybe there’s been some secret conspiracy or plot. So I guess I have a harsher view of India than others.
You’re not a huge fan of the "saris & elephants" school of writing, are you?
It’s difficult for me to generalise about foreign writers.
How different is your engagement with these otherwise traditionally popular western topics and subjects?
I don’t think it’s more objective -- I don’t think anyone’s ever as objective as they pretend to be -- it’s more realistic.
Is that your family? [Points towards people walking past]
That’s Abigail Ashton-Johnson, my wife. That one’s Abraham. Tenzin is the one playing tennis. Iris Indira, that little baby who’s fast asleep. She’s got a bit of a snuffly cold, so she’s not very happy over the last few days.
Are you quite sure you didn’t name her after Mrs Gandhi?
No. She’s named after the goddess Laxmi, whose other name is Indira!
You helped Arundhati Roy find David Godwin for her God Of Small Things. How did that happen? Do you still keep in touch with Pankaj Mishra?
Pankaj Mishra is in Spain, but he’s coming to Delhi in a few weeks (This interview took place in December 2002 ). When I was in India in 1995, researching Liberty or Death, he was working for Harper Collins in India. We met, we got on well, had common interests. After I went back home, he said, "I’ve been reading this MS and it’s really fantastic. What would you recommend? Do you think you could tell anybody to take it on?" Obviously, if you’re a writer, you often get lots of people saying oh my brother’s written a book! But I knew that Pankaj had excellent literary judgment. Just in talking to him I could tell his critical faculties were very well-developed. This was serious. So I told him to send the MS to David Godwin, my agent.
I ring David and say, "You’ve got to read this MS, Pankaj says it’s the best novel from India in a long time." David says, "People always say this." And I say, "This guy has good judgment." So David reads it and he’s really taken by it. He feels he really ought to go to Delhi and meet the author. He’s never been to India before. So he’s a little unnerved. "Do I have to get injections? Where do I get my visa from?!" He signs up Arundhati Roy. She comes to London, does the rounds of different publishers.
I remember that time vividly. It was a strange thing to watch a book take off in that way. As a publishing phenomenon, I can’t think of any other book I've seen. You get a lot of books that people love, but to have a book that people love to the point where it’s being translated into dozens of languages and outsells all previous Booker Prize winners is incredible.
You stood for Parliament in 1992, didn’t you? How did that happen?
My family political background was that my father -- my mother less so -- was instinctively quite traditional and conservative. During the late 80s, when the Green Movement became particularly influential around Europe, you had the rise of Green parties across European countries. I became very involved in that. Rallies and meetings. I felt the world was in a big mess. Environmental degradation was a big part of that. Maybe there was a different kind of politics which the Green Party represented. Because I was keen on public speaking, I was asked if I’d stand. So I stood in ’92.
Did you win?
No. I wasn’t elected. I only got a small share of the vote. Partly because of the voting system. We don’t have proportional representation. We have to win from a constituency. And that means the Green Party even when it did well, never won a parliamentary seat. But then the Green Party itself was a chaotic organisation. So I moved on from that.
I’ve moved on from that idealism. Now I see party politics as a waste of time. It’s not something I see myself getting involved in again. I’m not ideological.
So what sort of political animal are you?
In economic issues, I can be perceived as rightwing, I see state involvement in running companies tends to be a disaster, and the same with price controls, credit controls and regulations on sending currency abroad. All these things, although fine in theory, never seem to work. On social issues, I’m libertarian. So I don’t really fall into any particular political category!
How long have you been to India this time?
Well, I came to India in December. We live in Wiltshire for most of the time. But my work means that we have to travel a lot whether it is China, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia or India. I’ve travelled with Abigail in many countries.
Her first visit to India?
She came to India before I did! She came to India at 18 as a student backpacker with her friends. India in the 80s, when village people had not seen foreigners on satellite television. So there you are with a backpack and blonde hair and people staring at you! They stare less these days.
And why is that?
Now it’s not so strange to see foreigners. They’ve watched Baywatch!
So it’s a working holiday this time.
I mostly tend to come to India on my own, work in an intense, focussed way. But this time, we thought it’d be nice for all of us to come, do things more gradually.
I’ve got around 40 or 50 people already I want to interview all over India, most in Delhi, some in Kashmir, Bombay. Everybody ranging from people who helped V.S. Naipaul on his first journey in ’62 which led to An Area Of Darkness. Some of those are reasonably well known, all I have to do is pick up the phone. Whereas with some, all I have is a name, and that they were living in Bombay in the 1960s.
Very Sherlock Holmes!
It’s almost like detective work. You have to follow the tiniest leads. For example, there was a guy called Zul Vellani. Naipaul met him in end ’62 in his early formative years, when he was getting his perception of what India really was. They lost contact for 40 years. When we were in Provence earlier this year at a literary festival, somebody comes up and says to Naipaul, "Oh, by the way, do you remember a friend of mine called Zul? Here’s his address!" So Naipaul gives it to me. And there’s another example. There’s somebody Naipaul stayed with in ’62. All I know is, he’s a sardar and his name is Jeetu!
There must be Jeetus by the thousands!
But I’ll find a way.
You couldn’t have picked a more challenging subject. You must have been travelling with him, having access to all his documents. It must be a fascinating experience.
Yes, I’ve been with him a bit. Before I started on this biography I spent a bit of time with him in India. Which is always entertaining! I’ve only done about a year of research. It’s a project that’ll take me 4-5 years. I’ll do it in 2 volumes.
Is it mostly research or travel?
There’s also an amount of correspondence I have to locate. But it's mainly interviewing people. The process will be mainly in Delhi but I’ll also be travelling all over India. Spend a bit of time in the south. Over the years I’ve made a lot of friends in Delhi. We’ll probably take a flat, use that as a base.
Well, best of luck.
For some of Patrick French's writing on this site, please visit the Author Page.
For a 1997 interview, please click here .