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JUNE 6, 2011

Bigness

India: A Portrait
by Patrick French
Knopf, 416 pp., $30

VISITING NEW DELHI and Calcutta not long after the smashing international success of Slumdog Millionaire, I was surprised by the number of Indians who wanted to hear my opinion of Danny Boyle’s film. This was a nice inversion of the clichéd traveler’s narrative, wherein the visitor solemnly asks the locals about the most recent artistic depiction of their homeland. (“American tourists,” a British friend recently informed me, “inquire about The King’s Speech and nothing else.”) But when I turned the question back on my interlocutors, I was surprised less by the vehemence of the criticisms than by the opposing viewpoints on offer. For every person who described the movie as only the latest Western attempt to sugarcoat the realities of Indian life, there was someone else who admitted to feeling shame that the world had embraced a movie which presented the country as nothing more than a poverty-stricken wasteland. While these two points of view might have contradicted one another, each stemmed from the understanding that India was being intensely examined on the world’s stage.

Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, which the author calls an “intimate biography of 1.2 billion people,” has received a number of hostile notices in the Indian press. As in the case of Slumdog Millionaire, many of the reviews seem concerned with the ways in which India is being interpreted. And a number of the criticisms lend credence to the notion that outsiders describing a foreign country are bound to be reprimanded. Pankaj Mishra, the first-rate novelist and essayist, has slammed French in two separate reviews, accusing him of ignoring India’s agricultural sector, minimizing the country’s widespread poverty, and making excuses for a new collection of oligarchs who seem completely uninterested in the welfare of the populace. French’s best chapter, on the nepotistic character of Indian politics, is dismissed by Mishra as being “blindingly plain” to any “sentient” observer. By this standard, French should not have written about impoverished Indians: Indian poverty is also blindingly plain to anyone who spends a day in the country.

But French’s book does exhibit some of the tendencies that have greeted the arrival of a “new” India with rose-tinted glasses. French, whose last effort was an astounding biography of V.S. Naipaul, is certainly aware of the dangers of writing about India, but he has trouble avoiding them. “Nearly everyone has a reaction to India, even if they have never been there,” he writes in his introduction.

They hate it or love it, think it mystical or profane; find it extravagant or ascetic; consider the food the best or the worst in the world. For East Asians, it is a competitor and a source of some of their own spiritual traditions. For Americans, it is a challenge, a potential hub of cooperation or economic rivalry—both countries are diverse and hulking, their national identities strong and to an extent constructed, their populations loquacious and outgoing and admiring of entrepreneurial success.

This cliché-ridden, Manichean passage begs several questions. For example, how many countries have unconstructed national identities? And how many travelers actually think the food in India is really the best or the worst in the world? French admits that these are “old” ways of looking at India, but it is clear from his writing that he finds such categories helpful. He ends the chapter by claiming that “With its overlap of extreme wealth and lavish poverty, its mix of the educated and ignorant, its competing ideologies, its lack of uniformity, its kindness and profound cruelty, its complex relationships with religion, its parallel realities and the rapid speed of social change—India is a macrocosm, and may be the world’s default setting for the future.” Almost all of the observations above could be made about nearly every country on earth. Even when French is not consciously romanticizing India, he cannot help but view it as larger-than-life, which is another form of mythmaking. This is a pity, because French is a fine stylist and an excellent reporter, with an eye for the telling detail.

French subscribes to the relatively common view that the country’s founding fathers, while heroically dedicated to the idea of secularism, ended up papering over religious differences, therefore ensuring the rise of sectarian Hindu politics. And he tends to support the now mainstream opinion that the centralized state apparatus, whose implementation helped guarantee the country’s unity after the arbitrary gashes of partition, was eventually subject to diminishing returns thanks to the creakiness of socialist planning. The problem is that French seems so enraptured by India that his analysis is never quite convincing.

He is certainly not blind, for example, to the awful disparities of wealth that continue to shame the economically expanding nation, but he puts too much faith in the wisdom of India’s new class of wealthy businessmen. His account of time spent with Sunil Mittal, the mobile phone service mogul, is embarrassingly gushing. It is certainly true, as Mittal argues, that philanthropy will be an important aspect of India’s development going forward. Recent statistics suggest, moreover, that growing inequality in the country may be partially offset by slowly declining poverty rates, and employment opportunities that allow people to transition out of the agricultural sector, and bring in their wake rising levels of self-worth. But when set beside the country’s hideous corruption, and increasingly close ties between government and industry, the picture is significantly less sanguine than French’s narrative implies. In his interview with Mittal, he raises issues of poverty, but then appears enraptured by the idea of creating an Indian Carnegie Endowment, or something similar. This is one of the sections of his book that, given the scope of the challenges facing the country, feels untethered from reality. 

But French’s romanticization of the country is conveyed primarily by the grandiosity with which so many of his judgments are rendered. Everything in this account is big or new. It is refreshing that French seems unencumbered by political correctness, and appears willing to engage in observations about what makes something “specifically Indian,” but the result is too often observations such as this: “To use a phrase now forbidden to historians, some traits seem like an expression of national character, and are specifically Indian. Reading the country’s often vivid press, it feels as if some things only happen in India.”

No doubt some things do happen only in India, but then French goes on to tell the story of a quirky taxicab driver, which is a rather universal platitude. Of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, he writes: “Tamils usually have a wide sprawl of a face, in keeping with the southern lushness. The land is rich with vegetation, paddy fields and mango trees, and the view from the coast is filled with fishing boats, long painted skiffs with curved prows, catching kingfish. Young men dive low for stone fruit—giant blue green mussels, which they pluck off the rocks.” This is nicely written, but it is a parody of an island paradise.  French no doubt experienced Tamil Nadu, much of which is lovely, in this manner, but the reader wonders how true and complete a picture he is being given as these ravishing scenes pile up.

French shifts skillfully between the micro and the macro, between descriptions of the individual and accounts of historical or political events; and on some of the larger issues he is more reliable than the subject of his previous book. With French one never feels, as one does in Naipaul’s excursions to India or Argentina, that the author’s biases and prejudices have kept him from setting out on his journey in good faith. If anything, the reverse is true—and it leads to a somewhat duller and less incisive trip. French’s biography of Naipaul achieved a fine balance between the critical and the admiring, but it never slighted Naipaul’s astonishing powers of observation. Here the balance is somewhat less measured, and the powers of observation significantly less acute.  

Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book.

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