India: A Portrait

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Penguin, 2012 - India - 435 pages
5 Reviews
Patrick French's India: A Portrait tells the story of how India emerged from a turbulent struggle for independence to become a vibrant democracy with one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. India is the biggest democracy on earth, a country of dynamic change, huge divisions and countless identities. Is there any way to discover the 'real' India? In this intimate biography of 1.2 billion people, Patrick French travels all over the country talking to everyone from political leaders to mafia dons, from chained quarry workers to self-made billionaire entrepreneurs, to tell the story of post-independence India as never before. 'Patrick French brings one of the globe's most dynamic nations springing to life ... he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the country, sensitivity to its subtler nuances and a wealth of research'
Sunday Times 'It's gripping ... If you're Indian, reading the book is like learning the history of your country in four days'
New Indian Express 'Fizzing with wit, insight and infectious curiosity ... a thoroughly enjoyable romp through six momentous decades'
Wall Street Journal Asia 'Wide-ranging, clear-sighted, warm-hearted and immensely readable ... The human tales that French finds are engrossing'
Evening Standard 'A rich colouring of contemporary characters and events, many of them sharply observed at first hand. Crammed with elegant portraits'
Economist Patrick French is the author of Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, which won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Royal Society of Literature W. H. Heinemann Prize, Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division, which won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Hawthornden Prize, and India: A Portrait.

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - Oberon - LibraryThing

India: A Portrait by Patrick French This has sat on my shelf for a couple of years for reasons that I can't entirely explain. Having now completed it (in audiobook form from the library) it should not ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - danoomistmatiste - LibraryThing

Yet another british author trying to capture the essence of today's India. The breadth and scope of his interrogations is staggering, ranging from Mukesh Ambani to the humblest Dalit living from day to day. Read full review

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About the author (2012)



In Ladakh the air is thin and dry, and it is cold even when the sunlight burns you. Tashi Norbu could remember how, in 1948, Buddhist monks in their dark red robes had built an improvised, rocky airstrip near the monastery in Leh. Out of the sky came a buzzing metal shape, a Dakota aeroplane carrying India''s new prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It landed in a cloud of dust.

"We had never seen a car or a motor vehicle at that time," Tashi Norbu said, sitting above his apricot orchard, speaking in a Tibetan dialect. He was an old man, an expert in medicinal herbs, water diversion and the correct way to shoot a bow and arrow. He wore a long brown robe secured with a lime-coloured sash, and on his head he had wedged a homburg.

"There were no roads in Ladakh. A plane lands from the sky, you can''t imagine . . . All the local people put their hands together and prayed to the plane, we were all praying."

Ladakh is a mountainous region by the borders of Tibet, China and Pakistan. In the rush of history, it might have ended up on the wrong side of the line; but it is in India. It feels like the remoter parts of Tibet, though without the Chinese influence. By a quirk of history, Ladakhis follow Tibetan Buddhism, having avoided the waves of Muslim invasions that changed the traditions of their neighbours. Geographically inaccessible, the region preserves an ancient way of living. The present, powerless King of Ladakh''s lineage dates back an incredible thirty-eight generations to 975. His family lost their influence more than a century ago, and he lives in a little hilltop palace.

Tashi Norbu thought of himself as a Ladakhi above all else. "As children, we hadn''t heard about India. We didn''t know who the Indians were. We knew they were ''gyagarpa,'' people who came from the plains, but it was not until I grew older and saw a map that I understood how big India was. Some things changed after independence: a politician came to visit us from Srinagar in Kashmir, but we didn''t know what that meant, whether he was a religious leader or a king, or what.

"I can remember when I first saw the Indian army using kerosene! I couldn''t believe the flames, how easily they could make them. They told us we could buy kerosene in Leh if we sold eggs. We would take the eggs, carry them like a baby while crossing the [Indus] river, sell them to a trader, buy the kerosene, and carry the kerosene back to the village.

"Pandit Nehru told the chief lama he should become a leader, and the lama said since we were in a mountain region he would rather be a worker. He handed a shovel to Nehru, who began digging! They took some photographs of it. Yes, I am content to be with India. We would never have got along with Pakistan, because they are Mohammedans and follow different customs. As for China, it is communist; you have to take permission for everything you want to do, and you can''t speak your mind. In India you can speak your mind, so I''m happy to be with them."

Ladakh is about as far north as you can get in India. The modern nation created after independence was implacably diverse, culturally and geographically.

Tamil Nadu is more than 1,500 miles south of Ladakh. It is a different kind of world. While Ladakhis are wiry, with narrow facial apertures-a small nose, mouth and ears and slit eyes, perhaps in response to the icy, windy climate-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.

When the Indian national flag was chosen at independence, a tricolour of saffron, white and green, Ashoka''s wheel of dharma, or law, was placed at its centre. The emperor Ashoka had united the subcontinent before the birth of Christ, but even his kingdom stopped advancing when it reached the south. The southern tip of India, perhaps more than any other place on earth, has an unbroken chain to the ancient past. There have been caste wars, the usual comings and goings of power, with one imperial dynasty replacing another in earlier times, but no invasion. European traders-British, Dutch, Portuguese and French-had all pursued their interests forcefully over the centuries, but the society had retained its own earlier forms. It would be as if the religion or culture at the time of the pharaoh Amenhotep III, who ruled Egypt in the fourteenth century bce, had survived in snatches in the everyday life of modern Egyptians.

The noise of central and northern India can at times drown out the subtlety of the south, which has been so vital in determining the country''s present status. On the edge of Chennai or Madras, it can be so luxuriant and humid and quiet that you feel as if you are in another land; but it is just another face of India, with the tinkle of bicycle bells and the echoes of a temple the only distraction. Saravankumar, a professor, described it to me this way: "The identity we have here goes right back to the first century, to the Tamil poem Puram 183. I would say my Tamilness comes from the language." I could understand what he meant, and could see-or hear, on the street and in the home-how the high-speed, bubbling Tamil tongue was part of the environment. So while the north had its upheavals, the south went on forever.

The nation can be triangulated in many ways: it is all India. Far across to the east, about 1,750 miles from Chennai and the same distance from Ladakh-up near Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh-lies Meghalaya. It is a hilly and rainy state, a kingdom with rushing waterfalls, tropical forests and unexpectedly successful rock groups. The people look different from Tamils or Ladakhis, and follow their own traditions.

Take just one tribe in Meghalaya as an example, the Khasi people, who are more than a million strong. Their language bears some connection to Khmer, which is spoken in Cambodia. They are a matrilineal society: their family name comes from the mother''s side, and the last daughter in the family to leave the family home is the custodian of all ancestral property. The Khasi religion is not connected to any other faith and emphasizes a belief in one supreme god, U Blei. In their creation myth, the Moon (which is male) and the Sun (which is female) stand symbolically for the divine presence. The Khasis have a covenant with their deity-who is the dispenser, the maker, the giver, the creator, the divine law. They believe in the concept of "iapan," or pleading with god for everything they need, and are very sure about how they came to be on earth-by descending a golden ladder from the mount of heaven''s navel. What they are not sure about is how exactly man came to be created by god.

As Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih, a Khasi, explained to me in perfect English: "Although we believe we were created by god, we also think that it is not the business of humans to know exactly how. As I said, the Khasis believe in one supreme god, who is formless, or rather whose form man cannot even begin to imagine, for that is forbidden. A Khasi does not believe in idol worship, since he must not conceive the appearance of god. We do not have a place of worship since our religion is private and familial. True worship takes place in one''s heart, or at one''s family''s hearth. Because of this, the Khasi religion remains largely unorganized, and it is completely lacking in missionary tendencies. This is because a Khasi believes his god is also the god of the Hindu, the Muslim, the Christian, and of all other people. His motto is, therefore, ''Ieit la ka jong, burom ia kiwei''-''Love one''s own, and respect others.'' As for me, I will always prefer my own religion to any other because it''s the only religion that I know which does not believe in hell''s damnation. The Khasi universe is two-tier-heaven and earth-and there is no room for hell."

Each of these disparate places was part of the nation that was born in 1947.

When the British gained control of the subcontinent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they often preferred to rule through a local potentate. They did not make a lot of converts to Christianity. By propping up client rulers and giving them imperial baubles and titles, they could secure influence at minimum cost. This strategy of containment succeeded until the early twentieth century, when a new class of Indian nationalists, stirred by ideals of liberty and democracy, used peaceful mass resistance to campaign for an end to foreign rule. The Indian National Congress had been established in 1885 by English-speaking professionals who wanted a greater involvement in government. Under the creative guidance of Mohandas Gandhi-the Mahatma, or "great soul"-the Congress became a popular movement of liberation from the British empire.

While this new political force challenged imperial control and promoted itself as the true voice of India, many Muslims, who made up nearly a quarter of the population, felt excluded by the largely Hindu idiom in which it operated. The Muslim elite, which still retained much of its influence after the decline of the Mughals and the rise of the European powers, was not attracted by what Gandhi represented. Many felt that for all the talk of inclusiveness, the Congress leadership was made up largely of Hindus from the higher end of the caste system who would, if India became independent, undermine the security and status of Muslims. With their homespun khadi clothing, their emphasis on Hindi rather than Urdu as the national language of India, their big rallies and

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