When Patrick French came out with his biography of the British adventurer Sir Francis Younghusband, titled Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, the New York Times wrote in 1995 about the "27-year-old Mr French, who is very young to have produced so wise and solid a volume". His fifth book, India: A Portrait, which was released in 2010, can also be considered a wise and solid volume, apart from being eminently readable.
While researching for the book, French conducted a unique survey to find out whether entering politics and getting elected was within reach of the many millions of capable Indians. The results were grim, if not entirely astonishing. Excerpts from an interview:
Whoever told you I liked the subcontinent? I do find it endlessly intriguing. Everything happens in Technicolor.
How does one go about writing "an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people"?
It's impossible. But what I was trying to do in India: A Portrait was to zero in on a handful of very different individuals, and through their varied personal stories to show how India is transforming, for good and for bad. I wanted to see if I could chronicle that change (including in the parts of India where little is changing) in a book for the general reader.
Of course if you are dealing with somewhere as big and paradoxical as India, you can't write a comprehensive account, but you can illustrate important truths. So I tried to have a series of historical, personal, economic and political snapshots linked by a unifying theme. I believe it is possible to take complex questions about, for instance, national identity or social control and explore them without using jargon, in a way that enables readers to argue mentally with the writer — disagreeing or agreeing.
Take an example of a story I tell in the book: An Indian man walks into a bank in New York City and asks to borrow $5,000 (Dh18,350). The loan officer tells him that he will need some form of security for the loan, so the Indian gives him the keys of his new Ferrari parked on the street. He produces the title to the car and everything checks out. The loan officer agrees to accept it as collateral.
The bank president and bank officers enjoy a good laugh at the Indian for using a $250,000 Ferrari as collateral against a $5,000 loan. An employee then drives the Ferrari into the bank's underground garage and parks it. Two weeks later, the Indian returns, repays the $5,000 and the interest, which comes to a total of $15.41. The loan officer says, "Sir, we're happy to have had your business, but we are a little puzzled. While you were away, we checked you out and found that you are a multimillionaire. What puzzles us is, why you would bother to borrow $5,000?" The Indian says, "Where else in New York City can I park my car for two weeks for only $15.41 and expect it to be there when I return?
Now, you can take that just as a joke, or as a national characteristic.
You are very optimistic about India's future. But about 300 million people are still mired in deep poverty. How can the country progress?
I write about many people who are living terrible lives, so the portrait is quite varied. The thing I feel optimistic about is the future rather than the past. In 1984, at the time of Indira Gandhi's assassination, 85 per cent of Indians lived in poverty. Today, many people have opportunities their parents never had. Across India there is a new dynamism, and it's challenging for the old elites.
What do you think India has got right, and what has it got wrong?
That will take me 400 pages to answer! OK — broad religious and cultural tolerance, an active democracy and a unified national ideal. Against: a non-functioning state and judiciary in parts of the country, a lack of political accountability and entrenched exploitation.
You have expressed grave concerns about nepotism in Indian politics. What impact is it having on the country's democracy?
Well, I did a study of how every Indian MP had reached the Parliament and the results were quite shocking. For example, 33 out of the 38 youngest MPs in India are "hereditary" — by which I mean they inherited the opportunity to stand for election from a close family member, usually from their father or mother. Nearly half of all MPs aged under 50 are hereditary. The likely consequences of this trend for Indian democracy over the coming decades are monumental.
Corruption has been a fact of life since independence. But in the past few years, it has reached astonishing levels, as evidenced by the 2G scam and the Commonwealth Games fiasco. Do you think the people of India have reached a tipping point — that this will not be tolerated any longer?
It's a serious and fundamental problem, particularly for the weakest sections in society. The difficulty is that corruption in India is embedded at many different levels and accountability is lacking.
What is your hope for secularism in India?
The Hindutva movement has declined in recent years and secularism is there to stay, even if you occasionally get flare-ups.
As a writer, what are your views about literature festivals?
They're fun, and you meet interesting people. Writers don't write any more — they go to literature festivals! I think it can be a great thing for a reader — particularly a reader who has no connection to the world of writing or publishing — to come and listen to writers talk about their work.