The squirrel in the frame


Patrick French creates a newspaper history like version of India — intelligent and topical but without a frame, says Shiv Visvanathan

The chronicler Patrick French
The chronicler Patrick French
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

EACH COUNTRY demands its own kind of storytelling. The current narrative on India roughly falls into two categories. There is the idea of a monograph fixated on one topic. Such a narrative is intensely ethnographic and theoretically specific. It is a specialists’ offering. One can think of examples from Ashis Nandy’s Intimate Enemyto Amartya Sen’s book on famines.

The second kind of narrative is more general and seeks to capture a vast canvas. The second genre has become more popular and, in fact, more populistic. The survey targets the general reader and has become part of middleclass literacy. One thinks of Sunil Khilnani’s Idea of India, Ram Guha’s India After Gandhi or Nandan Nilekani’s Imagining India. They are the stuff of bestsellers. Patrick French’s India: A Portrait(2010) is another significant contribution to this genre.

I must confess an initial bias against this genre of writing. I like books I can reread and enjoy over time. I feel books, like classical music, need to be relived. The genres of general books are like flavours of the week. No matter how gossipy or pungent in terms of scandals or revelations, it is not a flavour that lasts. These books remind one of friendly chewing gums without the sharp character of pickles. French’s book, a delightful read, has all the strengths and weakness of this genre.

Let me begin like a wet blanket. There is no sense of frame about these books, no final sense of resolution or reflection. India is like an outline. We know it as a label and a territory but there is no theoretical framework. But one must admit the map is colourful. French’s book is about change and is replete with remarkable anecdotes and stories, written with flair and a deep sense of enjoyment. To me, change is the real hero of the book. One wishes French had reflected a bit more on it.

French’s book is a survey of India from the 1950s to the present. The canvas is vast and the book is constructed in terms of an array of miniatures. It is like walking swiftly through a vast picture gallery full of classic paintings. The narrative unfolds brilliantly and one races across portraits of Nehru, Indira, VP Menon, Sunil Mittal, CK Ranganathan, brilliant vignettes on bonded labour, Chik shampoo sachets and Naxal terrorism. The writing is superb. Yet, at the end of it, one feels like a tired, satiated tourist replete with nuggets of anecdotes he can dine out on, happy he has acquired a new “literacy” of India. Yet sadly, it is a diligent tourist’s literacy, a collection of stories without a frame, an Arabian Nights of change to be retold but there is no theory of change. The stories are gems but one is still left with a cuckoo’s nest of unhatched questions. The anecdotes are so equal that one wishes there was a code, a grammar to classify and judge them. Without wholesale theory, all one has is a retail of wonderful anecdotes.

The writing is superb. Yet one feels like a tired, satiated tourist replete with anecdotes he can dine out on, happy he has acquired a new ‘literacy’ of India

The beginnings are very much like a travelogue. Imagine a modern Bernier or Marco Polo. This one begins in Ladakh and flashes geographically across the map. In one sense, it is an interactive book. You watch a nation and its leaders in problem-solving situations. French, in fact, sets up the first chapter brilliantly by asking you “to imagine for a moment you are good-looking Jawaharlal Nehru. With your colleagues, you have to decide what shape the new administration is going take. Gandhi and Jinnah are old and are shortly to die… You are in your late 50s, a widower and have spent a total of nine years of your life in prison. How do you proceed?”

India: A Portrait
India: A Portrait
Patrrick French
allen lane
448p; Rs 699

These lines capture the real strength of French’s book beyond the power of narrative. This is a deeply empathetic book and it has a sense of ease and wonder about its diversity of characters. All of them get a sympathetic hearing, a fairness of representation, whether one is Indira Gandhi or Advani, Naxalite or Naxal hunter. What French also achieves is a sense of openness before the idea of India. He knows stereotypes will not suffice and, yet, he has the acuteness to understand the role of stereotypes in the idea of governance. Whether French is discussing Keynes in the old India office or the American perception of India, he is clear that neither the old Orientalism nor the stereotypes of the third world theory are adequate. India is mutating out of its socialist corset and one has to chronicle the change both politically and economically. Implicit in it is also an ethical and aesthetic wager that India as a democracy with all its confusions and idiocies might be a more humanist bet. The Indian way, French suggests, might redeem more than India. The difficulty lies in capturing the logic of a country almost perverse in its diversity. French captures a variety of styles that upholds an older sense of unity. The beauty of the book lies in the manner nostalgia and a sense of the future combine to create a new sense of India.

SOME OF French’s insights are tantalising. I like the honesty with which he sees secularism as a “fudging of history”. One echoes his disquiet about the growing hegemony of powerful families. His electoral survey of the power of dynastic families, especially in the Congress, is worth a place in any political anthology. The book is like a squirrel’s delight, a collection of delightful stories. Yet, because it is a collage of stories, it becomes a newspaper history of India, acute, intelligent, topical but desperately crying out for a frame that might help answer the author’s own diligently listed questions.

Visvanathan is an Ahmedabad-based social anthropologist


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