What makes India tick? What makes it the way it is today? Those are some the questions that British historian and author Patrick French tries to answer with his latest book on the subcontinent, ‘India: A Portrait – An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People.’
“The idea is very broad – this is not a book I felt ready to write until recently,” said the author during the launch of the book at British Council recently. “After ‘Liberty Or Death: India’s Journey To Independence and Division’ (1997), I got diverted by the biography of V.S. Naipaul, and I realised that unless I did this book now, I would lose the moment.”
‘The moment’, of course, is this period of rapid social and economic change that has seen India, in all its complexities and contradictions, evolve into a global power that, to quote from the book, “may be the world’s default setting for the future”.
The backbone of the book is a series of fascinating portraits of people across India, from Mayawati to Dattu, the Adivasi wine cellar master, and the launch event too was filled with a number of lively stories, such as the time French spent trailing the famous Dabbawalas of Mumbai and his interview with their “extraordinarily grumpy leader.”
But most of the evening was spent discussing the central issue of the book – India as it is today, all that’s wrong with it and all that’s right.
“I think the trajectory India is on gives many reasons for optimism,” French said during his discussion with Rakesh Khanna of Blaft Publications. “There are terrible inequalities and disasters, but there’s also a dynamism and sense of possibility. People aspire to things now that their parents and grandparents couldn’t.”
Indeed, his tone was so upbeat throughout – even in the midst of discussions on nepotism in politics and the growing gap between the rich and the poor – that it prompted an audience member to remark during the question and answer session: “You sound more optimistic that most of us (Indians) are!”
“What I’m trying to get away from is this sense of fatalism about India,” he explained. “It partly comes from people imposing ideas from elsewhere on India; the only way you can learn some things is by talking to a lot of people.”
And his project, so to speak, continues with the website theindiasite.com, which has additional information that didn’t make it into the book, as well as stories and reports on India added on a daily basis. “I’m hoping it’ll go on to become a collaborative and self-sustaining effort,” he said. “We’ve already had 150,000 hits in the last couple of weeks.”