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Sunday, February 6, 2011

(Published as 'A Provocative Book No Indian Could Have Written' in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 6th February, 2011)



(Image Courtesy: The New Indian Express; unauthorised reproduction of the image is prohibited.)

India’s been exotified as the court of the fish-eyed Goddess and lamented as an area of darkness. Paul Theroux has wrinkled his nose at the slums, and Dominique Lapierre has exalted the gutters and the nun who used them as breeding grounds for conversion. Thankfully, finally, a wry voice that fills in the gaps with authoritative commentary has made itself heard again.



Patrick French’s second book on this country, India: A Portrait, which claims to be “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people”, lives up to its promise. As the author admits, it’s a book no Indian could have got away with writing, without questions of religious, regional and caste-based allegiances popping up. As the reader learns, French is a Briton who knows more about India than most people who’ve grown up here. If you disagree, and you’re not Khasi, here’s a challenge: do you know who U Blei is? Even Google doesn’t give you the answer in English (I checked), but that’s the name of the Khasi God.


Since he wrote Liberty or Death, which created controversy for its purportedly ‘revisionist’ view of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, French has spent more time in India and with India. He’s even written the authorised biography of V S Naipaul, the man who has documented India thrice.


This time, French focuses on the other Gandhis – the ones from the dynasty that has ruled India since the British left. In a book that’s divided into three sections – Rashtra, Lakshmi and Samaj – the author deals with the trajectory of the country’s politics, economy and society. Surprisingly enough, it’s not just readable; it’s gripping.


Among other things, French proves that toilet humour features in our list of colonial hangovers – he cites parents naming their children ‘Latrine Born’, politicians naming their parties DIC(K) – Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) – and (inevitably) refers to Morarji Desai’s favoured beverage.


The metamorphoses of the two most powerful Mrs. Gandhis – Indira and Sonia – are traced in an engaging manner, and told in no less detail are the stories of a labourer’s son who became a professor of law, of a quarry worker who was chained for nearly two years, of a pimp whose father is a politician (and who believes “Nawabi culture is gay culture”), of a child labourer in Bangalore, of a Vietnam veteran of Indian origin (whose accent nearly got his fellow-soldiers killed), and of Srikanth Nadhamuni (who compares designing the Pentium II chip to the concept of maya in Advaita philosophy).


The scope of the book takes the author from Ladakh to Kanyakumari, interviewing people ranging from Afzal Guru (albeit by accident) to RSS ideologues, tracing the lives of employees ranging from the dabbawallas of Mumbai to the geeks of Silicon Valley, observing rituals for deities ranging from Angrezi Devi Maiyya (whose prayer is ‘A-B-C-D’) to Mayawati, and profiling celebrities ranging from the Mozart of Madras to the alleged Murderer of Michael Jackson.


French’s writing is touchingly evocative at times, such as his description of his interaction with Aarushi Talwar’s parents and his narration of the last years of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life, and hilarious at others. He sardonically observes that Luck by Chance – which is about getting a break in cinema without family influence – starred the offspring of Aparna Sen and Javed Akhtar, and entertains the reader with the story of how TVS found its ‘bearings’.


French wonders whether Anish Kapoor might have conceived his “monstrous sculpture” to commemorate London 2012 as a metaphor for Britian, when Kapoor describes his work as “an eccentric structure that looks as if it’s going to fall over”. The author goes on to attribute Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s listing of five categories of what counts as a majority in India to “the logic of a clever schoolboy” and suggests helpfully that Sen might include a sixth category – “Indians whose names start with a consonant.”


Refreshingly, French doesn’t romanticise the Maoists, and comes away from his interview with ‘Gaddar’ (Gummadi Vittal Rao) feeling the Naxals are rather disconnected from reality. He notes that poverty in India is marketed as entertainment, grimly stating, “if the BBC wants a television show about child-trafficking in India, they send Lindsay Lohan to West Bengal.” His analysis of the importance of political pedigree is a revelation (Details are up on www.theindiasite.com, run by French and his wife Meru Gokhale.)


The Westerner’s naïveté comes through very occasionally – for instance, French asks a labourer who was held captive by his employer why he didn’t send word to the police. The author attributes the nation’s surprise over Agatha Sangma taking oath in Hindi to linguistic stereotyping, rather than parochial animosity.


But French more than compensates for the rare slip-up with a nuanced study of such complexities as the origin of caste. One could nit-pick, and ask the author why a certain subject wasn’t included, but as one who has tried to, I must admit it’s a hard task.


If you’re Indian, reading the book is like learning the history of your country in four days. If you’re a tourist looking for “sadhus or suffering” as French puts it, the book will make you wish you’d read it before you booked your tickets.



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