A long time ago – in 1953, as a matter of fact – I travelled throughout the length and breadth of India for over three months, seeing places, meeting people, as I did the next year doing a round of the world also in three months. I was then editor of The Free Press Bulletin, an evening paper in Bombay and decided I would write about my experiences in a series of articles. For a heading I chose the line: Under The Same Sky. What fascinated me most about my travel throughout my country was that at no time did I ever feel an outsider. I stayed with the rich and the poor, spoke endlessly with those I met, travelled by train and plane, bus and boat and had a great time with strangers and acquaintances in total freedom. There never was a boring moment. I was comfortable everywhere. Culturally India is one. Patrick French, born in England – one presumes he is an Englishman – has similarly written about India. He has travelled widely and met lots and lots of people in all walks of life, be they Maoists, Congressmen, business leaders, politicians or whatever.
As French writes in his Introduction, his plan was “to write about the country, both the inside and from the outside – or from a distance”. He has, let it be said at once – done a remarkable job. Reading India: A Portrait must make VS Naipaul, who, too, had written about India, feel ashamed of himself. This is not Katherine Mayo’s Mother India. Not is it A Million Mutinees. It is a transparent study of India and Indians. It sees things and reports them as they are. French holds the mirror to Indian society in all its contradictions.
And how had things changed over the years! Said the physicist: “In the past when I said I was an Indian, people did not react. Now it’s like ’oh, you’re from India? You must be the smartest guy in the room!” (Even when French writes about corruption he does not take a superior stance. He merely quotes Nandan Nilekeni describing “the bizarre obstacles facing his company” leaving readers to make their own assumptions. But can, say, interviews with over five hundred people from different class, caste and communities really be taken as an “intimate biography of 1.2 billion people”? No way. And that is what is so special about India. No one represents India, but in a strange way everyone does. Indian villains and heroes come in many shapes and forms. French says that “in India, the middle class has a chance to shape its own destiny in a way that has never been possible before”. Nilekeni did not come from a rich and affluent family. Nor did so many others in the IT field. They just followed their instincts and dared to challenge the impossible. And they made it to the top by sheer grit and determination. Their name is legion. But some of the stories related by French makes one throw-up. He contacted a Kashmiri Pandit who had been driven out of his home in Srinagar at the age of fourteen, by Muslim separatists.
And don’t we know them! As French says: “For outsiders who have not visited India, they re-inforce long-standing prejudices and underline the sub-continent’s brutal, shocking and alien nature”. French himself does recount such stories, not so much to damn India, as to portray it in all its vagaries. But the best story French recounts is one, he says, that can happen only in India. One boards a train and soon is asked by a fellow passenger: “You are from? What is your good name? You are married? Do you have an issue? What is your salary?” That is India all right. India is a macrocosm and Indians accept it, if others can’t. One doesn’t know whether to praise or blame French, but one thing seems clear: he doesn’t write from malice. There is this desire to present 1.2 billion people. A bold attempt, may be it is also a realistic one, but it passes for interesting reading. We are what we are and will so remain till the end of time. What, one wonders, would Katherine Mayo have said were she to come back alive. French deserves praise for undertaking an impossible job. India’s portrait is not so unbecoming, the way he has painted it. Thanks be.
(Penguin Books (India) Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre ,Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017)