Alfred A. Knopf: 401 pp., $30
There are 7 billion people on the planet, and nearly 1.2 billion of them live in India, making it famously the world’s biggest democracy by far. In the thriving, striving new Indian economy, businessmen make sudden, amazing fortunes, as the American robber barons did in the 19th century, and regularly place on the Forbes list of the world’s most wealthy. Yet at least 300 million Indians live in desperate conditions, many of them starving. The poor are sometimes literally bulldozed out of the way for developments, the underclass of the dispossessed and disenfranchised is huge: The go-go sub-continent might look like a democracy only for the elite.
“With its overlap of extreme wealth and lavish poverty … its competing ideologies, its lack of uniformity, its kindness and profound cruelty, its complex relationships with religion, its parallel realities and the rapid speed of social change — India is a macrocosm, and may be the world’s default setting for the future,” writes Patrick French in “India: A Portrait,” in which he mingles historical analysis with on-the-spot reportage, aiming to capture the country in all its teeming, volatile complexity. The result is rich, engaging and indeed multi-hued.
French divides his book into three sections — “Rashtra,” dealing with the evolution of national politics, “Lakshmi” (economics) and “Samaj” (society and religion). This sounds schematic, but in each case French relies on sketches of individuals to carry his arguments about how India has arrived where it is today. These sketches are always swift and vivid, if sometimes familiar. Almost inevitably French rehashes the story of the winning of independence from Britain in 1947 and the emergence of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that followed, a saga of power-hungry men and women, of violence and family tragedy, that really does make the Kennedys seem like small beer.
So we get the stories of Jawaharlal Nehru, of Indira Gandhi and her sons, and of the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, still one of the most powerful women in the world. In 2004, when it became clear that she might become prime minister, large crowds gathered outside her house, demanding she accept.
“One man stood on the roof of a car noisily wielding a sword and a pistol and threatened to shoot himself in the head if she declined,” French writes. Sonia Gandhi did indeed “humbly” decline, and her power grew. Indian politics: “It’s theater,” said Maneka Gandhi, Sonia’s estranged sister-in-law. French doesn’t tell us what happened to the man on top of the car.
French studies nepotism within the Lok Sabha, the parliament, and goes into the mechanics of just how politics in India remains such a family business, and therefore why it is that the country, despite the rush and rhetoric of change, remains semi-feudal. He profiles the telecom billionaire Sunil Mittal. He travels into the disputed and dangerous territory of Kashmir to meet Shakeel Ahmad Bhat, whose howling face became a hated worldwide emblem of Islamic terror. He considers the influence of India on the career of John Maynard Keynes, and vice versa.
“At the core of Keynes’s bisexual liquid mind was an acceptance of risk, and a belief that any rigid system would be likely to fail,” French writes.
He interviews Srikanth Nadhamuni, a tech entrepreneur who had studied in America and worked for 14 years in Silicon Valley before returning to India. “The Hindu philosophy I was learning as a kid probably made it easier to make some mental leaps and to work in the virtual world of designing the chip,” Nadhamuni tells French, likening the Internet to a Hindu concept, an imaginary yet hugely powerful construct, “a deity with many arms.”
Thus, while the new India is being born, the old India goes on. For French, India’s unique essence lies in its confused grappling with historical process. “Inside the country itself, responses to recent economic progress are often pinned either to earlier socialist instincts against capital and globalization, or on seeing it as a triumphant riposte to past humiliations,” he writes, calling this postcolonial bifurcation an “intellectual straitjacket” that still hasn’t been shaken off.
Among French’s previous books are biographies of the explorer Francis Younghusband and Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. The acclaimed Naipaul book had a ruthless clarity, in part because French’s sharp yet unimposing style could define itself against the portrait of a genius and ogre who takes such fiendish glee in playing the provocateur. In “India: A Portrait” the task is different, and the book doesn’t have the same single-minded drive and élan. Naipaul has himself written about India, and his daunting shadow to some extent looms. French is a fine reporter, especially in a one-on-one situation, but he doesn’t quite have Naipaul’s gifts as a brilliant observer. Then again, who does?
Naipaul once observed that Gandhi led India to independence but left it without ideology, and this was a curse. French takes a different view, perceiving the lack of cohesiveness as a source of energy and dissent, driving India into a future that involves Naxalite-Maoist insurrection at one pole and the possibilities of global economic domination at the other.
The idea that Western power will remain intact is “outdated and fantastic,” French notes. India’s rapid economic surge is just one part of a realignment. “Bangalore had everything: fair male strippers for hen nights, shopping arcades with Hugo Boss and Montblanc, apartments that were rising at a ferocious rate,” he writes, describing a center of India’s technology industry, having just told the story of a bonded laborer who lived for years in shackles, cracking stones in a Mysore quarry, because he had fallen into debt with his boss.
French offers no solutions or prescriptions (that’s not his job, after all), and even if he sometimes seems blandly hopeful about what the future might hold he’s always sympathetic and alive to India’s anomalies, mingling the famous, the striving, and the downtrodden in juxtapositions that do indeed achieve a feel of jostling, contentious intimacy.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of “A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age.”