9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating book about a fascinating country
This is a splendid book which covers the great sweep of Indian life and culture, illuminated with numerous individual anecdotes representing people from all levels of Indian society. The anecdotes are fascinating, covering people who have found great success in the economic liberalisation of the last 15 years, as well as those who have continued to live a life of struggle...
Published on 22 Feb 2012 by markr
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth putting the effort in
The culture and history of India fascinates me, however I have always found books on the subject focussed on one or the other ! This book successfully combines the two, giving an in-depth and entertaining account of how the country and people of modern India came to be.
The books is in three sections - the first explaining the complex political events that...
Published on 21 Aug 2011 by Scott A. Mckenzie
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a fascinating book about a fascinating country,
This review is from: India: A Portrait (Paperback)
This is a splendid book which covers the great sweep of Indian life and culture, illuminated with numerous individual anecdotes representing people from all levels of Indian society. The anecdotes are fascinating, covering people who have found great success in the economic liberalisation of the last 15 years, as well as those who have continued to live a life of struggle and poverty.
Patrick French draws out the numerous contrasts which make such an impression on visitors to India; a meritocratic culture which is still infused with caste and status, a deliberately secular society in which religion is intertwined with daily life, a land of great wealth ( 4 of 8 richest people in the world are Indian) which has the largest population of illiterate people in the world.
Having recently visited India, I found that this book brought back memories of the colours, the smells, and the vibrancy which I had found to be almost overwhelming, and helped to explain many of the features of Indian life which I had found so fascinating and confusing.
Divided into three sections; Nation, Wealth and Society, this book is highly recommended for those who would like to know more about the country of 1.2 billion people, which has just overtaken Germany as the world's fourth largest economy. If you are going to visit do read this. If you are not yet planning to visit, this book will make you want to...
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Almost captures the scents and smells,
After the first section (which deals with history) I found this very readable. It's a great sprawl of a book. Whilst it's clearly impossible to capture India in a few hundred pages, this is not a bad go at it.
The author has travelled widely and met all sorts of people on his journeys. He paints a vivid picture of the people and places he's encountered, and brings these to life wonderfully.
The book also provides a potted history of India, and an compelling and convincing outline of the politics and economics of the country. These parts are brought to life through meetings and conversations with Indian politicians and businessmen, and have a real ring of truth about them.
As someone without much previous knowledge about the country, I felt I learnt a good deal through this. It's well written, and makes you feel you learning something without having to struggle to do so. A well crafted and readable book: recommended.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "How many among these millions would be...helping to build a new India and a new world?",
Ask me for some off-the-top-of-your-head associations with the word 'India', and I'd probably stammer something about Slumdog Millionaire, wacky gods, poverty, exotic food and Mahatma Gandhi. Maybe pad it out by adding a few things gleaned from reading Naipaul, Narayan, or Rushdie; think about mentioning Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and then - quickly - come to my senses. Although I knew a little about the author's previous work - including the excellent The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul - I knew next to nothing about his subject.
In a way, the very sub-title is a tease ('an intimate biography of 1.2. billion people'), operating out of the zone between ignorance and knowledge. Telling the truth about any nation depends - literally - on where you stand; so how do you tell the story of a nation as massively diverse and contradictory as India? French's answer - and a successful one - is to admit the messiness. Many worlds exist in parallel, each shedding light on the other.
French studies the 'small' up close, and cuts away to the bigger picture: using the soliloquy to explain the play. The daily life of the dabbah-wallas of Mumbai metamorphoses seamlessly into a study of Indian customs and codes regarding business, and India's entrepreneurial spirit.
'Although India is home to a higher number of illiterate people than any other country in the world, which is in part the consequence of having more than a billion citizens, many of those who travel overseas are well-educated and motivated. It is estimated that Indians are responsible for one in six Silicon Valley start-ups, and that 30,000 graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology live and work in the US. [...] Vinod Khosla co-founded Sun Microsystems, Sabeer Bhatia started Hotmail and Ajay Bhatt [the architect of the the USB] became a rock star.'
Making politics and economics readable and thickly larded with human conflict - particularly in the chapter concerning the making of the Indian Constitution - is one of the book's major achievements.
India's poverty, religious conflict and caste-cruelty are never denied. (Casteism, French suggests, is worse than most other prejudices. An anti-semite will tell you why 'they' do so well in business, just as a white supremacist lets it slip that he envies apparent black physical prowess; but prejudice against an 'untouchable' is built on the idea that to even share a room with one is to be physically contaminated, or even turned into an insect.)
Nor, however, are the above presented as the whole story, as if further enquiry is somehow unnecessary. Before, India was regarded as 'exotic, eternal, to be admired and patronised, but incapable of helping itself. It needed the pump-priming charity of outsiders, and was certainly not a competitor, not a country that might take off and revitalise itself.' Yet 'at the very time Westerners were travelling to India in search of suffering and spirituality, and writing replica accounts of it, a more interesting shift was taking place.'
That shift has resulted in a country that nearly went bankrupt in 1991, and yet is predicted to overtake the Japanese economy by 2032. That prediction may frighten some, especially those of a far-right affliction. I find it fascinating; and will be looking up French's previous book on India, Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division without delay.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Warts and All,
This review is from: India: A Portrait (Paperback)
Recently there has been a spate of books on the rise of China but curiously very little for the general reader on the equally remarkable rise of India. French has offered just such a book, a snapshot of an India in transition. The book is divided into three parts. The first section traces the development of India's representative parliamentary democracy, which, against the odds, works reasonably well. The second part deals with the transformation of India's economy from stagnant statism to an open, dynamic trade orientated economy and the final section covers, among other things, the persistence of ancient religion in the teeth of an emerging consumer society, the caste system and other cultural quirks of Indian life.
Patrick French is an excellent writer and his latest offering does not disappoint. He offers an account of his travels around the country, a snapshot of contemporary India, structured through a series of vignettes, interviews with Indians from all walks of life. It's easy to sneer at this approach and complain that this is not a comprehensive academic text on Indian society and economy but that is to criticise him for a book he did not set out to write. Oral testimony recorded in a book is an entirely respectable genre of writing - think of the late Studs Turkel. The merit of French's approach is allow Indians themselves to tell things as they see it, from a variety of perspectives, and not how French sees it. There are many realities experienced in India and this book captures a sample. It certainly gives the armchair traveler a flavour of a country. Through these witnesses, he succeeds in portraying a country of phenomenal potential and dynamism, coexisting alongside great squalor and injustice, a warts-and-all portrait. Difficult topics like Kashmir and the caste system are not ducked but he resists sensationalist tricks to go the opposite way and focus on nothing but cruelty and oppression. The overall result enlightens and informs without coming across as glib or trite.
In offering a book based principally on testimonies, French does not omit to provide background detail although, as mentioned earlier, this is not an academic monograph. This brings me to the only drawback I found with the book: such detail might have been easier to assimilate had there been maps or charts to summarise the themes discussed. The background detail, sometimes very dense (like the pages describing the vagaries of Indian party politics, for example), can be difficult to follow. For this reason, I have to knock a star of the rating. Otherwise the book is both enjoyable and informative and well worth reading.
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars in depth and insightful,
As someone who grew up in India, I tend to read a number of books and articles and watch most documentaries that feature India. Some of them are pure opinion and often patronising. However, Patrick French has done his research thoroughly and brings up a lot about India, how it works, the underlying issues, how things like government and money are intertwined and so on.
If you are looking for a real in depth understanding of how India ticks and doesn't tick then this is a great place to start. If you are looking for a general overview of the country and culture then this might be a little bit too deep as a first touch.
For those who want to delve more into Indian culture this is highly recommended.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People",
I was attracted to this book partly because of its sub-title: "An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People". I enjoy looking at history through personal stories which illustrate the wider picture. I found this to be a very interesting book, well-written, thought-provoking & accessible to the lay reader. It explores the history of India after Partition using the themes of nationhood, wealth and society, showing their inter-connectedness. The individual stories, which are included alongside the wider history, provide interesting detail about modern India, the changes it has undergone and some of the immutable aspects.
Starting with the development of independent India's constitution, with its ideals of secularism & multi-culturalism, the author recounts the political & economic failures of the young nation. The reforms of the 1990s, reducing bureaucracy and tariffs, ushered in an era of accelerating economic advancement. On the political front, the founders of the new India went to great lengths to avoid nepotism but the dynastic element of Indian politics is increasing with the worry that this diverts bright, but un-connected, people away from political service.
Some horrific stories remind you that despite the apparent modernity there are still major social problems: a labourer forced to work in shackles who accepts compensation rather than go to court - he didn't believe he would get justice anyway. He now begs at a temple. As the author comments: "It had been a miserable experience talking to him, most of all because I knew this was the better time of his life." Enormous inequalities remain, admirably demonstrated by a young woman who claimed her maid was like a sister - conveniently ignoring that this "sister" had to sit at her feet massaging them as she chatted to friends whose designer handbags cost twice the maid's annual salary. On the other hand, there is another labourer who worked for a landowner who started a vineyard. The labourer, still illiterate, is now the cellar-master and earns a good salary which has enabled him to buy his own land & educate his children. Corruption too is an issue - both the small scale and large scale (a civil servant discovered to have $20m in unaccounted for assets or a former provincial chief minister arrested on suspicion of diverting $500m from state funds).
Towards the end of the book, the author looks at Pakistan, seeking an explanation for the different trends in Pakistani & Indian Muslim identity since Partition. India's large Muslim population of around 140 million eschew extremist beliefs and have not been a source of extremism outside the country either, with a couple of notable exceptions. Muslim organisations in India have issued fatwas but against terrorism, and millions of Muslims attended rallies opposing terrorist attacks around the world. Whilst Jinnah, the first Pakistani PM, like his Indian counterparts, did not want a state influenced by religion, later Pakistani presidents played politics with religion, the consequences of which are painfully evident today. In India, somehow, the country has held together by allowing communities to co-exist even if the issues of caste, religion and disparities of wealth produce problems of their own.
Overall, this is a very readable introduction to modern India, its contradictions, chaos and clichés.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars India, A Portrait - Patrick French's great introduction to an astonishing country.,
Having recently stocially ploughed through the never ending Indian "novel" "Shantaram" by Gregory David Roberts and found its mixture of pathetic GCSE-grade philosophy and truly awful love story possibly one of poorest reads of recent years it was something of a breath of fresh air to pick up Patrick French's new portrait of India. French is an historian with a panoramic knowledge of India and all things Indian. His book, "Liberty or Death - India's Journey to Independence and Division" published in 1997 was seen in some quarters as revisionist tome particularly when it came to his warts and all portrait of the main protagonists Ghandi and Nehru, yet it was scintillating history of a big subject that he did full justice.
His latest book attempts to build on this historial past and get under the skin of the new India and answer the question why is India like it is today. He uses three themes namely Rashtra or nation, Lakshmi or wealth and Samaj or society to draw out the mass of contradictions of the Indian sub continent and infuse it with stories and illustrations provided by the intriguing people of this great and rapidly developing nation. It would be easy for French just to concentrate on the key contradiction namely the rapidly rising middle class of India set against the vicious poverty of millions of its people. Yet French does more than this. In a chapter on the British economist J M keynes and his fascination with India he illustrates how an aspiring entrepreneur T V Sundaram Lyengar started a small bus service by offering wayside meals to Indian peasants suspicious of any form of transport. The TVS group is now India's leading supplier of automotive components and has a turnover of $4bn one of the country's most respected business groups, but had to achieve this by working through what the Indians describe as "official hurdles" and overbearing government interference captured in the phrase the "permit raj". In this setting recent years has seen the culture around commerce ease although corruption is rife and the social impacts often highly divisive.
French does point vividly to the winners and losers on this. He cites the citadel of economic liberalism the city of Bangalore with "its shopping arcades of Hugo Boss and Montblanc, the development of "Lifestyle enclaves" and the "silicon valley of India". And yet while the percentage of Indians living below the poverty line is declining with French quoting government targets to reduce to less than 10% the number of people earning less than $1.25 per day. As French states this is not poverty it is heartbreaking extreme poverty with people finding "that eating rats or ground mango kernels does not save them from starvation, migrant workers who continue to break stones by hand and live in pipes and parents who continue to sell their children into servitude".
The key feature of French's book however is to let Indians speak for themselves whether it be the Sunil Bharti Mittal the Indian telecoms mogul or Shakeel Ahmad Bhat nicknamed "the Islamic Rage Boy" who lives in the troubled state of Kashmir who has become famous for his political activism and vilification in the west. There is also a nice line in humour underpinning this book and it was a joy to learn that David Beckham somehow managed to have "Vhictoria" tattooed on his back in Devanagari script!
French's book is a fascinating journey into a country which Mark Twain once described as "the cradle of the human race". While you suspect that the author recognises that within the confines of a book you can barely scratch the surface of this huge and complex country, French conveys the flavours, religions, idiosyncrasies, disparities and enormous variety of India with considerable skill and dexterity. This is a lively book which you learn from and emerge that bit more informed and knowledgeable. It is well written book and a great introduction to an astonishing country.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Meet the Indians,
I never expected this book to be so entertaining. I was very keen to learn about the history of India and get an understanding of how the diverse communities come together to be a nation. I read the book in a very short period because it was so gripping. It's well written and draws on a huge number of interviews ranging from nation-builders to street-sweepers. I laughed, I nearly cried and I learned a huge amount. This is a great introduction to India and its history. Patrick French is a trenchant critic of some of the characters you will meet but clearly loves India.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Epic, intimate, well written and thoroughly enjoyable,
Patrick French has achieved a rare thing; a book that is epic and intimate, historic and contemporary.
My first conscious contact with India was as a student, when I encountered middleclass UK students who had been there for a `gap year' and wealthy Indians in the UK studying for Masters degrees. The former banged on about `finding themselves' while displaying a shallow empathy with the poverty they had photographed while the latter showed a snobbery, arrogance and casual disregard for working people that did little to recommend themselves or their country. However, when I went to the south of India myself a few years ago, I couldn't help but develop a fondness and admiration for the place.
Patrick French's knowledge and experience of India dwarfs my own, but at the same time the perspective that comes across in this book is familiar. Split into three sections covering nation, wealth and society, French is unflinching in his long, hard look at the corruption of India's political class, the failure of the post-independence economy and inequities of the current boom, or how the emerging middleclass sees it as only right and natural that they should have a plethora of servants living under the stairs to take care of every vaguely unpleasant or mundane task, from keeping the apartment clean to peeling fruit; moral grandstanding by the author is neither present nor necessary as the agreed facts speak for themselves.
However, on the other hand, French also looks at the positive side to India - its stability, democracy and plurality, built on an enduring civic patriotism that is lacking in the West with the exception of the United States. Unlike the `boom' economies of pre-crash Britain and Ireland, India's newfound economic success isn't down to illusory financial shenanigans, but on cultural and institutional factors that have become closely associated with India over an extended period of time; a deep commitment to education, a strong work ethic and an willingness and ability to truck, barter and trade that sets it apart from some other parts of the developing post-colonial world, most markedly sub-Saharan Africa (see The Shackled Continent: Africa's Past, Present and Future).
French subtitles his book as `an intimate portrait'. What comes across from French's narrative, analysis and wealth of first hand interviews with a broad cross section of contemporary Indian society is that India remains a complex, diverse and multi-faceted place that is still working out what it is and what it is going to be. What also comes across is that India is neither 'timeless' (i.e. read unchanging, picturesque poverty) nor is its future settled; our perspective on India has changed greatly in the past fifteen years and will change as much again in the next fifteen, perhaps in ways that most of us couldn't imagine.
This is a must read book for any foreigner intending to travel to, or have an evenly vaguely informed conversation about, modern India.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Insightful Account,
I have read little non-fiction on India but wanted an insight into this vast country. I have found this book to be exceptionally well-written, well paced and well-researched by a writer who clearly loves India. It is not a travel guide and not an historical analysis and does not really fall into any particular category, which I found helped to give it a special charm.
The book is divided into 3 parts with Patrick French discussing a range of political, economic and social issues and so giving an insight into what helps to make the India of today.
It is certainly not a beginners's guide to India, something I was very aware of with a limited knowledge - but I was absorbed in the interviews with such interesting people, all offering a snapshot of life in India and its development.
The book is packed with fascinating interviews with top politicians and famous businessmen to political activists, beggars and prisoners. There is no chronological thread to this but the stories illustrate the points French is making. I found the interviews with business leaders especially interesting.
Trying to understand such a complex part of the world, with different religions and cultures seems almost an impossible task, so I welcome such a brave attempt. I have finished this book with a real flavour of elements that contribute towards the country, written in a memorable way - the writing really is superb.
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India: A Portrait by Patrick French (Paperback - 26 Jan 2012)