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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 February 2012
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...

Highly recommended
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VINE VOICEon 14 May 2011
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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.
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VINE VOICEon 24 April 2011
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 26 January 2011
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This has all the makings of an outstanding book by my measure. It is evidently the result of painstaking and patient research. It is written with clarity, great skill and a dry sense of humour that shows through to just the right degree. But most of all it challenges popular perceptions of a country that is close to my heart and I feel thoroughly edified by reading it.

I was quite sceptical of the 'marketese' that provided the subtitle 'an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people' but now I have finished the book I can say that this description isn't all sales-pitch. Of course you can't really provide an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people, but you can use a broad spectrum of individual stories and personal accounts to provide insight into the loosely connected whole that is India. There are tales within to make you laugh out loud, gasp in horror, smile in admiration and grimace in disgust. India has it all... and French has done a remarkably balanced job of bringing it to print.

As a youth I volunteered and travelled in India and read much about the country. Subsequently, I married a second-generation Indian/Canadian and now I work with the Indian Aerospace industry based in Bangalore. This book has a ring of authenticity at every level that I can attest to but goes far far beyond my canned experiences of India to reveal a population beyond definition or stereotype. French quite clearly sidesteps any attempt to 'summarise' his four-hundred pages of observations, rather allowing his work to sink in and leave the reader to assimilate all that information.

I'm less sure I agree with all of French's points of view - specifically his short analysis of the drawbacks of multiculturalism in countries, such as the UK, where Indians have made new homes. Certainly we have some serious problems in this country but the time I've spent in Canada has given me a broadly positive attitude towards that model when it is well implemented. But that aside, this book has been a pleasure from cover to cover, never once losing my interest or slipping into repetition. Be warned, however - it is long and detailed so (as other reviewers have suggested) might be too much for a first foray into Indian culture seen from the outside. Nevertheless, it comes highly recommended if your interest in India is anything more than superficial.
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VINE VOICEon 22 March 2011
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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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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 2 February 2011
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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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 18 February 2012
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.
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on 24 January 2013
With family connections to India & Pakistan going back to the 1930s, & a long interest in Advaita Meditation, this book was of considerable interest to me. The first part of the book - 'Rashtra' / Nation' - was particularly heavy going, being a dense and detailed account of the incredibly complex world of Indian politics, with its countless parties, inter-related political dynasties and their comings & goings from the time of the last Maharajas to (almost) the present day.

The second & third parts of the book - 'Lakshmi / Wealth' & 'Samaj / Society' - were fascinating and a real eye opener. Initially focusing on the development of business & industry since 1945 and the fraught relations between India & Pakistan (Hindus v Muslims), Patrick French then turns his attention to the lives & social conditions of some of the people he meets. We all know that beneath the exotic glamour of the sub-continent lies the 'Caste' system (which, like the religion itself, is mighty complicated) which occasionally impinges on our consciousness when the word 'untouchables' crops up - and is then dismissed as an inherent part of Indian life. But what he describes is actually slavery / bonded labour - that hasn't changed for a thousand years.

This is of course very topical, with world attention now turned to the treatment of women in India, following recent rape cases. Yesterday, 23rd Jan. on BBC Radio 4s 'Thought for the day', Akhandadhi Das posited (with reference to the position of women) that Hinduism has, in the last thousand years, 'drifted' to a position of 'endemic misogyny' He then went on to say 'The Vedas clearly state: Even if you think something is sanctioned by Dharma or Law, avoid it if it is harmful or offensive to another person' Patrick French cites Dalit leader Kanshi Ram: 'The sufferings & humiliations of the slaves, the Negroes & the Jews are nothing as compared to the untouchables of India...85% of people are ruled by 10-15% Higher Castes...Brahminism had such poisonous germs in it, that it effectively killed the desire to revolt against the worst form of injustice'

What this seems to amount to in practice is that you can beat, torture or kill a woman (check out female infanticide / matrimonial problems)) or your servant / bonded labourer, as a matter of routine - and no one will blink an eye - not the police, the authorities, the politicians - no one. The servant sleeping on the floor outside your middle class bedroom door, ready to jump up & do your bidding at any time day or night. The bonded labourer with shackles permanently welded onto his ankles, breaking rocks for his master who owns the quarry. Love & compassion for a fellow human? It doesn't come into it.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 22 February 2012
This is a splendid book which covers the great sweep of Indian life and culture, illuminated with numerous individual anecdotes featuring 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 representatives of the many 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 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...

Highly recommended
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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 3 February 2011
I found this book very hard to put down as Patrick French is a wonderfully readable writer. The complexities of Indian politics are breathtaking - so many people, so many parties - yet with patient, impeccable research Patrick has produced a wonderful guide.
I got the feeling as I was reading this, that here in my hands was an instant classic, a book to be referred to in years to come. It has helped me to understand so much about a country that has always fascinated me, sidestepping the inevitable stereotypes of tourism guides.
I can imagine that this will be avidly read by second and third generation British Asians. There are few books which will show Indians how others see them quite so vividly. This is no hagiography, but nevertheless, the great love Patrick French has for India and its people shows clearly.
What a wonderful, complex, enthralling, varied, infuriating, enchanting nation - and what a fantastic job Patrick French has done in bringing it to us.
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