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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., 5 Jan. 2011
This review is from: India: A Portrait (Hardcover)
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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.
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