Patrick French: Your mother, your sister and all

Using the candid voices of its inhabitants, India: A Portrait reveals the nation's problems and possibilities.

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As with the proverbial three blind men before the elephant, unable because of its vastness and the diversity of its parts to make a reasonable guess as to the reality of the whole, all books about India "get" some things about the nation and miss others. Each observer distinguishes or incriminates himself in his own way. For the reader, the task lies in reckoning up exactly what they see and what they choose to make of it. Billed as "an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people" (the adjective alone is worth investigating), India: A Portrait, by the noted British author and historian Patrick French, sets itself up from the beginning alongside the most ambitious books written about the country.

Shelves full of non-fiction are now published every year about Indian politics, society, culture, religion, philosophy and business. In a crowded market buzzing with large claims, French's contribution is the somewhat nebulous: "India is a macrocosm, and may be the world's default setting for the future."

In the main, however, French is sharper than that, and indeed often has a merciless way with cant. Cutting up his book into three major axes of inquiry entitled "Rashtra", "Lakshmi", and "Samaj" - the nation, (the Hindu goddess of) wealth, and society - he deploys an impressive grasp of history and social context and a love of bright detail last displayed in his 2008 biography of VS Naipaul.

The only clunky section comes right at the beginning. French's long essay on Indian politics requires him to make a survey, for reasons of context and continuity, of the major events since independence: nation-formation and constitution-framing, the crisis of succession post-Nehru, the Emergency, the rise of dynastic politics. French has a talent for elegant synthesis and summary, often finished off with brief, probing glosses (Jawaharlal Nehru's classic The Discovery of India is "a fine, slanted and sometimes romantic version of history").Yet that is not enough to reanimate this extensively reported period, the contours, personalities, and fault lines of which are familiar to even the casual reader on India.

Once it has emerged from this morass, French's narration picks up steam, every page delivering something valuable. One of his most diverting studies concerns nepotism in Indian democracy. Looking at the Lok Sabha - the Indian parliament, home to 545 elected members - French attempts to work out, with the assistance of a team of researchers, just how many of these politicians might be considered what he terms hereditary MPs or "HMPs" - that is, MPs with a strong family, if not directly filial, connection to politics.

He finds that almost 30 per cent of MPs fall into this category, including two-thirds of the 66 MPs aged 40 or under. Thus he demonstrates how much weight a family name carries at the highest echelons of state. Sixty-three years after its ambitious inauguration, Indian democracy remains semi-feudal. "I am not suggesting that a 'hereditary MP' is a bad MP," French ends tidily, "merely that this system excludes the overwhelming majority of Indians from participation in politics at a national level". With a new law about to come into effect for the 2014 general elections mandating that 33 per cent of parliamentary seats be reserved for women, the situation could grow worse, with mothers, wives and daughters-in-law of men in power catapulted into the hustings. "India's next general election," writes French, is "likely to return not aLok Sabha, a house of the people, but a Vansh Sabha, a house of dynasty."

A pair of brief but trenchant sketches of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, the revered president of the Congress Party and India's present prime minister respectively, set off a train of acute portraiture, the strength of which holds the diverse strands of the book together. The double-sided method that French employs is to allow his subjects, where possible, to speak at length in their own voices, then to gird this with a few paragraphs of telling detail, sourced from books, reports, and personal observation. By throwing together the famous, the modestly well-known, and the anonymous in complex formations, French achieves an effect with both the powerful and the powerless that justifies the word "intimate" in his subtitle.

A mid-rung Congress functionary in Uttar Pradesh, Yusuf Ansari, talks revealingly about the complexities of local politics and the weaknesses of the Congress Party at grassroots. In a passage that is almost novelistic, the Indian telecom baron Sunil Mittal, head of Bharti Airtel, recalls the way he would wander street markets and trade fairs in the Eighties, searching for a business opportunity before finally picking phones as a growth area. A low-caste labourer in Karnataka who failed to pay off a debt to his employer and so spent 21 months shackled by a chain, unable to put on underwear or trousers, puzzles over his story after he is freed. Not far away, in the buzzing metropolis of Bangalore, a construction worker takes French around the pathetic camp thrown together for him and his colleagues by a company which is building premium apartments.

In Kashmir, the lapsed terrorist and political protester Shakeel Ahmad Bhat (aka "Islamic Rage Boy") speaks heartrendingly about the violence visited on his family by police during his childhood. Meanwhile, in the closing sections of a forceful critique of Indian Naxalism - a Maoist insurgent movement that controls large stretches of densely forested land in central and eastern India - French visits Delhi's infamous Tihar Jail to meet one of the movement's masterminds. He asks the recently arrested ideologue Kobad Ghandy how he can continue to believe in Maoism after the arbitrary snuffing out of hundreds of thousands of lives in Mao's China. Ghandy acknowledges that there have been mistakes, but valiantly defends the "philosophy" of the movement. "When taken to an extreme," remarks French acidly, "idealism is little more than a form of prejudice."

French's ear for the exact registers and locutions of Indian speech, reported without smirks or condescension, elevates his work above most other books of reportage on the country. Eliding the distance between him and his subjects, his narrative becomes an impressive act of ventriloquism in the manner of Suketu Mehta's Maximum City or Sonia Faleiro's recent You Beautiful Thing. Late in the book, an army officer is heard describing a face-off between two colleagues: "The 2IC, the second-in-command, started abusing him when he was giving a report, saying your mother, your sister and all." In such interludes it is not the space granted to the subject that humanises him, more the attention paid to detail and tone.

Elsewhere, French remarks, comfortably inhabiting Indian idiom, that "of the 38 youngest MPs, 33 had arrived with the help of mummy-daddy". Then, in an excellent passage on Indian school textbooks, he notes the popular and resonant neologism "byhearting" (committing to memory). This gift for observation allows India: A Portrait to stand alongside Christopher Kremmer's Inhaling The Mahatma and MG Vassanji's memoir A Place Within as one of the most linguistically rich and morally inquisitive books written about India by a non-native author in recent years.

Chandrahas Choudhury is the author of the novel Arzee the Dwarf and the editor of the recent anthology of Indian fiction about place, India: A Traveller's Literary Companion.