Read India Online

Authors: Patrick French



The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul

Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land

Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division

The Life of Henry Norman

Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer


Copyright © 2011 by Patrick French

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Originally published in Great Britain by Allen Lane, an imprint of the Penguin Group, a division of Penguin Books Ltd., London.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
French, Patrick, [date]
India : a portrait / Patrick French.—1st U.S. ed.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-59664-2
1. India—History—1947– 2. India—Politics and government—1947– 3. India—
Economic conditions—1947– 4. India—Social conditions—1947– I. Title.
75 2011
954.04–dc22             2011003921

Jacket design by Carol Devine Carson





In 1997 I wrote
Liberty or Death
, an account of Indian independence and partition. Almost as soon as it was out, I wanted to do a sequel which looked at India in a new way, for what it was becoming rather than for what others wanted it to be. Some sort of unleashing was taking place, the effects of which were not yet clear, and the country appeared to be passing through epic and long-awaited changes. I was diverted by a biography, though even while I was writing it I was noticing the little revolutions in India, and the historical impulses that lay behind them.

Nearly everyone has a reaction to India, even if they have never been there. They hate it or love it, think it mystical or profane; find it extravagant or ascetic; consider the food the best or the worst in the world. For East Asians, it is a competitor and a source of some of their own spiritual traditions. For Americans, it is a challenge, a potential hub of cooperation or economic rivalry—both countries are diverse and hulking, their national identities strong and to an extent constructed, their populations loquacious and outgoing and admiring of entrepreneurial success. For many Europeans, India is a religious place with a special, undefined message. For the British, it is a link to old prestige, a land interesting mainly in the past tense. For the Pakistanis—the estranged siblings of the Indians—it is a site of threat and fascination.

Public discourse about India is caught in these old ways of looking. 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. The postcolonial outlook—vital in the early years of freedom as a means to take the nation forward, and as an antidote to constant Western assumptions about the restricted destiny of former colonies—has become an intellectual straitjacket which limits fresh thought at a time when something new is happening.

I have tried to write about the country both from the inside and from the outside—or from a distance. The information passes through three different prisms. The first is political, the second economic and the
third social. The individual stories, calamities, aspirations and triumphs of many people are at the heart of the narrative. Each of the three sections—
or nation,
or wealth,
or society—seeks to answer, in an indirect way, the question: why is India like it is today?

is about the birth of a nation. For any country, the moment of conception or formation is vital in explaining what happens later (think of Israel or the United States). In those early days, India was a beacon to Asian and African peoples who were seeking freedom from foreign rule. The dream turned stagnant, as a controlled, statist mindset took over. India was nominally not aligned in the Cold War and the Soviet Union was its friend—but many Indians wished to go West to seek their fortune. New political leaders arose, powered by caste, religion or regional affinity, and politics in India changed, following its own unique conventions and traditions. A handful of families became ever more important; the final chapter in
looks at how Indian democracy really works, and at the triumph of nepotism.

, recent economic liberalization is placed in a deeper historical context. Why was international trade rejected with such force and certainty after independence? What makes a new nation prosperous? Why did people raised on a diet of socialism become robustly and even rapaciously capitalist, embracing the idea of economic creativity? Who becomes super-rich, who gets by and who remains super-poor? The rapid growth of the Indian economy was sparked by a near calamity in 1991, when the remnants of the country’s gold reserves had to be sent to Switzerland in a bid to raise cash. There was nothing inevitable about India’s rise, and
uses the personal tales of the poor and the rich to explain how it happened.

The third section,
, is more nebulous: it is about broad social patterns, and the characteristics that make India itself. The narrative shows things that might be taken for granted in India—the fact the “untouchable” father of the constitution was not allowed to sit in a classroom, the misconduct of the police and bureaucracy, the role of servants, the genetics of caste, the importance of India’s many Muslims and their loyalty to the national ideal, and the deep and enduring influence of forms of faith. Through looking at the past, and sometimes at quite distant moments in history, the apparent peculiarities and continuing problems of the present can be revealed.

Globally, India is now sometimes portrayed as having a competitive edge over more sluggish developed countries that have abandoned thrift, given up on saving and refused to postpone gratification. Values that are
embedded in an Indian way of life appear to have an unexpected relevance. A friend, Niranjan, forwarded me an email. It caught the idea that people like himself had a distinctive way of operating, and their lateral approach presented them with a new advantage. Like other Indians, Niranjan was taking pleasure in the possibility that the citizens of his country were highly motivated, and no longer perceived only as the victims of famine or superstition:

An Indian man walks into a bank in New York City and asks for the loan officer. He tells the loan officer that he is going to India on business for two weeks and needs to borrow $5,000. The bank officer tells him that the bank will need some form of security for the loan, so the Indian man hands over the keys of a new Ferrari parked on the street in front of the bank. He produces the title and everything checks out. The loan officer agrees to accept the car as collateral for the loan.

The bank’s president and its officers all enjoy a good laugh at the Indian for using a $250,000 Ferrari as collateral against a $5,000 loan. An employee of the bank then drives the Ferrari into the bank’s underground garage and parks it there. Two weeks later, the Indian returns, repays the $5,000 and the interest, which comes to $15.41.

The loan officer says, “Sir, we are very happy to have had your business, and this transaction has worked out very nicely, but we are a little puzzled. While you were away, we checked you out and found that you are a multimillionaire. What puzzles us is, why would you bother to borrow $5,000?”

The Indian replies: “Where else in New York City can I park my car for two weeks for only $15.41 and expect it to be there when I return?”

Ah, the mind of the Indian!

With its overlap of extreme wealth and lavish poverty, its mix of the educated and the ignorant, 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.


the air is thin and dry, and it is cold even when the sunlight burns you. Tashi Norbu could remember how, in 1948, Buddhist monks in their dark red robes had built an improvised, rocky airstrip near the monastery in Leh. Out of the sky came a buzzing metal shape, a Dakota aeroplane carrying India’s new prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It landed in a cloud of dust.

“We had never seen a car or a motor vehicle at that time,” Tashi Norbu said, sitting above his apricot orchard, speaking in a Tibetan dialect. He was an old man, an expert in medicinal herbs, water diversion and the correct way to shoot a bow and arrow. He wore a long brown robe secured with a lime-coloured sash, and on his head he had wedged a homburg.

“There were no roads in Ladakh. A plane lands from the sky, you can’t imagine … All the local people put their hands together and prayed to the plane, we were all praying.”

Ladakh is a mountainous region by the borders of Tibet, China and Pakistan. In the rush of history, it might have ended up on the wrong side of the line; but it is in India. It feels like the remoter parts of Tibet, though without the Chinese influence. By a quirk of history, Ladakhis follow Tibetan Buddhism, having avoided the waves of Muslim invasions that changed the traditions of their neighbours. Geographically inaccessible, the region preserves
an ancient way of living. The present, powerless King of Ladakh’s lineage dates back an incredible thirty-eight generations to 975. His family lost their influence more than a century ago, and he lives in a little hilltop palace.

Tashi Norbu thought of himself as a Ladakhi above all else. “As children, we hadn’t heard about India. We didn’t know who the Indians were. We knew they were ‘gyagarpa,’ people who came from the plains, but it was not until I grew older and saw a map that I understood how big India was. Some things changed after independence: a politician came to visit us from Srinagar in Kashmir, but we didn’t know what that meant, whether he was a religious leader or a king, or what.

“I can remember when I first saw the Indian army using kerosene! I couldn’t believe the flames, how easily they could make them. They told us we could buy kerosene in Leh if we sold eggs. We would take the eggs, carry them like a baby while crossing the [Indus] river, sell them to a trader, buy the kerosene, and carry the kerosene back to the village.

“Pandit Nehru told the chief lama he should become a leader, and the lama said since we were in a mountain region he would rather be a worker. He handed a shovel to Nehru, who began digging! They took some photographs of it. Yes, I am content to be with India. We would never have got along with Pakistan, because they are Mohammedans and follow different customs. As for China, it is communist; you have to take permission for everything you want to do, and you can’t speak your mind. In India you can speak your mind, so I’m happy to be with them.”

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