A broad brush yet sharp on de­tail

IN­DIA: A POR­TRAIT

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Re­view: Hugh MacDonald

There is one ques­tion that has haunted In­dia. It has been ar­tic­u­lated by a se­ries of econ­o­mists, prime min­is­ters and vis­i­tors. It is this: why is such a rich coun­try full of poor peo­ple? Pa­trick French’s por­trait of the coun­try has nec­es­sar­ily been painted with the broad­est of brushes. At fewer than 400 pages, it is un­rea­son­able to ex­pect a de­fin­i­tive ex­am­i­na­tion of a nation of such an­tiq­uity, cul­ture, tur­bu­lence and size.

Yet French, ex­pan­sive in his sweep, is also acute on the de­tail. He has di­vided his in­ves­ti­ga­tion into three sec­tions: nation, wealth and so­ci­ety. These open f i elds have l eft him much room for ma­noeu­vre but French is at his best when he fo­cuses on the in­di­vid­ual or brings a stag­ger­ing statis­tic to light. The story of In­dia is t hus t old t hrough per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with t he road oc­ca­sion­ally i l l umi­nated by a well­cho­sen fact.

This is a coun­try of 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple, and French has found a col­lec­tion of per­son­al­i­ties who talk to such var­ied t hemes as ass ass i nat i on, re l i g i ous in­tol­er­ance, the caste sys­tem and how 200,000 lunches are de­liv­ered ev­ery day to of­fice work­ers in Mum­bai by a cadre of men car­ry­ing a con­sign­ment of tif­fin boxes.

This amal­gam of the sub­stan­tial and the cu­ri­ous serves to make French’s work both in­for­ma­tive and highly en­ter­tain­ing. His sub­ject, of course, car­ries a fas­ci­na­tion.

In­dia has al­ways been a com­pelling ob­ject for the West, whether the eyes have been that of a con­queror, a plun­derer or a tourist. The in­flu­ence of Great Bri­tain has been size­able, ex­ploita­tive and in­flu­en­tial. French re­frains from en­ter­ing i nto arg uments about t he dam­age in­flicted by im­pe­ri­al­ism as his por­trait is more im­pres­sion­is­tic and more nu­anced.

How­ever, oc­ca­sion­ally a fact ren­ders most ar­gu­ments re­dun­dant. In­dia, in its present form, was moulded by Bri­tain and its bor­ders were shaped by the pol­i­tics of prag­ma­tism. It has taken the coun­try some time to adapt to its in­de­pen­dence, but one statis­tic shows it has learned quickly. In the 1970s, In­dia’s ex­port earn­ings were about £ 2bn. A mere 40 years on, this fig­ure has soared to £400bn. In­dia is ex­pected to over­take Ja­pan in gross do­mes­tic prod­uct within 20 years.

The coun­try was g uided on t his in­cred­i­ble jour­ney by Man­mo­han Singh, a politician who came from a vil­lage with no drink­ing wa­ter, no hos­pi­tal, no roads and no elec­tric­ity to be­come the prime min­is­ter. A huge, dis­parate nation of po­lar op­po­sites has thus been dragged into the fore­front of world eco­nom­ics. Many be­lieve that Bric ( Brazil, Rus­sia, In­dia and China) must form the new world or­der.

In­dia, of course, still re­tains its al­lure in cul­ture and his­tory. It still has the pornog­ra­phy of poverty that com­prises the im­ages of those who still can­not find the first rung of an eco­nomic lad­der that will rise to the top of global eco­nom­ics. Poverty in In­dia is still aw­ful but there is

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