A broad brush yet sharp on detail
INDIA: A PORTRAIT
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