India: Connect-the-Dots (or not)

11 Nov

India: A PortraitIndia: A Portrait by Patrick French

My Rating★★★☆☆

India: Connect-the-Dots (or not)

French divides the book into three neat parts – Rashtra (Nation, i.e., The Politics), Lakshmi (Wealth, i.e., The Economics) & Samaj (Society, i.e., The Sociology). He attempts to sketch a comprehensive ‘portrait’ of the country by using this eminently scientific approach. Hard to fault the ambition. Except that India refuses to be divided into such easy compartments. Nor are these sciences ones that can be easily examined without reference to each other. They are not the hyphenated-sisters for no reason. Much of the pleasure in reading the book comes from the tension generated by French trying to wrench and force fit his stories into his compartments, religiously avoiding cross-references (as much as possible). The fact that he keeps the whole thing coherent is an achievement in itself.


Appropriately the first section is politics which is the fountainhead of much that follows. French here attempts the herculean task of trying to compress the byzantine complexity of Indian politics into a third of a book. He keeps it light and funny and does not lack in insight when it comes to history. But his telling is slightly biased in favor of the current government – lavishing praises on Mr. Singh, Soniaji and on her son, even as he dishes out excessive criticism on almost everything else concerning Indian politics. It must be an embarrassment for the author if it were pointed out now how he was praising Rahul Gandhi as the possible savior of an increasing decadent Congress system while so insightfully highlighting the worst aspects of the party politics.

The best analyzed chapter of the book (Family Politics) comes in this section and deals with the minutiae of Hereditary Politics that has plagued India. With the help of some (almost) ad-hoc calculations and excel-plugging, French arrives at a picture of how deep-rotted the problem really is. This depressing analysis points out how low a proportion of non-hereditary political leaders, i.e., people who made it on their own merit are there in the higher (and even lower) echelons of power. As opposed to the ones who didn’t need merit – He calls them H-MPs/H-MLAs (Hereditary-MP/MLA). Can’t think of a more stinging slap on the face of ‘democracy’.

French ends the chapter with a stirring warning that the route India has taken of entrenched hereditary politics is taking her rapidly back to the era of Kings and Princes.


As with any Indian Economic history, French dives with great relish into criticizing the early planning economy, especially Mahalanobis – he even points out how this damaged not just India but the rest of the newly independent countries as well since they looked to India (Calcutta in lieu of Chicago) for economic wisdom and adopted Mahalanobis’s elaborately concocted fantasy as theory.

But the fact is that the steady stream of economists who poured into India in that period of exceptional enthusiasm (which Das elaborates in his book) had all certified the plan as faultless, Friedman being one of the few voices to cry foul and that was probably more because it was against his ideology than because of any specific objections to the theoretical framework.

Thought experiment: India as an early Keynesian vs Monetarist battleground. Almost, but not to be. Sigh.

In addition to the standard fare of criticism of early policies and the run up to the much hyped turning point of the 90s, some interesting flashes stand out in this section to interest even the informed reader – such as:

How Keynes’ early career and theoretical synthesis was shaped by India;

How the at-first-glance stunningly socialistic and idealistic ‘Bombay Plan’ was as in fact politically motivated and was a shrewd move to outflank the left-wing;

How Mahalanobis was obsessed with the science of skull measurement and concocted dreamy theories on the racial superiority of Bengalis, etc.


Fittingly, this concluding section about Indian Society is the most amorphous and yet most coherent part of the book. He uses it to highlight some of the everyday concerns of the Indian media and the everyday fears of the Indian ‘common-man’ – all of which seem mundane but are of stunningly tragic proportions if one could only take a step back and see the extent, depth and sheer depravity of it.

The topics he takes on in this section ranges from caste issues, societal disconnects such as the urban-rural divide (where he follows up on the Kafkaesque Aarushi story, in great detail.), religion and its discontents, customs – their origins and current forms, ancient science, philosophy etc and even some tasty anecdotes such as how Mahalanobis (yes he does seem to have an unhealthy obsession with Mahalanobis – just as he can never talk of Keynes without commenting on his sexuality within the same sentence) saved Ramanujam from chilly nights by teaching him the engineering dexterity necessary for manipulating a blanket.

Being the manifestations arising out of the Politics and Economics outlined in the first two sections of the book, this final section finds French at his poignant journalistic best. Tracing out moving stories and making almost a travelogue of this, one gets the feeling that this was what French originally wanted to write about and the run up/introduction in which he wanted to show some of the underlying causes to the societal ills of India ended up turning into a two-thirds-of-his-book-long introduction.

French should probably have stuck to the original plan. It might have meant that we could have had a profoundly moving portrait, without being asked to do a connect-the-dots puzzle all the time before being shown the stark reality of the picture for a flash and then being blind-folded again. Left alone with the confounding puzzle, most dots still left hanging.

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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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