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A Portrait

A-IndiaBritish historian Patrick French is the author of several works of nonfiction, including a National Book Critics Circle Award–winning biography of Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is (4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2009), and a detailed account of India's struggle for independence, Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division (1997), for which he won the London Sunday Times Young Author of the Year Award.

The Topic: "Much current thinking about India ... is the product of old knowledge and expectation," asserts French, and he endeavors to set the record straight in this review of postcolonial Indian history. Divided into three sections--Rashtra (Politics), Lakshmi, (Economy), and Samaj (Society)--India explores the many ways that modern India has grafted its long-standing institutions onto 20th- and 21st-century structures. Despite traditions of nepotism, corruption, and violence, India's constitution has endured and its democracy is secure. Its burgeoning economy, a study in jaw-dropping disparity between rich and poor, threatens to unseat the West's, while Indians struggle to reconcile concepts of personal freedom and civil liberties with deeply rooted cultural prejudices. "India is a macrocosm," argues French, "and may be the world's default setting for the future."
Knopf. 416 pages. $30. ISBN: 9780307272430

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"As its bland title makes clear, this book isn't a lush travelogue or a spiritual journey. Instead of Eat, Pray, Love, this is more like Analyze, Interpret, Understand, with a wonky British scribbler replacing Julia Roberts in the title role. ... But this might be just the approach India needs, one without all the gaping that it inspires in visitors." Randy Dotinga

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"[India] combines deep research about the country's history with a series of vignettes culled from French's street-level reporting. Taken together, his reading of seminal texts and his interviews with politicians, pimps, businessmen, laborers, farmers, scholars and people from all levels of India's caste system result in a fittingly vigorous and colorful book about what it means to live in India six decades after the nation freed itself from British rule." Kevin Canfield

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A skilled interviewer who writes with a descriptive flair, French introduces people on the unseen margins of society and searches out others who, though once in the media spotlight, have faded from public attention. ... India is so complex that it's risky to make generalizations, and French gets into trouble when he does." Kenneth Cooper

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The drawbacks of his outsider's perspective are soon apparent in the section about the nation and its politics. Mr. French makes much of his analysis of the Parliament's demographics, reporting the ‘shocking' news that in the Lok Sabha--the lower house, its members directly elected--every member under the age of 30 was the offspring of a member of Parliament and that two-thirds of those under 40 were also ‘HMPs,' or hereditary MPs. ... In any case, his conclusion seems misguided: If nonhereditary MPs begin to enter Parliament's ranks in significant numbers once they have passed the age of 40, it's hard to extrapolate a worryingly dynastic future for the country's governance." Hartosh Singh Bal

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[French] is a thorough researcher and skilled storyteller who excels at drawing characters and scenes. ... But India overreaches. French includes too much and does not indicate which events and observations are most important." Melissa Allison

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The words ‘lumbering' and ‘dinosaur' do leap to mind. A work of parched, dispassionate sociology, India feels longer than its 398 pages. ... Mr. French struggles to get his arms around the size and import of this teeming country, and he thinly scatters what ideas he has on arid ground." Dwight Garner

Critical Summary

"Every sixth person walking on the earth is Indian," reports French. As India assumes a greater role on the world stage, it becomes increasingly important to grasp the forces that drive and define the nation, and French aims to provide that information, a goal he achieves by skillfully combining astute historical analysis with persuasive, on-site reportage. A shrewd observer and gifted storyteller, he distills India's complexities to reveal the connections between those political, economic, and cultural forces. "There are insights small and large" here, affirms the Seattle Times, though some critics took issue with French's tendency to oversimplify and the glut of material. Nevertheless, anyone seeking a better understanding of modern India would do well to start with this "ambitious, engaging book" (San Francisco Chronicle).