Author: Ninian, Alex
Date published: December 1, 2011
INDIA - 1947 TO THE PRESENT India: A Portrait. Patrick French. Allen Lane. £25.00. xii+436 pages. ISBN 9781-846-14214-7.
The book has the tongue-in-cheek subtitle of 'An intimate biography of 1.2 billion people' and somehow it manages to achieve this. It is a mixture of the great events (independence, Ayodhya, economic growth), historical characters (Gandhi, Nehru, Mrs Gandhi, Sonia), and tales which illustrate the unique character of the country (caste, religion). It is also full of anecdotes which describe the life of individuals, often out-of-the-way anecdotes such as the chained quarry worker, the prison inmate, the pimp or prostitute.
The author, Patrick French, is an historian as well as a gifted writer and the historic information is presented with accuracy and discipline. There are twelve sections to the book and it begins with an accelerated history which sketches out the events of independence, the creation of Pakistan and the development of the Indian constitution. One whole section is devoted to the Gandhis from Mrs Gandhi, and her marriage to Ferose whom Mr French describes as 'a young chancer from a Parsi family'. It also deals with Mrs Gandhi's and her son, Rajiv's, assassinations.
In the third section there is a concentration on Rajiv's wife, Sonia. The middle of the book describes the period of the central planning and control of the economy, and highlights the continued role of the independent entrepreneur in the form of the 'shampoo king' CK. Rangnathan. It goes on to describe the personal history of Manmohan Singh and his rise to Finance Minister and then Prime Minister, the liberalisation of the economy and the transformation of India from an economic backwater to one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Patrick French does not neglect to mention that with the growth of personal wealth of the middle class (he features Sunil Mittal and the steelmaker Lakshmi Mittal), nearly half the population still live on the land, in villages, and there are 300 million Indians living in dire poverty with most unable to read or write and having poor health conditions.
The eighth section deals with the subjects of caste, debt and corruption mainly through the tale of Venkatesh who worked in chains in a quarry and experienced the reality of the police being in the pay of the business owner. The next section deals with the continuing phenomenon of untouchability and the efforts of reformers to stamp it out.
There is a section of the book devoted to religion, framed by the fatal break between India and Pakistan, Hindu and Muslim, in 1947, but the book argues that more serious was India's help for East Pakistan when it broke away to become Bangladesh in the 1970s. There is also reference to Kashmir in connection with the Hindu/Muslim conflict. The book postulates that the continuation of religions other than Hinduism, principally the Muslim religion and its conventions such as polygamy, means that there is no de facto common civil code. The last part of the book is titled 'Only in India' and it contains some of the most strange and outlandish procedures, events, happenings and customs that could happen only in India but which are somehow typical of the diversity of Indian life. Featured are the taxi driver who only ever drives in reverse, and the unbelievable phenomenon of the dabba wallas (a deliverer of cooked meals) of Mumbai [Bombay]. The latter was of special interest to me since I did the same thing as the author, namely to follow a wallah from the suburb of Andheri to the centre of town. The book describes the social, economic and historic features of this phenomenon and outlines the organisation of the 5,000 wallahs who deliver 200,000 lunches every day - on time.
The one important feature of India which is not dealt with in the depth that it deserves is the subject of cricket which some say is the main thing with which all Indians identify and others say is even the glue which holds the diverse tribes, castes, classes, languages and religions of the vast country together. Having said that, the book gives an encompassing social, political and economic story of India from independence to the present day. It examines the cultural foundations that have made India's transformation from socialist economy to capitalist powerhouse possible and it conveys through anecdote and tale, the continuing poverty, corruption, class and caste divisions. Through his travels throughout the country, the author has striven to show that Nehru's vision of a unified, secular, democratic India is still alive.