Amid the welter of investment bank reports and breathless magazine articles chronicling India's rise, it's easy to forget that not so long ago the country was better known for beggars and fakirs than for software engineers and ambitious tycoons. Not many people outside the subcontinent paid it much attention. Or, as the British writer and historian Patrick French, who first visited India as a 19-year-old in 1986, puts it, "Comprehending the country was a specialist interest, rather than a necessity, as it is today."
That need--to make sense of a land with one-sixth of the world's population, in the midst of the fastest change in its 4,000-year history--drives Mr. French's new book, his first since his controversial and critically acclaimed biography of V.S. Naipaul appeared in 2008.
You can't fault Mr. French for lack of ambition, for not tackling the big questions India raises. How has democracy survived, let alone thrived, in a place of such widespread poverty and dizzying diversity? What explains India's economic stagnation for the first 40 years after independence, and the dynamism that makes it the world's second-fastest growing major economy today? What accounts for the broad tolerance of Indian society in a neighborhood pockmarked with authoritarianism and religious extremism? In short, what makes India India?
In his quest for answers, Mr. French compresses 63 years of post-independence history into 450-odd pages fizzing with wit, insight and infectious curiosity. The book claims, somewhat audaciously, to be "an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people," and in that spirit Mr. French illuminates the larger questions driving his narrative with a fusillade of smaller ones.
Ever wondered about the astrological period most respected by Indian politicians? It's not when power is there for the taking, but when enemies are most easily destroyed. Which is the preferred private jet of the rich Indian in London? The Dassault Falcon 900: No pesky refueling stops in Baku or Dubai en route to New Delhi. How best to compare pornography produced in the neighboring southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu? Apparently, the Tamil variety is tamer: "The performers were restrained and usually took off only their tops."
Along the way, Mr. French also sketches a series of vivid portraits. He brings to life Indira Gandhi's loutish younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, "prematurely bald, with extravagant sideburns and a pendulous lower lip," the then prime minister's heir apparent before he crashed his plane and died while performing illegal acrobatics over Delhi in 1980. We learn that P.C. Mahalanobis, the brilliant Cambridge-educated statistician responsible for India's disastrous experience with state planning, dabbled in eugenics and philosophy, and had his assistants carry his cash for him.
A visit to the badlands of Uttar Pradesh brings the author face to face with the gangster-politician Mukhtar Ansari, a giant of a man rumored to carry a .357 Magnum and six mobile phones with him at all times. Better known figures--a parade of prime ministers and other luminaries--glide past these pages, not evincing as much reaction perhaps because there's less new to say about them.
All this makes for a riveting read, and one suspects that Mr. French could not pen a boring passage if he tried. However, in the final analysis, the worth of such a book rests on its conclusions. They are generally spot-on. On the impact of India's post-1991 economic reforms, Mr. French strikes a balance between those who see the glass as mostly empty and those who see it as mostly full. "Two things are clear: large numbers of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, and around one quarter of the population have so far gained very little."
On the fraught question of religion in public life, Mr. French criticizes the secular Indian media's tendency to treat "clerics on the further fringes of Islam" deferentially. But he also sees the intellectual bankruptcy of Hindu nationalism, "a view of the future that is rooted in a faraway past, arising from the historical imagination."
Mr. French doggedly explores India's underbelly: Maoism, the Kashmir insurgency, bonded labor, police malfeasance, hereditary politics, and rampant corruption. But, unlike many Indian intellectuals, he doesn't lose sight of the bigger picture: a democratic polity, a rapidly growing economy, and an essentially tolerant society. Optimism about India may be exaggerated, but it's far from unwarranted.
That said, this book has its share of flaws. For a reader not already familiar with modern Indian history, it may feel a little too rushed, like a film watched on fast forward. At times, Mr. French veers toward the hokey, regurgitating without skepticism nonsense about the Internet as "a Hindu concept, a deity with many arms," or the notion that the software firm Infosys has invented a new "Indian way of working," and claiming, somewhat breathlessly, that "India is a macrocosm, and may be the world's default setting for the future."
But these are quibbles. "India: A Portrait" is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through six momentous decades. For those who closely watch India, it's a valuable addition to the library. For those who don't, it's a riveting introduction to what has always been a fantastically diverse society, and has recently become a dynamic economy.
Sadanand Dhume is a Resident Fellow at AEI.