Isaac Chotiner reviews Patrick French's India: A Portrait, in TNR:
Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, which the author calls an “intimate biography of 1.2 billion people,” has received a number of hostile notices in the Indian press. As in the case of Slumdog Millionaire, many of the reviews seem concerned with the ways in which India is being interpreted. And a number of the criticisms lend credence to the notion that outsiders describing a foreign country are bound to be reprimanded. Pankaj Mishra, the first-rate novelist and essayist, has slammed French in two separate reviews, accusing him of ignoring India’s agricultural sector, minimizing the country’s widespread poverty, and making excuses for a new collection of oligarchs who seem completely uninterested in the welfare of the populace. French’s best chapter, on the nepotistic character of Indian politics, is dismissed by Mishra as being “blindingly plain” to any “sentient” observer. By this standard, French should not have written about impoverished Indians: Indian poverty is also blindingly plain to anyone who spends a day in the country.
But French’s book does exhibit some of the tendencies that have greeted the arrival of a “new” India with rose-tinted glasses. French, whose last effort was an astounding biography of V.S. Naipaul, is certainly aware of the dangers of writing about India, but he has trouble avoiding them. “Nearly everyone has a reaction to India, even if they have never been there,” he writes in his introduction.
They hate it or love it, think it mystical or profane; find it extravagant or ascetic; consider the food the best or the worst in the world. For East Asians, it is a competitor and a source of some of their own spiritual traditions. For Americans, it is a challenge, a potential hub of cooperation or economic rivalry—both countries are diverse and hulking, their national identities strong and to an extent constructed, their populations loquacious and outgoing and admiring of entrepreneurial success.
This cliché-ridden, Manichean passage begs several questions. For example, how many countries have unconstructed national identities? And how many travelers actually think the food in India is really the best or the worst in the world?