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Patrick French: Historian par excellence

The 57-year-old scholar Patrick French, who died on Thursday, was known for parsing conflicting accounts and producing cohesive narratives

Patrick French was a fine exponent of the short, darkly funny interlude.
Patrick French was a fine exponent of the short, darkly funny interlude. (Mint)

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There’s a paragraph in Patrick French’s Liberty Or Death: India’s Journey To Independence And Division (1997) that gives a strict but fair view of M.K. Gandhi’s insecurities as well as French’s strengths as a popular historian.

“During the 1920s,” French writes, “he (Gandhi) had even tried self-flagellation as a means of expunging his anger, although later he abandoned this method. On one occasion he wrote that he was so ‘aflame with anger’ at his own sins that he ‘rose and struck myself hard blows and only then did I have peace’. Gandhi was at war with himself, unable to resolve his own drives and desires... He was a man with strong passions, who never found celibacy or the renunciation of material pleasures an easy burden.”

It’s all in that paragraph—French’s quality research (every quote is taken from primary sources), his depth of characterisation and the gift for parsing conflicting historical accounts and coming up with a coherent narrative.

French, who died on Thursday at the age of 57, was the author of five books of non-fiction, India: A Portrait (2011) being the most recent. In 2017, he was appointed dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, a position he held till July 2022. For much of the last decade, French had been working on the authorised biography of the Nobel-winning British-Zimbabwean writer Doris Lessing.

While still in his 20s, French embarked on a journey across Central Asia, tracing the footsteps of the British explorer Sir Francis Younghusband (1863-1942), who led a quasi-military expedition to Tibet in 1904. The resulting book, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (1994), won French the Somerset Maugham Award. He would later write a highly accomplished book on Tibet himself, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History Of A Lost Land (2003).

In the mid-2000s, French was confirmed as V.S. Naipaul’s authorised biographer and promised full access to the novelist’s archives and permission to quote from them. There was much speculation about how the book would turn out, given his subject’s grouchy, controversial opinions. French himself would describe his interviews with Naipaul as “the strangest experience of my professional life. He could be angry, acute, open, self-pitying, funny, sarcastic, tearful—but he was always intense.”

Strange as the interviews may have been, they paid off. The World Is What It Is (2008) is candid, thorough, beautifully written, never shy of interrogating its subject’s missteps—and it never fell into the trap of delivering summary judgement on a frequently cruel, difficult man, who also happened to write the most gorgeous sentences.

It was only fitting, then, that French’s India: A Portrait was often compared to Naipaul’s work, especially the latter’s India: A Million Mutinies Now. Through an array of character sketches covering figures as diverse as politicians, artists and Naxalite insurgents as well as French’s typically thorough research, the book captured the unique, often frenetic trajectory of Indian democracy. Of course, it could be argued that the book contained more than the occasional broad-strokes generalisation, as novelist Aravind Adiga did, but India: A Portrait is the best possible kind of broad-strokes book, a text that could make you look at familiar concepts and people with an all-new perspective. It helped that French was a fine exponent of the short, darkly funny interlude, an invaluable skill for a career historian.

An example is a three-way meeting between the young Hanwant Singh, maharaja of Jodhpur, Lord Mountbatten, viceroy of India, and civil servant V.P. Menon, circa June 1947, shortly after Muhammad Ali Jinnah had urged the maharaja to merge his kingdom with Pakistan. Note the percussive rhythm of the verbs in the final sentence, the comic denouement to a perfectly sketched scene. “He wanted the imperialists to leave, but he certainly did not want their power or his patrimony to be taken over by the Indian National Congress. So would the new Indian government, then, give him what Pakistan had promised? Mountbatten looked to his adviser. No, said the short south Indian man—V. P. Menon, the senior political reforms commissioner—but they might offer a donation of grain. The big prince argued and blustered at Lord Mountbatten, and prevaricated and argued some more, and finally signed the instrument of accession.”

French’s passing has robbed us of a first-rate scholar and historian. His biographical work and his writings on India will be read for many years to come.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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