Doug Vanderweide's Reviews > India: A Portrait

India by Patrick French
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May 07, 12

bookshelves: asia, european-history, history, travel
Read from March 19 to May 06, 2012

Primarily a telling, through extensive anecdotes, of the history of India since independence.

French's book is split into topic area chapters: The early vision and government of Nehru; the ascendance of Indira Gandhi, her sons and daughter-in-law; and the aspects of Indian culture and religious history that have all contributed to its emerging success, but could just have easily led to disaster.

The book primarily focuses on north India, touching on the south only occasionally and largely painting it as insignificant in political and economic terms. Since that's French's real focus here -- along with the effects of religion and caste on India's growth and management -- it makes sense for him to focus there, since the north has dominated India since independence and partition.

French touches on Pakistan and Bangladesh only when necessary to provide background, although he does discuss the 1977 coup and the departure of Bangladesh at some length.

His preferred methodology for discussing India is to find one or two people who are representative of a point he's trying to make, interview them, then use that as the basis for making his point.

As a former newspaper reporter, I certainly can appreciate that approach. However, I also know its limitations, the largest of which is that it limits the depth of the subject.

In other words, something may well have happened to someone that's emblematic of a systemic truth. But getting to why that systemic truth exists isn't easily accomplished via biography. Knowing that FDR had polio might give us insight into his behaviors; it tells us little about how polio became such a scourge.

That is my primary objection to French's work: While I certainly got a feel for India today, and its near history, it did little to explain how things got that way. Or how the caste system developed; or even why it continue to pervade. And so on.

In that sense, this is more travelogue / essay than history. Within that context, it's a fine work. But I would have preferred a more traditional approach.
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