Interview: Patrick French, Author of 'India: A Portrait'

Winston Churchill's famous quotation about Russia — that it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma — could just as easily be applied to contemporary India. At times both ancient and modern, cramped and sprawling, and destitute and prosperous, the country today is undoubtedly  poised to assume a greater role on the world stage. Yet how well do we really know India?

In his new book India: A Portrait (read an excerpt), acclaimed author Patrick French draws on strong historical knowledge and a keen eye for detail in seeking to answer this question, portraying a country in continuous transition in which a chaotic democracy presides over the lives of more than a billion people. His work offers a look at how contemporary India reached its present state, and what we might expect to see from the country in the decades ahead.

French will appear at Asia Society in New York on Thursday, September 29 from 6:30 to 8:30 pm in discussion with journalist and writer Hari Kunzru. For event details and ticket information, click here. Can't make it to the program? Tune in to the free webcast at 6:30 pm on Online viewers are encouraged to send questions to

In addition to India: A Portrait, French is also the author of  Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer; Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division; Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land; and  The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul. French spoke to Asia Society via e-mail.

What did you find the most challenging aspect of researching and writing this book? Among all the books published about India in recent years, was there an aspect you felt was under-explained that you wanted to tackle?

Trying to understand things that were specific to India — the functioning of caste, of religion, of India's highly developed but odd form of democracy. That took me a few decades. I felt the historical background to recent economic and political development hadn't been explained in other books. People wrote about liberalization as if it had fallen out of the sky. I was interested in its roots, the way in which India's isolation in the '50s and '60s had formed the modern nation.

 Your book describes the tremendous ethnic and linguistic diversity in India. What, above all else, ties it together as a nation?

Perhaps the unifying and largely secular nationalist identity that was developed (and to some extent invented) before and after independence in 1947. And Hinduism's cultural roots, which stretch back over millennia, and extend into other religions in India.

How serious have the recent anti-corruption protests threatened the functioning of Indian democracy?

The anti-corruption protests may, in fact, encourage closer engagement in the democratic process. They were in large part driven by the lack of access that middle-class Indians have to political decisions. They were about individual powerlessness in the face of India's distant (and largely hereditary) politicians. So although the protests tried to coerce the government in an undemocratic way, they may have had a positive effect on politics.

How can the India government bridge the enormous divide between rich and poor? 

India has been a poor place for centuries, and it's simply not possible to go from everyone being poor to everyone being well off in one shot. Inequality is the natural but unwelcome by-product of people being lifted out of poverty — but it is the symptom, not the disease. If we concentrate on removing poverty, inequality will reduce over time. The government can't bridge that gap alone, and it is worth remembering that without economic growth the government would have no financial means to do so.

Do you see an India-U.S. alliance acting as a counterweight to a rising China over the next few decades?

Well — put it this way — the U.S. has to have India as its long-term ally in Asia. Half the people in the world who live in a democracy are Indian, and Indians are surprisingly pro-American, even though they were leaning towards the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. The U.S. would be left in an impossible position in that neighborhood if it lost India as an ally. Does that mean they can be a joint counterweight to China? That's more complicated.

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.