Monday, January 24, 2011

Why Ambedkar and Indira Gandhi Should be More than Statues

(Published in I-Witness, Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express dated 23rd January, 2011, as 'Questions a Foolish Outsider Can Ask')

He is infamous for calling Gandhi 'a wily politician' in his last book on India, Liberty or Death. In his latest book, India: A Portrait, which promises to be 'the intimate biography of 1.2 billion people', Patrick French traces the lives of the Nehru-Gandhi family, speaks to ideologues from the RSS, bumps into Afzal Guru by accident, and delves into the personal stories of unlikely industry leaders. On a five-city book tour, he chats to Nandini Krishnan about his intended audience and the headlines that have baffled him.

Before I move on to the clichés, let me ask you the question that’s been playing most frequently in my head – where, when and how did you get your hands on Tamil porn?

(Laughs) In Chennai. So, I’d gone to this market, I forget its name, where there are a lot of shops, and a part of the market is underground, and I was looking at a few DVD stores, and the thing about these guys is you don’t have to say anything, you just ask ‘so what are the films you’ve got?’, and he says, ‘oh, come over here’ and so I bought some of them, and then I had the research duty of watching them. (Laughs.)

Your last book on India, Liberty or Death, did put some backs up. But to most of us, here was someone from the West, who didn’t exotify India or see it as the land of suffering and bleakness. With India: A Portrait too, your voice seems to be less that of a foreigner than of a certain privileged class of Indian. Would you agree?

That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. You know, the response to Liberty or Death in India was very generational. Almost all the people who had their backs put up were an older generation, whereas my own generation and younger seemed to have a very positive response to the book. And since then, the way in which I saw India, the way I looked at India has changed, because my wife is Indian, and I married her in between writing one book and the next. I do feel I have more of a right to speak about India.

Were you more confident writing this book? Did you have more insight into India?

Let me put it this way. I’d spent about ten years travelling in India or visiting India before I wrote Liberty or Death. So, I felt that I was ready to write, but it was still a challenging book to do. With India: A Portrait, there were lots of subjects in there like caste or the way in which Hinduism is practised, social ideas about family, which I have never written about before, and I felt it takes a long time to come to the point where you’re ready to say something about those things, they’re very difficult to understand unless you’ve grown up inside that tradition.

The tendency then is to read books. One of the things I’ve noticed actually with NRIs is that they read V S Naipaul on Hinduism, and who is V S Naipaul reading on Hinduism? He was reading Christopher Isherwood. So, you see, these ideas about the Hindu void being repeated, and then you think ‘fine, but is it really like that, is that really how a typical Hindu would think?’

But the other thing is that if you’re an outsider, even if you have the benefits of an insider, you can get away with asking questions that an Indian couldn’t. To give you an example, there was a guy who was working as a priest in the temple near the beach in Kanyakumari, and I asked him how he got this job. (Laughs.) Obviously, if you’re Indian, you can’t ask that question, you certainly can’t ask it in the same way. So, sometimes, seeming the foolish outsider means you can discover people’s views about themselves in a way you can’t if you’re Indian.

The scope of this book is vast, and not everything fits into the structure of Politics, Economy and Society. Is there anything you’ve left out, material for a spin-off, maybe?

I thought about the book for a long time before I wrote a word. So, although there were whole areas that I might have left out, for the purpose of the book I was doing, I didn’t feel it was incomplete. I don’t know about material for another book, but there’s already been a spin-off in terms of the website,, and it’s unbelievable, especially the response to the data on the family politics, it’s only been up for a fortnight and we’ve had a 150,000 hits already, it’s incredible.

If I were to write a third book on India, it would be some time away. You know, the other thing I did with this book is I tried to make it timeless. I tried to make it so that in ten years, it would still make sense. So that means at times, you avoid capturing the moment. I was trying to see what the larger picture was.

Say for example, the revolution that gave rise to Mayawati as a character, you could look at that only in terms of UP politics in the last decade or so, but in fact, it’s also about Ambedkar and his clash with Gandhi, it’s about Kanshi Ram, it’s about ideas that were deeply entrenched and began to be abandoned in the middle of the twentieth century.

One thing I was surprised you left out is the nexus between media and politics. The portrayal of the media in your book is either as the watchdog, doing sting operations, or as voyeuristic, as in the Aarushi Talwar case.

Well, I think I’d finished the book before the Niira Radia tapes came out, but it is true that there are a lot of bought journalists, and you can see it in the way that those business houses operate. It can always be done in oblique ways by giving a nominal job to the relative of someone who wants to write, or portray them in a certain way.

Well, I guess it’s part of the story, but I just happened to not want to focus on it. The thing with Indian journalism is that it’s very variable in quality. There’s exceptionally good journalism, political and financial, and then you have something like the reporting of the Aarushi Talwar case which happens even now. I mean, even in the last two weeks, there’ve been some terrible things that have been written.

Some people write things as bizarre as to suggest the Talwars weren’t behaving in the correct way grieving parents were meant to. It just made me think well, you’ve been watching too many movies. I mean, do all parents, if they’ve had the tragedy of their child dying, behave like people in the movies, sobbing and screaming? Maybe they just have a grief which is so deep they can’t even express it when someone’s pointing a TV camera in their face.

On the subject of sensationalism, your books have usually been at the receiving end. With Liberty or Death, most articles focused on your saying Gandhi was a wily politician, and with this one, people believe you’ve said Kashmiris have Dravidian genes.

(Laughs). You know what’s funny about that story? In fact, two versions came out. One called me ‘A French writer’. And another said, ‘Latest scientific discovery proves that caste is genetic’. And I had to get my publishers to call them, and I think they put in a double negative after that, so it still said the exact opposite.

In your portrayal of Nehru, you seemed a bit unsure about whether he was a good guy or bad guy, and seemed to give him the benefit of doubt in terms of his administrative abilities, and personal character.

Yes, I’d say so. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He made important wrong decisions, he stayed as Prime Minister too long, which then created problems after his death, his foreign policy was misguided in certain ways, his economic policy was misguided in many ways, but the reason that I would come out admiring him as a truly great twentieth century leader is the fact that he had an inclusive vision for India, which he was able to push in every direction after he became prime minister. His willingness to get people like Rajaji or Ambedkar to be part of the project, his refusal to only promote people who came from similar background to his own... the breadth of his vision is so remarkable.

And it wasn’t just him, it was the people around him, people like Patel, who were getting the Princely States to be part of the Union. Maybe one way to look at it is to compare it to some other countries immediately after decolonisation, like some of the African countries, where you’d have a particular group in society that would assert themselves to the detriment of another group, and you’d have a civil war.

The ability to unite India a coherent nation despite containing so many different communities is something that people often take for granted, whereas it was by no means certain in the 1940s.

Both with Indira Gandhi and Sonia, there seems to have been a sudden transition from being dubbed ‘dumb doll’ to puppet-master.

It could be something that happens with women politicians, especially if they come from political families, and it’s very easy to patronise them, and underestimate them. In fact, actually I think that happens more with Sonia Gandhi, because she was a very shy, probably is still a very shy, person. She was constantly underestimated by senior figures in Congress.
One of the things I tried to share is the way in which she made very clever and sharp and wily decisions. The thing with Indira Gandhi is that she was never a great public speaker, but she did have the ability to command a crowd outside the immediate political context. That’s when her real talent came out.

I believe Sonia Gandhi’s talent is for running the organisation of the Congress, and for working out how to retain a commanding position, and the nature of that is it is all behind the scenes. You don’t see her going out there and showing people that she is in command. Her command is very quiet, and it is often done through silence. If you speak to people who work with her, you know, it’s apparent that madam’s displeasure can be shown in a very subtle way. (Laughs.)

Do you truly believe Sonia Gandhi was just trying to be a good Indian bahu, and never wanted to enter politics, or do you see the naïveté as a facade?

No, I don’t think it was a facade. It’s apparent that she and Rajiv Gandhi had a very happy marriage, and I think she was content being his wife and bringing up the children, and I certainly don’t think she ever expected or wanted to go into politics, and the reason I say that is I’ve spoken to people who knew her very early on, people who knew her when she was in her late teens and twenties, and they all say the same thing – that she’s shy, and they cannot believe the way in which she’s transformed herself. So, what I suspect is, she revealed talents to herself that she didn’t know she had, when she became Congress president. I think, when she first became Congress president, she was quite nervous of what she was doing. It could all have fallen flat on its face, but that’s not what happened. I think in the last ten years, she would have surprised herself with her own ability. That’s conjecture, but that’s what I would have thought.

Both at the Centre and the State, Indian voters feel they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Coming in outside, was it easier to remain detached, because it doesn’t affect you directly?

I don’t know. Sometimes, in a way, you have to work at being detached, to have the writer’s eye, to have the external view, to write a book like this successfully. You have to have a dispassionate view, even thought you might have quite strong feelings. So I don’t know if I always got that balance right. There’s quite a lot of emotion in the book.

But when it comes to someone like Mayawati, I can see the difference between my perception and that of an elite Indian. Despite everything that’s bad about the way in which her administration runs, I feel this deep admiration for Mayawati as a phenomenon. I’m not saying I admire her political decisions, but as a phenomenon, I do.

If you speak to a lot of Delhi journalists about Mayawati, they’re say ‘oh, she’s this stupid woman who just manages to pull wool over people’s eyes’, they’re quite contemptuous. They don’t see her achievement. I think the chopping down trees to build statues in a place as hot as Lucknow is crazy, but she wants to endure, and in her warped way, she will.

Let’s imagine you were Indian. Do you think you could have got away with writing India: A Portrait and Liberty or Death, without questions of your caste and religious affiliations coming up?

No. Because the point is, if you were Tamilian and you wrote this book, people will say oh, you’re just saying these things from that perspective. Equally, if you were another community that has a very strong identity, like a Punjabi or a Bengali, they’ll say it’s a typical Punjabi or Bengali thing to say, because that’s the natural way in which people react. But having said that, there’ll also be people who say that’s a typical foreigner’s view of India. So if you want to insult the writing, you’ll always find a way, whoever it is. (Laughs.)

The caste oppression in India is largely seen as Brahmins vs. Dalits. But then you meet someone like Venkatesh, who’s from a backward class, but says he won’t ‘interdine’ with Dalits. You have other stories of backward classes oppressing Dalits. Why do you think that conflict is not brought out?

Because people like simple stories. It’s much easier to see something as being a Dalit-Brahmin conflict, but of course, it’s so much more complicated than that. Although having said that, the kind of conflicts that you might have seen a hundred years ago might have been completely different. And then you have the way it’s played out in UP politics, where you see these kind of bizarre alliances happening. I mention in my book that Brahmins who actually sort of dressed up to look like Brahmins, complete with caste marks, touched the feet of Mayawati at a rally. And why did they do that, they did that because they were having a hard time from Mulayam Singh.

So you have the development of a whole new issue, where you have the OBCs vs. Dalits, and you have spin-offs like the fact that Muslims all of a sudden decide that their natural course of action should be to throw in their lot with Mayawati.

About Venkatesh, I think it’s human nature that people will persecute those who are in a mildly inferior position to themselves. So the fact that someone who is as vulnerable as Venkatesh (who was a chained labourer in a quarry, and now begs for a living) saying ‘I won’t interdine with the Dalits’, it’s just a way of marking his own position, you know, saying my life may be very bad, but I’m still not going to associate with ‘those kind of people’.

When you met ideologues from the RSS and the BJP, what was your instinctive reaction? Do you see it as an ideology they live by, or a political tool they use to come to power?

Hmmm...well, I don’t know. I have respect for some of those people. You know, someone like L K Advani, who’s seen in the liberal media as being the Devil Incarnate, that’s not how I perceive him. You know, he suffered the displacement of partition like millions of others, he found himself in India without a family because he’s from Sindh, and he said to me, ‘the only family I had left was the RSS’, and I had a degree of sympathy for the position he found himself in, in the 1950s.

My feeling is that the motivation for many of the people of his generation for joining an organisation like the RSS was actually quite positive. It’s usually portrayed in different spheres as being a negative organisation, I guess I see it in a rather more balanced or complex way than that. Of course, you have people in the BJP and other parties who say things for purely cynical reasons, but you get othars who live by certain quite traditional values they believe in. Advani seems to be a very restrained person, he’s in very good health for his age, and I’m sure that has to do with having eaten a strictly RSS diet, for a long time.

What was your reaction to Varun Gandhi’s now infamous speech? It took many people by surprise, because he was seen as a soft-spoken, intellectual man. Do you believe he was asked to say what he said?

No, no, I don’t think he was asked to say those things. I’d met him when I went to interview Maneka Gandhi, in 2004. Well, Varun Gandhi met me as I was walking down the path. He’d read Liberty or Death, and he wanted to talk about the book a little, and it seemed to me that there was something charismatic about him, but also unstable. So when I heard him say those things about chopping off hands, and also when I saw the video of the way in which he did that speech, I wasn’t all.

When you met Afzal Guru, what did you speak of?

No, it was a very brief conversation, only two or three minutes, through this grill, which made you feel sort of like you were at a very run-down bank, where you say can I change a hundred dollars! I didn’t really talk about his case, I spoke more about the clash of civilisations and what life is like in prison and so on. It was a bit of an unplanned conversation. If Afzal Guru sat down with us here, then what would you say to him? (Laughs.)

What do you think of the situation in Kashmir, where the Army and militants are both being blamed for atrocities, and where most people simply say they want ‘azaadi’, even as they work in metropolitan cities in India like Delhi or Mumbai?

I think the difficulty is that a lot of things would be much easier now if the Kashmir question had been settled in 1947 or 1948. Because the difficulty now is that because the Indian administration in Kashmir has been so bad for such a long time, and because Pakistan has continued to send terrorists over the border into Kashmir, you have a level of instability and a level of cruelty, which means that a large number of people, who are certainly the majority, have a feeling that they would prefer azaadi more than anything else, whatever that means, whatever form of azaadi it is, and they really don’t feel connected to India. If you read things about Kashmir published in foreign countries, in the United States where it’s quite often written about, it’s always presented as a kind of balance between the Indian point of view on the one hand and the Pakistani point of view on the other hand. But the reality is that no Indian government is ever going to say ‘Kashmir can be cut off from India’. And until there’s a recognition of that practical fact, it’s hard to find a way forward.

There’s an interesting point you made in saying Islamic extremism in the UK may’ve been partly caused by its being seen as un-British to want people to be British to have a British passport. But do you think it’s fair to suggest America’s inclusiveness is a solution, when you have David Headley, where you have the Times Square car bomb plot?

(Laughs.) Well, yes, David Headley is from America, but I think certainly proportionately, America’s not had such a problem as Britain over home-grown jihadis. I think the American model of integration is better. I also think the British multi-cultural approach comes out of a sort of colonial arrogance. Take for example the debate about immigration into Britain, which is always seen in narrow political terms. I think essentially what I’m saying is a whole lot of countries in Western Europe have got themselves tied up in knots over immigration and ethnicity and multi-culturalism. You have a generation, maybe two generations of people, who are not incorporated into the society they are a part of, and I think the American model is certainly better.

What would you say is the defining characteristic of this book?

I think this one’s different from the others I’ve done in that I wanted to write a book for everyone, a very accessible book, especially for young Indians, to whom the Ambedkar doesn’t mean much, means just a statue, and I wanted to write a book that would enable them to think in a different way about themselves. When you’re in any society, you can’t see the advantages of being in it, but despite a lot of things going badly, some amazing things are happening, and I wanted to bring that out.

My last question is, after Naipaul, is your next biography on Dr. K. Chaudhry (the man who achieved worldwide notoriety for singing MJ covers, and announced that Patrick French is writing a book about him)? You could call it ‘The World is Not Enough’...he may even sing it for you.

(Laughs.) No, my next book is not going to be about Dr. K. Since you’ve heard him ‘sing’, you know why I don’t want to do that book. My next book might be on the Himalayas, but I’m not sure just yet.

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