Features | In Memoriam
Patrick French (1966-2023): A Very Indian Englishman
He made the weightiest subjects come alive with a light touch
16 Mar, 2023
Patrick French (1966-2023) (Photo: Alamy)
“It is ridiculous that honours given in the 21st century would have the word ‘empire’ in them. The motto that goes with the OBE is ‘For God and the Empire’. Which God and which Empire,” asked Patrick French, when declining the Order of the British Empire in 2003. French was never one to follow the rules, of history, of biography, or even of living his life.
While lesser writers became the toast of the Delhi-Mumbai-London champagne set, French who died of cancer this week at the age of 56, chose the relative quiet of Ahmedabad to build the Ahmedabad University, a liberal arts oasis, where he was inaugural Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor for the Public Understanding of the Humanities. He spent days and months building the unique interdisciplinary culture of the university, while also working on his last biography of the British-Zimbabwean Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.
French’s curiosity about society and history was all-encompassing. It could go from the middle-class anxiety stoked by the Arushi Talwar double murder to a comparison of Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s secularism; from a deep interest in Tibetan Buddhism to a lifelong engagement with India, where he spent many years of his working life and which gave him his wife, publisher Meru Gokhale.
He was a historian and an essayist but his greatest talent was that of being a biographer. The World Is What It Is (2008) is perhaps the first of what has come to be known as the confessional biography, with the subject, Sir Vidia Naipaul, being brutally honest about himself and his mistakes. He was equally enraptured by Francis Younghusband, an imperial adventurer who attempted, among other grand things, to start a new world religion, and whom he wrote about in his first book in 1994.
French had a wonderful way of writing, making the weightiest of subjects come alive on the page with a light touch which didn’t reveal the meticulous research and exhaustive scholarship that went into each work. Most people excel at one form of writing; he was brilliant in several genres, from history to sociology to biography. He was not an armchair writer, and often liked to plunge deep into what he was immersed in, whether it was following in the footsteps of Younghusband across Central Asia, or journeying through Tibet for Tibet, (Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, 2003).
His finest triumph was his biography of Naipaul, in which the Nobel laureate was extraordinarily candid about his own frailties. It is darkness at its most visible and French is able to channel it without judgement but with some disquiet. Few people in the world are gifted with the ability to speak as smoothly as they write, and French was one of them.
India remained a lifelong fascination for him, not in the white saviour way, or as he said, in a Bob Geldof way, but in the warm, familiar way of a good friend who mourns the country’s weaknesses and celebrates its madness. His remarkable intelligence could take in laughs generated by a bad Bollywood movie as much as the nuances of a speech by a politician. French was similarly obsessed with Tibet since the fourteenth Dalai Lama had visited his boarding school when he was sixteen. He travelled to India and Tibet as a backpacker when he was 18 and when he returned to London, he became the head of a Free Tibet campaign.
French was perpetually drawn to contradictions, whether it was Naipaul’s personal monstrousness and his literary mastery; India’s ancient traditions and its volatile modernity, or Younghusband’s remarkable work on revealing Tibet to the world and his absolute belief that he was destined to be a messiah.
A woman in Chennai once told him that he didn’t write about India like an Englishman but “an elite Indian”. French says he wasn’t sure if it was a compliment or an insult though she hastened to tell him it was the former. As he once said of his book, India: A Portrait (2011): “I am not saying this is how India ought to be or should be, or might be or ought to be, but simply, this is how India is, at the moment.”
The world has lost a great storyteller, and India, a compassionate friend.
About The Author
Kaveree Bamzai is an author and a contributing writer with Open
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