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The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday 23 January A review of Patrick French's book India: A Portrait said: "French retells the story of Ramunjan, the brilliant young Tamil mathematician who died in England before he could fulfil his promise. A non-fiction book on India must aim to be either literature or journalism. If the book's goal is to be literature — to find a way through the stories of Indians to the heart of the human condition — then it competes with VS Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Nowthe best thing written about the subcontinent in the past 30 years.

If the aim is merely to provide information and explanation, then it is up against Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern Indiawhich combined a keen grasp of economics with the advantage of timeliness: it came out inexactly when a book on the new India was needed. At least three major non-fiction books on India will be released in the next two years. The influence of Naipaul is obvious in French's new book, which relies on detailed character sketches of individual Indians — ranging from prime ministers such as Indira Gandhi to a guerrilla leader of India's Naxalite insurgents — to tell the story of how India became one of the world's fastest-growing economies and one of its most stable democracies.

From the first s, it is clear that the strengths that marked The World Is What It Is — thorough research, and the author's skilful way of organising his complex material — are also in evidence in this book.

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French is at his best in the opening s, which describe India's painful separation from Pakistan in He gives us vivid sketches of the peculiar, gifted men and women of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty — India's Julio-Claudians — who governed the country until the s, managing simultaneously to keep India democratic and united, while running its economy into the ground. French follows the political sketches with portraits of the Indian businessmen who struggled to survive in the socialist economy that their politicians made for them — and who then burst free, with entrepreneurial vigour, when these controls were eased in the s.

These descriptions of economic excess are balanced by portraits of those who have not benefited from the Indian economic boom, such as the Naxalites — the Maoist rebels who are fighting an insurgency against the Indian state — and the domestic servants who get down on their knees to mop the floors while the country's software engineers tap away on their laptops.

How can all this material not make for a great book? Yet, at some point, you just have to accept what you don't want to: that India is not going to be nearly as good as The World Is What It Is. French's prose style, which came so close to perfection in his Naipaul biography, has become over-ripe here, and we sometimes run into disasters such as: "At the core of Keynes's bisexual, liquid mind was an…" His portraits of Indian businessmen and politicians move sluggishly because he stuffs them with irrelevant details about food and clothing; yet he never once makes the kind of startling observation that Luce regularly made in his book — for instance, when he noted that violent coughing is as much a sound of the Indian countryside as the lowing of cowsIndians die each year from tuberculosis.

A bit paunchy, like one of the south Indian male physiques it so accurately describes, India needed to be disciplined and trimmed. Yet its flab jiggles with deep affection for all things Indian. In a lovely paragraph, French notes how the Hindu sense of religion can be simultaneously comical and moving; as when a Ganesha idol left by the Irish ambassador outside his office turns into a shrine, creating a diplomatic conundrum for Ireland. To write well about India, however, one needs more than just affection; and what is missing in this book is evidence, so present in A Million Mutinies Nowof a struggle to understand India and one's own place in it.

French never gets much beyond the glib assertion in his preface that the new, cool India is the "world's default setting for the future": and though he acknowledges the presence of a few malcontents, he celebrates the prosperous, multicultural, tech-savvy Indian as the 21st-century's Everyman. That at least million Indians live on the verge of malnutrition is dutifully noted, but the figure seems to make little real impression on French.

When he sees the desperate conditions in which construction labourers in Bangalore live, he asks how long it would take to turn them into software engineers — a question which presupposes that they will turn into engineers and that India's transformation into an egalitarian society is somehow inevitable. And this is the main problem with the book: if there is some crisp writing in it, there is not a scintilla of original thinking. VS Naipaul managed to combine a love of Indians with a healthy contempt for the nation's mostly mediocre intelligentsia; this is something French fails to do.

Everything in here is a rehash of the vapid, vaguely liberal orthodoxy that dominates so much of academia in India. To take one example: Hinduism is a tolerant religion, as French notes, yet millions of Indians vote in state and national elections for the Bharatiya Janata Party BJPa Hindu nationalist party whose platform is exclusionist and bigoted. How is one to reconcile these contradictory facts? The easy answer, which French leans towards — and this is what any politically correct Delhi journalist will tell you — is that the BJP has beguiled voters for decades by promising a return to an imaginary Hindu past.

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To keep falling for this promise, election after election, millions of Indian voters must be utter morons — and not the smart budding world-conquerors that French describes them as. To explain the success of the BJP in a tolerant country requires acknowledging the reputation that the party enjoys, in some parts of India, for providing relatively efficient administration.

For all the diversity and exuberance that India's democracy presents to outsiders such as French, it often leaves its voters with little real choice. In the southern state of Karnataka, where I grew up, voters sometimes pick the BJP simply because they are frustrated with the corruption and inefficiency of the secular parties.

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In the final s of his book, French retells the story of Ramanujan, the brilliant young Tamil mathematician who died in England before he could fulfil his promise. The suggestion is that the talents of 1.

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The leading historian of modern India, Ramachandra Guha, chose to end his magisterial work, India After Gandhion a more sombre note: his countrymen, he pointed out, could be legitimately proud of their democracy but they had to remember that the task of lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty still lay ahead of them. Any responsible book on India must end like this: for the greatest danger to the nation's future is no longer poverty or Pakistan, but overconfidence.

Lacking Naipaul's passion, Guha's judgment, or Luce's timeliness, Patrick French ends up as the author of the fourth or fifth best book on the rise of the new India. The Observer History books. India: A Portrait by Patrick French — review. Patrick French's affectionate portrait of modern India hymns the tiger economy but ignores the country's contradictions and complexities. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian.

Aravind Adiga. The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday 23 January A review of Patrick French's book India: A Portrait said: "French retells the story of Ramunjan, the brilliant young Tamil mathematician who died in England before he could fulfil his promise. Books A non-fiction book on India must aim to be either literature or journalism. Reuse this content.

Indian sex stories Patrick

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