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RIP Patrick French: A Formidable Biographer and a Chronicler of Our Times

Patrick French loved Delhi, diving headfirst into the city's archives, bylanes and ancient ruins with zest.

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RIP Patrick French: A Formidable Biographer and a Chronicler of Our Times
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For an assignment for The New Yorker, a young English journalist named Patrick French travelled to India in 1998. A well-connected friend offered to take French to a press conference in Delhi, and as a result, he landed himself in a car with the Trinidadian writer, VS Naipaul, and his wife.

He explained that he was having some issues with the magazine's fact-checkers in response to Mrs Naipaul's questions about his assignment. To which Naipaul sniffed, “Don’t let The New Yorker worry you. The New Yorker knows nothing about writing. Nothing.”

Three years later, French received an invitation to work on a project that would be just as difficult as penning numerous New Yorker articles: an official biography of VS Naipaul.

Patrick French – the noted British biographer and India enthusiast – who died of cancer aged just 57, was a brilliant writer with a mischievous sense of humour and a keen eye for the absurd.

His death, on Thursday, 16 March, was confirmed by his wife, Meru Gokhale, a former publisher at Penguin Press Group.

“He was an exceptional father, friend, husband, teacher and mentor to many. His kindness and love will stay with us forever,” she said in a dispatch from London.

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After pursuing a degree in English and American Literature from Edinburgh University, he stayed on to do a PhD in South Asian Studies.

Through the course of an illustrious career, French received numerous honours for his writing, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Though he had no family connection to India, French became fascinated by the country as a boy, making the first of many visits as a 19-year-old university student. He was also drawn to Tibet, after the Dalai Lama paid a visit to Ampleforth, England when French was 16.

A Formidable Biographer

File photo of Patrick French.

(Image courtesy: Patrick French/Twitter)

As sympathy for the situation of Tibetans under the Chinese government increased in the 1990s, French quickly got involved in networking with the Tibetan government in exile.

He later joined the Free Tibet campaign as its director, advocating for worldwide pressure to be put on the Chinese to get them to leave the country.

After embarking on a long journey through Tibet with “a sense that the practicalities of daily life were being drowned out by Communist restriction and the white noise of foreign sympathy,” in 1999, he published Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land.

French questioned the widespread notion that the old Tibet was a peaceful paradise and, without supporting the Chinese government's atrocities and cultural appropriation of Tibetan culture, also stated his concern that pressure from abroad on China might be having a negative effect.

His books and journalistic work frequently garnered accolades for their thorough research, compelling writing and ability to handle difficult subjects with utmost sensitivity and affection.

His official biography of VS Naipaul, The World Is What It Is (which won the Hawthornden Prize and the US National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize), published in 2008, was largely responsible for earning French the well-deserved reputation of one of the most talented biographers of our times.

French, described by Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books, as the inventor of the genre: ‘confessional biography,’ was a formidable biographer. For instance: he conducted over a hundred interviews to pinpoint a single episode in Naipaul's life and tracked down the facts via conflicting accounts and jumbled memories.

His writing and life were also influenced by Naipaul, who used in-depth character profiles of specific Indians to add value to his work on the democracy and economy of India.

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One of French's most well-known pieces, India: A Portrait (2011), is a close-up biography of a billion Indians.

With his extensive travels across the nation, French was able to present a broad picture of a nation with limitless potential by fusing the narratives of many Indian lives. He accomplished this by bringing together sporadic images from different parts of India, tales from his reporting, and graphs and statistics to support his findings.

“The nation can be triangulated in many ways: it is all India,” he writes while making sense of a complex and deeply contradictory culture prevailing in India.

History to Politics

At the age of 25, French embarked on a journey across Central Asia to follow in the footsteps of Francis Younghusband, a British soldier, adventurer, and mystic who led a military-style expedition into Tibet in 1903–1904.

Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, his acclaimed debut novel that received the Somerset Maugham Award and the Royal Society of Literature's WH Heineman Prize, was published as a result in 1994 to great acclaim. During the research of the book, he also travelled on a journey through the Rohtang pass and Sikkim.

But while Colonel Younghusband was critical of the localities that comprised and communities that populated the region, French was not.

While continuing to write about travel, Mr. French also subsequently started to write more about politics, featuring frequently in columns and on television. This helped him establish himself as a respected public intellectual in India.

His reevaluation of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Mahatma Gandhi's contributions to the Indian independence struggle in Liberty or Death: India's Road to Independence and Division (1997) sparked debate among some Indian nationalists, but it received significant critical acclaim and became a best-seller, earning French the Sunday Times Young Author of the Year award.

To write well about India, one needs evidence. But in the case of French, it was compounded by affection and love and sensitivity and courage.

He was also regarded for his open-access dataset on the career pathways of each Lok Sabha Member of Parliament, which he created in 2011.

Delving deeper into politics, French contested the 1992 general election in the UK as a Green Party candidate, although he spent many years in India before being named Ahmedabad University's first dean in 2017.

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Patrick French: Modest, Warm & Charming

In 2003, while politely declining to receive an Order of the British Empire (OBE), which the Queen wished to bestow upon him, he said, “The greatest thing about being a writer is that you have the freedom to say what you think.”

French was modest about his intellect, emanated a friendliness that never seemed to waver, and had a strong dislike for pretentiousness, whether academic or literary. He employed his wealth of information to weave engrossing stories tracing various perspectives as he dug deeper into history.

During my correspondences with him at literary festivals, French not only radiated a warm and charming personality, but was filled with unmatched and exuberant energy and impeccable curiosity. He was not only warm and loving and kind – but he was unfailingly generous. And for his students and colleagues, he was a rare phenomenon.

The Golden Woman: The Authorised Life of Doris Lessing, a biography of the British-Zimbabwean writer, was one of the projects that French was working on during his final years. It is believed that the book was largely complete when he passed away.

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Patrick French loved Delhi, diving headfirst into the city's archives, bylanes and ancient ruins with zest and enthusiasm, and the city embraced him in all his forms.

He will be missed in literary and academic circles, but also in the Indian political arena: a place he made his own, and profiling several political figures, from Sonia Gandhi to Amit Shah, left a lasting impression on.

French is survived by his wife, Meru Gokhale, and his four children.

(Kalrav Joshi is an independent journalist based out of London. He reports and writes on politics, culture, technology and culture; and tweets @kalravjoshi_. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Writer   Obituary   VS Naipaul 

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