Tag Archive for 'Patrick French'

The truth about Mahatma Gandhi: by Patrick French

In The Telegraph:

This week, the National Archives here in New Delhi released a set of letters between Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and a close friend from his South African days, Hermann Kallenbach, a German Jewish architect. Cue a set of ludicrous “Gay Gandhi” headlines across the world, wondering whether the fact the Mahatma signed some letters “Sinly yours” might be a clue (seemingly unaware that “sinly” was once a common contraction of “sincerely”).

The origin of this rumour was a mischievous book review two years ago written by the historian Andrew Roberts, which speculated about the relationship between the men. On the basis of the written evidence, it seems unlikely that their friendship in the years leading up to the First World War was physical.

Gandhi is one of the best-documented figures of the pre-electronic age. He has innumerable biographies. If he managed to be gay without anyone noticing until now, it was a remarkable feat. The official record of his sayings and writings runs to more than 90 volumes, and reveals that his last words before being assassinated in 1948 were not an invocation to God, as is commonly reported, but the more prosaic: “It irks me if I am late for prayers even by a minute.” More:

‘Democracy is India’s Achilles’ heel’

From Intelligence Squared

This debate took place at the Royal Geographical society on 27 September 2011. The Participants were Mani Shankar Aiyar, William Dalrymple, Suhel Seth and Patrick French. The audio below is courtesy Intelligence Squared.

Democracy is India’s Achilles’ heel by intelligence2

The Vigilante Mahatma

Patrick French on Anna Hazare:

As so often, history is today being repeated as farce. Anna Hazare, the Gandhian crusader, is not so much an imitation of Gandhi – the ‘mahatma’ or ‘great soul’ – as an imitation of his later imitators. In the decades after independence in 1947, India has seen a procession of latter-day saints who claim to be completing the great man’s work. Vinoba Bhave walked around the country for years, dressed in the Gandhian outfit of a white dhoti and shawl, persuading landlords to give their spare fields to the poor.

Jayaprakash Narayan’s prolonged popular agitation in the early 1970s provoked the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, into declaring a state of national emergency. Now Anna Hazare, following his release from prison on Friday, says: “The fight for freedom has started. India is still not independent.” His followers, who consist largely of the more vocal members of India’s assertive new middle-class, are delighted.

A few months ago, Hazare was an obscure activist known for imposing military-style discipline in some villages in Maharashtra in the west of the country. Then he went on a public fast-unto-death, demanding the government bring in rigorous anti-corruption legislation. Amazingly they agreed, and allowed his nominees from Delhi’s self-appointed “civil society” to take part in the drafting of a new law. When Hazare failed to get his way, he backed out and announced he was going on another fast. The authorities threw him in jail, but released him when large crowds gathered to complain. Cannily, Hazare stayed put and refused to leave the prison until he was given assurances he could protest in Ramlila Ground, a large park commonly used for political rallies. He was given permission to hold a 15-day demonstration, and agreed to have a bite to eat if at any stage his fast became life-threatening. It was an extraordinary concession, not unlike the London authorities giving up Hyde Park.

More in The India Site

The India story

The New Statesman features a special package on India.

Patrick French charts the rise of India’s female politicians:

If you do not come from an established ruling family, you have almost no chance of progressing in national politics, unless you join an ideological organisation such as the BJP or the Communist Party of India (Marxist), where lineage is not important and progress is more often based on ability.

Last year, I made a study of how each MP in India’s lower house, the Lok Sabha, had reached parliament. The findings showed that the younger you were, the more likely you were to have “inherited” a place in the chamber. Nearly half of all MPs aged 50 or under are hereditary, selected to contest a seat primarily because they are the children of senior politicians. No MP over the age of 80 is hereditary; every MP under the age of 30 is hereditary. The situation is most serious in the Congress party, where every MP under the age of 35 is the son or daughter of a politician.

Extending the study across the whole Lok Sabha, I found that 33 of the youngest 38 MPs had entered parliament on the grounds of birth. Out of the other five, three progressed through the ranks of the BJP, Bahujan Samaj Party and Communist Party on merit; one was given a break because he was an established student leader-cum-mafioso; and the other was hand-picked for a parliamentary career by Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv and Sonia. Rahul is an MP and heir to the Congress mantle, but has so far concentrated on structural party reorganisation and low-key, village-level campaigning and shows no inclination to take a prime ministerial role. More

Sophie Elmhirst profiles the writer and activist Arundhati Roy, who accuses the elites of “colonising the lower sections of society who have to pay the price for this shining India”:

Roy’s version of India is uncompromising. The country, she says, is in “a genocidal situation, turning upon itself, colonising the lower sections of society who have to pay the price for this shining India”. Its leaders are “such poor men because they have no idea of history, of culture, of anything, except growth rates”. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is a “pathetic figure as a human being”. Democracy is thriving “for a few people, in the better neighbourhoods of Bombay and Delhi”. The Indian elite are “like an extra state in America”. The country has a defence budget of $34bn this year. “For whom?” she asks. “For us.” In her account, there is a war taking place, not with Pakistan or China, but within India’s borders: the sham democracy has turned on its poorest citizens. More:

In the interview, Ms Elmhirst quotes a conversation with Jyotirmaya Sharma, a political scientist at the University of Hyderabad and former senior editor of the Times of India:

Sharma agrees with Roy in principle: the issues she raises, he tells me on the phone, “are first-rate”. Like Roy, he believes that large parts of the Indian state are essentially criminal in their behaviour. Yet he cannot abide the way she chooses to frame her argument, or the tone – “sanctimonious, pompous, holier than thou” – in which she expresses it. She contributes nothing, he says, to proper public debate other than cooking up a controversy in which she is the central player, “people saying we love her, we hate her”. “You cannot talk to the woman,” he says, so overbearing is her self-righteousness.

Below, Jyotirmaya Sharma’s rejoinder to the deputy editor of the New Statesman:

Dear Mr. Jon Bernstein,

Sophie Elmhirst got in touch with me two weeks ago to speak to me about Arundhati Roy. I have now seen the piece she has written. While I have no problem with the writer’s complete identification with her subject, I find her irresponsible and reckless attribution of motives to her critics untenable. All she needed to do is to find out the public profile of people like Ramachandra Guha or myself before jumping to conclusions. She further imputes that I might be criticising Roy because `but you can’t Continue reading ‘The India story’

The use and misuse of Srinivasa Ramanujan

Hartosh Singh Bal on 3quarksdaily:

Over the past month there have been two separate reasons to return to the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan. The first was the result of an astounding piece of mathematics by Ken Ono and his colleagues on the theory of partitions, bringing to a conclusion some of Ramanujan’s most interesting work in number theory. The second was thanks to Patrick French’s recent book – India, a portrait – which ends with a short two page biography of Ramanujan. The first Ramanujan is of course the Ramanujan who should matter, the mathematician, the second is unfortunately the Ramanujan who has come to occupy public memory, the metaphor.

It is not clear what French’s Ramanujan stands for in a chapter that seeks to explain the specifics of individual, social and organizational behavior on the basis of particular Indian traits such as religion or caste, but given the title of the chapter – Only in India – it does seem that French believes there was something particularly Indian about Ramanujan’s story.

This belief is not unique to French and has only been compounded by Ramanujan’s own description of the Goddess of Namagiri as the source of his inspiration. The result is that Ramanujan has come to embody certain romantic notion of eastern or more specifically Indian thought. Even those who want to allude to Ramanujan the mathematician do so in such terms. Paul Hoffman, in an otherwise entertaining book on the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – The Man who Loved Only Numbers – writes, “While Hardy and Ramanujan’s partnership lasted, the two men stood the world of pure mathematics on its head. It was East meets West, mysticism meets formality, and the combination was unstoppable.” More:

Worse than a daughter’s death

A year ago while researching his book India: A Portrait, Patrick French had spent time with Rajesh and Nupur Talwar trying to reconstruct the events of the night their daughter, Aarushi was murdered. An excerpt from the book in Open magazine.

For more than two years, the Aarushi Talwar case has rarely been out of the news. On 25 January, while petitioning a court in Ghaziabad against the way the CBI was handling the investigation into the murder of his daughter, Dr Rajesh Talwar was attacked by a man with a cleaver. He received serious injuries to his face, cutting a facial artery and nerve. While shielding himself, he also received deep wounds to his hands. The attacker – who has been widely hailed on the Internet as a hero – said he had targeted Dr Talwar ‘for becoming popular, for being featured in the media.’

Given all the things that have been said about the case on television and in the press – with some reports based on completely inaccurate information – it was not surprising that a deranged vigilante should choose to attack Rajesh Talwar. As the Talwars’ lawyer, Rebecca John, told me: ‘I have held the media responsible for creating this atmosphere around the case, and I have appealed for calmer days. Like you, I am involved in this case because I genuinely believe that a grave injustice has been done.’ Dr Talwar has told me in the past that the harassment he was receiving from the media and the CBI was so intense that he did not see how he could carry on. The only thing that kept him going, day by day, was his work as a dental surgeon. Now, his hands are so badly damaged that he may never be able to work again. more

A Brahmin in your genes?

Is it possible to determine caste through genetic testing in the same way ethnic heritage can be traced in the DNA? Hindustan Times carries edited extracts from the chapter “The Outcastes’ Revenge” from Patrick French’s India: A Portrait, An Intimate Biography of 1.2 Billion People (Penguin Allen Kane, Rs 699):

The campus of the IGIB, India’s secretive Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology, is set in a leafy part of north Delhi, where the wide roads and clean pavements are a relic of ‘Civil Lines’ — a colonial-era term used to distinguish military streets from the civilian. I arrived on the Delhi metro, coming up a shiny new metal escalator into blinding sunlight, but the last five minutes of the journey were done most easily by cycle rickshaw…

Dr Arijit Mukhopadhyay was a specialist in eye genetics, a small, quick man in his mid-30s with ill-fitted trousers, a short-sleeved shirt and closed-toed sandals. “My interest is in RGC death,” he said. “RGC [retinal ganglion cell] death is the final cause of glaucoma, a disease of the visual nerves culminating in blindness.”

Mukhopadhyay was one of only two people authorised to speak about an extraordinary project that was underway here. A consortium of mainly young scientists was attempting to unravel the complete genetic map of the Indian peoples. It was an ambitious concept in a country with over 1 billion inhabitants, several thousand endogamous groups (who married only within their community) and more than distinct functioning languages. The project had been conceived by Professor Samir Brahmachari, a biophysicist, and from the start he had realised he was stepping on dangerous ground.

The information they were liable to discover about the origins of communities might have political, religious or caste consequences, and if mishandled could lead to conflict and even violence. The media had already run several stories which, in the view of the IGIB, distorted their research. “We are trying to draw a genetic landscape of India and use it as a canvas to identify disease genes and genetic markers,” said Dr Mukhopadhyay cautiously from behind his desk. “We will learn which groups are prone to particular diseases or do not react to certain drugs. We are in the early days of an idea that has huge implications. We have looked at fifty five populations so far, across the length and breadth of the country. This is the discovery stage. For example, we found that susceptibility to HIV is lower in a certain group in the north-west of India. A particular protective form of the gene has stayed within that population, because they are endogamous. The more outbred their community becomes, the more it will spread.” More:

Also read: Bongs vs Tam Brams

Portrait of India

In The Independent, Salil Tripathi reviews India: A Portrait by Patrick French:

Along journey across India can be at once tiring, exhilarating, frustrating, inspiring, and thrilling. As with the country, so with Patrick French’s India: A Portrait. Here, French combines his lifelong passion, India, with his scholarly interest in the way that Sir VS Naipaul operates as a writer. Sir Vidia was, of course, the subject of French’s absorbing biography in 2008.

Like Naipaul, French has an abiding interest in India. Like him, he talks to many people from all walks of life and listens to their stories. But unlike him, he shows empathy for what they have to say. More importantly, he does not mock them. Like Naipaul, he reads the country’s history closely; unlike him, he doesn’t bear the burden of post-colonial resentment or a sense of betrayal towards the country of his ancestors that failed to meet his expectations. India, for him, is not an area of darkness, nor a wounded civilisation. There are a million mutinies, but the portrait French offers is more complex.

India today is radically different from the time of its Independence in 1947, which is where French left off his lively account of the country’s freedom struggle, Liberty or Death (1998). In the last decade alone India has defied every known cliché: it is no longer the caged tiger The Economist lamented, and its “Hindu Rate of Growth” is an object of envy, not derision. The staging of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi showed that while India may still be anarchic, it not only functions (to use John Kenneth Galbraith’s description of India as a functioning anarchy); the end result defies expectations. More:

Interview with Patrick French in Mint Lounge.

The princely state of India

In Outlook, an except from India: A Portrait — An intimate biography of 1.2 billion people by Patrick French:

It had first become apparent to me during the 2004 election campaign, and it niggled again now. The problem was the first-time MPs. With their spanking faces and sense of bland entitlement, these young men and women were treated with reverence by the Indian media, although their achievement was usually to have shared genes with an earlier leader. I watched one of these new MPs on television as he drove through the dust of his inherited family constituency in an enormous Pajero, turning now and then to a waiting camera with a purposeful frown and saying things like “I want to help these people, like my father did” or “We are going to make India No. 1.” He looked like a giant baby who had been dressed up and put in a big buggy and sent off on an adventure.

The disjuncture between these fresh fruits and the hopes of the many millions of individuals they were supposedly representing was massive. In person, they were perfectly affable and often idealistic, but as a phenomenon, they were damaging. Was Indian national politics becoming hereditary, with power passing to a few hundred families, even as the elections themselves became more vibrant and open?

In the case of the new contenders, all you needed to know was the surname. It seemed India’s strong women politicians were not reproducing themselves, for most of the new MPs were only sons, probably on account of the social convention in the 1970s that educated people should have small families. ‘Hum do, hamare do’—‘We two, and our two’—was the slogan. Rahul was the son of Rajiv Gandhi, Jitin was the son of Jitendra Prasada, Jyotiraditya was the son of Madhavrao Scindia, Sachin was the son of Rajesh Pilot and brother-in-law of Omar Abdullah, who was the grandson of Sheikh Abdullah and son of Farooq Abdullah; Akhilesh was the son of the Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav and Dushyant was the son of Vasundhara Raje, the former BJP chief minister of Rajasthan and sister of Madhavrao Scindia. And so it continued. More:

The India gene code

India’s many failings are obvious enough. But most of its considerable achievements spring from the exalted vision of its constituent assembly. Patrick French in Outlook:

There was nothing inevitable about India becoming a democracy. At Independence, even before the partition massacres took place, the nation was falling apart. The Quit India movement had left large parts of the north ungovernable, and civil power was breaking down across the country. The armed forces were about to be divided between India and Pakistan and the most senior Indian officer, Gen K.M. Cariappa, told the Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, it might be a good idea to have a short spell of military rule. Fortunately, this idea was rejected, and India did not go the way of some of its neighbours, where politicians share power uneasily with the armed forces.

The new government directly inherited less than half of the Indian empire’s original landmass. The northeast and the northwest became Pakistan, leaving six complete provinces (Bombay, Madras, Orissa, Bihar, the United Provinces and Central Provinces) which had been under direct colonial rule, and the partitioned remnants of three others (Punjab, Bengal and Assam). The princely rulers, whose states covered more than a third of the empire, were now in theory free to do as they liked. Some had private armies, while the larger kingdoms, like Kashmir and Hyderabad—which had a government income equal to that of Belgium—thought they might stand alone.

Yet, despite the chaos, killing, unrest, kidnapping, food shortages and refugees, discussion was quickly under  way about a lasting constitutional settlement. Less than a week after the transfer of power from British hands, nationalist politicians were busily debating such matters as flag protocol, and the president of the Constituent Assembly in New Delhi, Dr Rajendra Prasad, had to remind them of the important matter at hand: “May I point out that we have met here today for the purpose of proceeding with the framing of the Constitution.”

The British had never shown much interest in what form of government India might have after Independence. More:

Mountain Echoes Day 3: Media and happiness

Namita Bhandare, Jai Arjun Singh, Tshering Tobgay and Siok Sian Pek Dorji

Namita Bhandare from Thimphu on Day 3 of Bhutan’s first-ever literary festival:

Kinley Dorji, Secretary in the ministry of Information, points out that the main competitors of newspapers in Bhutan are not television, but word-of-mouth rumour mongering.

“Bhutan is a small country,” he says to me over drinks the previous night. “Here we not only know who is sleeping with whom, but also who will be sleeping with whom.”

At last count, Bhutan had six newspapers, five radio stations and one television station. Earlier at a reception, I am introduced to Sherpem, an attractive Bhutanese woman who has a degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is, I am told, ‘the Barkha Dutt of Bhutan’.

Kinley Dorji

Kinley Dorji

Dorji has also studied journalism in the United States. “I came back with a journalism degree,” says the Stanford University alum, “But no newspaper to work for.” So, he did the next best thing: he started his own paper, Kuensel.

From playing editor, Dorji is currently hammering out his country’s media policy. His point of view is that it is the government’s responsibility to develop a professional media industry. The big concern is international media. Until 1999, there was no television, now over 40 channels beam into Bhutanese homes. At the time when TV was first introduced, the role model for most young Bhutanese men was the King. Today it is Shah Rukh Khan and 50 Cent, says Dorji.

How do you fit the concept of gross national happiness into this nascent media world? By having media awards that focus not so much on the top breaking stories as much as stories that best present culture or focus on good governance or the environment.

Dorji has his work cut out; not a moment to lose. Bhutan is laying fibre optic lines from Thimphu to its 20 districts, connecting the country by broadband. Freedom of expression and the right to information is guaranteed by the country’s newly adopted Constitution. Over 2,000 citizens engage actively in online discussions and there are 18,000 registered internet users in this country of 634,982 people; 60 per cent survive on subsistence farming, 25 per cent live below the poverty line. Incidentally, Siok Sian Dorji who heads Bhutan’s Centre for Media and Democracy, points out that half the population has cell phones.

Continue reading ‘Mountain Echoes Day 3: Media and happiness’

Bhutan King at the Literary Festival

Pavan Varma and Gulzar

Pavan Varma and Gulzar

Namita Bhandare from Thimphu on Day 2 of Bhutan’s first-ever literary festival:

Her Majesty the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, inaugurates the Mountain Echoes literary festival as Indian ambassador Pavan K Varma (Right) looks on. Photo: Kuensel

The Bhutan Literary Festival had an unexpected visitor today when King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth king, said he wanted to meet writers from India. At a hastily convened tea, that included home-made samosas, at India House, the residence of Indian Ambassador Pavan Varma, the King dressed in a traditional black gho and accompanied by the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck who is a published author and a patron of the festival, mingled with writers, finally settling down to an impromptu poetry reading by Gulzar in Varma’s drawing room.

Gulzar read his poems in Hindustani while Pavan Varma did the translations in English. The smallish crowd included writer and historian Patrick French whose biography of Francis Younghusband apparently impressed the Queen Mother to such a degree that French and his India-born wife, Meru Gokhale, were among the few foreign guests she invited to the King’s coronation in 2008.

The new King, K5 as he is referred to, has his work cut out for him. His father had the easier job of abdicating. Now it is his responsibility to make Bhutan a modern nation while striving to retain its unique cultural identity. The King is fond of interacting with students. He tells them to retain their individuality and continue to think creatively.

Click here for the Kuensel story

Continue reading ‘Bhutan King at the Literary Festival’

Good writers. Bad men. Does it matter?

Why should it matter more when an artist or a writer behaves badly? Sam Schulman gets to the heart of the matter in In Character

“We have many goodish writers in this country, but few great ones, and V.S. Naipaul is a great writer.” – A.N. Wilson

Everyone knows one thing about the life of Charles Dickens:  the trauma of his childhood stung him into bestsellerdom.  The 12-year-old boy whose parents were imprisoned for debt and who toiled in Warren’s Blacking Factory is father to the man who wrote David Copperfield.  But I was ashamed to learn only now, in Michael Slater’s new biography, Charles Dickens, that the autobiographical background of David Copperfield was completely unknown to Dickens’s huge contemporary fan base – hundreds of thousands of people who bought his novels in their serial form, subscribed to the magazines he published for twenty years, attended the marvelous public readings he gave of his own works, and bought his Christmas books for their friends.  More than a year passed after Dickens’s death in 1870 at the age of 58 before the first volume of John Forster’s Life of Dickens was published, and the facts of Dickens’s childhood became known.   Slater says that it is hard for us “to register just how sensational all this was to the vast majority of Dickens’s readers, so many of whom felt themselves to be on terms of personal friendship with him.”  Hundreds of thousands learned for the first time that when Copperfield labored in Murdstone & Grimby’s warehouse, it was Dickens who wept, and that Dickens’s Micawberesque father was the cheerful resident of King’s Bench Prison.  more

Bachchan, Slumdog & more: a rough guide to the Jaipur Lit Fest

Posted by Namita Bhandare:

I know the organisers of the Jaipur Literature Festival (Diggi Palace hotel, Jaipur, January 21-25, entry free to all) love to say that the festival is democratic and that they don’t want to pitch one session over and above the others but here’s what I think will be the star events at the Lit Fest:

1. The Indian premiere of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. That the film has reaped awards at the Golden Globe and is tipped to be an Oscar favourite has only added to the curiosity factor. And now that Amitabh Bachchan has blasted the film for daring to show the ‘murky under belly’ of Mumbai (has he taken over from where Raj Thackeray left off?), the pre-publicity hype has just got a notch hotter. As they say in showbiz, any publicity is good publicity. Anyway, to come back to the film: present at the premiere will be, no not Danny Boyle (he’ll be in Mumbai) but Vikas Swarup who wrote Q&A, the book on which the script is based, and also, apparently, Anil Kapoor. I’m a bit alarmed by the filmi flourishes which the festival’s PR guides seem to favour (they roped Aamir Khan in last year), but I guess they’re doing it because they believe it sells the festival. If you ask me, the festival (now in its fourth year) doesn’t need much selling. Continue reading ‘Bachchan, Slumdog & more: a rough guide to the Jaipur Lit Fest’

Nobel Naipaul and his many enemies

Patrick French’s biography of V.S. Naipaul (The World is What it Is, 554 pp, Alfred A. Knopf, $30, ) hits American shores. In New York Times, Dwight Garner gives it his approval, calling it ’one of the sprightliest, most gripping, most intellectually curious and, well, funniest biographies of a living writer’.

naipaul3Books about literary friendships (James and Wharton, Kerouac and Ginsberg, Melville and Hawthorne) drop into bookstores with numbing regularity. Books about literary revenge are more rare and thus more interesting.

In 1998 Paul Theroux published “Sir Vidia’s Shadow,” a memoir about the crumbling of his long friendship with V. S. Naipaul, the great Trinidad-born novelist. Mr. Theroux’s book was a potent, carefully mixed cocktail, served ice cold. It laid bare Mr. Naipaul’s racism, misogyny, vanity, stinginess and (most distressingly) his emotional cruelty to Patricia, his first wife.

Now, 10 years later, comes “The World Is What It Is,” Patrick French’s authorized biography of Mr. Naipaul. It’s a handsome volume, jacketed in silver and black, with a disarming cover photograph of Mr. Naipaul stooping, with a gap-toothed grin, to tie a loose shoelace.


Sir Vidia’s dance

Joseph Bottum in the Weekly Standard on “The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul” by Patrick French [via 3quarksdaily]:

Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul in 2003. Naipaul married Nadira Khannum Alvi shortly after Pat died.

Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul in 2003. Naipaul married Nadira Khannum Alvi shortly after Pat died.

During a brief remission in his wife’s cancer, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist V.S. Naipaul casually explained to a journalist that he had always been “a great prostitute man,” mongering among the whores from the early days of his marriage.

The publicity that followed from the remark “consumed” his wife, he later admitted to his biographer, Patrick French. “She had all the relapses and everything after that. She suffered. It could be said that I killed her. .  .  . I feel a little bit that way.” Unfortunately, he didn’t feel “that way” enough to think it inappropriate to move into his house, the day after he cremated his wife, his new mistress, a Pakistani journalist he’d just met (and would, in short order, marry).

Even before the whoring revelations, Naipaul’s first wife, a middle-class woman named Patricia Hale whom he’d met while he was a student on scholarship to England, had known about a prior mistress–but only because Naipaul himself decided one day to tell her, explaining the violent acts he enjoyed with the woman, some of them memorialized in photographs he brought along to aid the explanation.

The woman’s name was Margaret Gooding, and Naipaul met her in 1972 in Buenos Aires. French’s new biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, quotes extensively from her letters: unbearable scrawls that read like clinical case studies drawn from the pages of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. She begs, moans, despairs, and pleads for Naipaul’s “cruel sexual desires.” She calls him her “god,” her “black master.” Her multiple abortions of his children sicken her, but she offers them up to him as proof of her love and abasement.


Previously in AW:

The lessons of the master

In the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma on Patrick French‘s “The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul“:

The public image of V.S. Naipaul, distilled from interviews with the writer and anecdotes passed on by people who have met him, is of an angry man, quick to take offense, capable of extraordinary and gratuitous acts of rudeness, obsessed with his status as a great writer, willfully shocking in his views, and incapable of suffering fools, or anyone really, including those nearest to him, gladly. This, by the way, is not the Naipaul I knew. I found him amusing, courteous, even a little diffident. But I could see flashes of the other Naipaul, the man who loves to outrage. The source of this love is one of the fascinating themes running through the biography.

Some people who have felt Naipaul’s verbal lashes see him as a bigot who turned on his own Caribbean background by taking on the worst prejudices of the Indian Brahmin and the British colonial Blimp.[2] Although bitterness about the way black politicians in Trinidad went after the Indian minority in the 1950s certainly affected Naipaul’s views of his native island, and his harsh comments on African cultural and political life suggest a less than friendly attitude toward black people, Naipaul is too complex a figure to be dismissed as a racist. For in fact he has written about Africans, as well as Asians, with more intimacy and sympathy than many hand-wringing leftists who take a more abstract view of humanity.


Letter to the editor

V.S. Naipaul’s ex-mistress, Margaret Gooding dashes off a letter to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement:

Sir, – I have just read a review in your paper of The World Is What It Is by Patrick French (May 23). It is incorrect that Gillon Aitken was sent to tell me about Vidia’s marriage. I found out from the newspapers.

Buenos Aires, Ayacucho 1867, Argentina.

Undercover in Tibet

In the news for his biography of V.S. Naipaul, Patrick French, who is also the author of Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land, writes for The Daily Mail on his personal experience of travelling through Tibet to research his book

The Chinese men in blue tracksuits were horribly familiar. Although they were dressed like athletes, their robotic movements, blank faces, swivel eyes and rough, menacing style reminded me of the secret policemen I had to avoid when I was in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, some years ago.

Last Sunday, they surrounded Konnie Huq as she ran with the Olympic flame through the streets of London, ordering her to hold the torch higher and shoving protesters and British policemen out of the way.

Lord Coe, the London Olympics chief, was overheard describing the so-called “torch attendants” as “thugs”.

He said: “They tried to push me out of the way three times. They are horrible.”


[Pic: Konnie Huq is surrounded by 'thugs' as she carries the Olympic Torch in London last week]

Theroux on Naipaul

In the Sunday Times, Paul Theroux on his one-time mentor

Ten years ago I published Sir Vidia’s Shadow, depicting V S Naipaul as a grouch, a skinflint, tantrum-prone, with race on the brain. He was then, and continued to be, an excellent candidate for anger management classes, sensitivity training, psychotherapy, marriage guidance, grief counselling and driving lessons – none of which he pursued.

Now comes Patrick French’s authorised biography of the man, The World Is What It Is, which makes all these points and many more. It seems that I didn’t know the half of all the horrors.

When the lawyers were shown the type-script of my own book, they were all over me. “Look at this – ‘violent, unstable, depressive’ – Naipaul could prove malice!” And the trump card of the QC, with his lists of deletions and revisions: “Do you know what it will cost you if he sues you?”


Previously in AW:

That Naipaul book

Patrick French’s authorised biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is (Picador, Rs 595, 555 pp) gets early notices, most of them favourable. The Economist calls the book ‘penetrating’ and ‘unflinching’.

Patrick French takes the title of his life of V.S. Naipaul from the first sentence of “A Bend in the River”, one of the 2001 Nobel laureate’s best-known books: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” It is the kind of statement that makes liberal-minded readers recoil, almost instinctively. Each part of it is a provocation. But it encapsulates the man, his fear of the void, his contempt for the loser. And it is a reason for reading this penetrating, wide-ranging and unflinching biography.


Also, read other book reviews:

And, previously on AW:

Two lives, two memoirs

Posted by Namita Bhandare:

My column in Mint looks at two very different memoirs (L.K Advani’s life-story and V.S. Naipaul’s authorised biography) and why we’re going to remember them for very different reasons

The two books rocking the headlines are, by sheer coincidence, memoirs. The first has been making headlines even before its launch. The World Is What It Is, is Patrick French’s biography of Nobel Prize winning writer V.S. Naipaul. The other is L.K. Advani’s 986-page life story My Country, My Life, only recently launched and a headliner for otherreasons.
The two lives intersect, if only briefly. Naipaul was a Hindutva poster boy through the 1990s. In 1993 he told Times of India editor Dileep Padgaonkar, in an interview that finds mention in Advani’s book, that he reacted to the Ayodhya incident “not as badly as the others did”.
French’s book is remarkable for several reasons (disclosure: he is related to this columnist by marriage). The fact that he was given unprecedented access to a writer who has single-handedly popularized the word “curmudgeon” is, in itself, a minor miracle. The way French tells it, he was approached to write the biography (“I was hesitant; I was finishing another book”). He agreed on one condition — interviews with Naipaul and access to his archives along with permission to quote from them. Astonishingly, Naipaul agreed.

Sex, truth and Vidia

[Updated on  March 25]

Patrick French was given unprecedented access to V.S. Naipaul and his sealed archive to write his biography. In this extract published in The Telegraph, UK, French examines Sir Vidia’s tortured first marriage and the 24-year love affair that fuelled his genius:

bookjacket.jpgWhen Vidia met her in February 1952, Patricia Hale was a slim, small undergraduate with a kind, pretty face. She was a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society, and he first glimpsed her holding a stack of programmes on the final night of his college play, Jan de Hartog’s Skipper Next to God. Vidia had designed the poster and helped to organise the publicity. They chatted, and he invited her to tea. Pat was 17 days older than Vidia, reading history at a women’s college, St Hugh’s. Like him, she came from a poor background and had reached Oxford University on intellectual merit, in her case on a state scholarship. Over tea, they talked some more, and a tentative romance began. In March, Pat went home for the vacation. Her parents and sister lived in a decrepit two-bedroom flat above a municipal bank in Kingstanding, a drab suburb of the city of Birmingham. Her father worked in a local firm of solicitors as a managing clerk.

(“The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul” by Patrick French; published by Picador)


And in Outlook, another excerpt, this one on Naipaul’s insistence that Patrick French write a completely honest biography:

When slavery was formally abolished across the British empire in 1834, cheap labour was still needed for the West Indian sugar plantations, and V.S. Naipaul’s destitute forebears were shipped from northern India to the Caribbean as bonded labourers; it was slavery by another name, slavery with an expiry date. Vidia Naipaul, born in rural poverty in colonial Trinidad in 1932, would rise from this unpromising setting to become one of the great writers of the 20th century.


Also in Outlook, on Naipaul and India:

By 1962, Nehru was old and ailing, and the glitter of freedom and the Congress party’s revolution was fading. For all his five-year plans, India was still painfully poor. The national mood of fatigue coincided with the arrival on India’s shores of its doubly displaced son Vidia Naipaul, whose approach to his ancestral land had been decided years before. Aged barely 17, he had written to his sister Kamla, then studying at Benares Hindu University: “I am glad you told off those damned inefficient, scheming Indians.


A final excerpt from Outlook, on Naipaul and his three women:

As he approached the age of retirement, V.S. Naipaul felt compelled to go on writing. By early 1995, unable to find the spark for a work of fiction, Vidia decided to loop back on himself once more and write a reprise of Among the Believers, his prescient early study of Islamic extremism. In a new global political climate, he would return to Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan to look at the future of Islamist ideology through the fate of the places and personalities he had encountered in 1979. Once again, he would make a forceful rejection of the late 20th century academic convention that all cultures, peoples and belief systems are different but equal.