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Originally published July 30, 2011 at 7:06 PM | Page modified July 30, 2011 at 9:01 PM

Book review

'India: A Portrait': Patrick French's new history of India since 1947

Patrick French's "India: A Portrait" is an insightful, if overstuffed, history of India since its break from British colonial power in 1947.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'India: A Portrait'

by Patrick French

Knopf, 416 pp., $30

As the world's largest democracy grows in economic and consumer power, so does the appetite for information about modern India. That will make it almost impossible for many people to resist Patrick French's new book, "India: A Portrait."

French penned the acclaimed authorized biography of Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul, "The World Is What It Is," and wrote a popular history of India's transition from colonialism. He is a thorough researcher and skilled storyteller who excels at drawing characters and scenes.

In "India," he discusses the political, financial and social aspects of India since its break from British colonial power in 1947.

French paints a detailed portrait of India's Gandhi dynasty, which began with its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He succinctly describes the painful early relationship between Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who eventually also became prime minister.

Less succinctly, French delves into the upbringings and motivations of Indira's sons, the corrupt Sanjay and the younger Rajiv, who is best known as the husband of another prime minister, the Italian born Sonia Gandhi.

There are heartbreaking scenes, for example, of a Sikh village whose men kill their wives and children rather than leave them to the fate of Muslim conquerors during the bloodbath that accompanied the creation of Pakistan and India in 1947.

French speaks to a man who was a boy in that village. He also interviews the Sikh son of the assassin of Indira Gandhi. Although 3,000 Sikhs died in mob uprisings after her death, the Sikh community honored the assassin as a hero and took care of his family.

The book also explores India's communist movement, whose members "preferred to present themselves as the voice of India's dispossessed, the authentic leaders of the revolution" when they are actually "a bunch of ageing men from upper-cast backgrounds," French writes.

There are insights small and large.

Until recent years, Indian bureaucracy and government restrictions drove its engineers and entrepreneurs to other countries. French says Indians now control around half of all U.S. lodging properties, presumably meaning hotel chains.

He gives an unvarnished, bare-bones explanation of the global financial meltdown — a description in the vein of Rolling Stone's rabble rouser, Matt Taibbi — and explains how India's strict regulations kept its banks from getting in too deep.

But "India" overreaches. French includes too much and does not indicate which events and observations are most important. It is all thrown into one pot — the fact that Sonia Gandhi became accepted by Indians partly because her skin was brown and her first name was popular in India, along with details about the sex life of legendary economist John Maynard Keynes, who once worked for an office that ran India from England.

People interested in India do not need to know that Keynes called one of his male Indian students and lovers "a strange and charming creature" and fretted about how their relationship would end to another of his lovers.

Some of the payload from French's substantial research should have been scrapped, or saved for a different book.

Melissa Allison is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.

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