India: A Portrait, by Patrick French

Journalist Patrick French searches for the mechanics behind India's functioning, diverse democracy.

India: A Portrait, by Patrick French, Knopf, 416 pp.

When it comes to ballot-box complications, the nation famously known as the world's most populous democracy really takes the chikki.

During India's first national election, some women voters only carried the names of their fathers and husbands. Other voters refused to give their names because they felt uncomfortable identifying themselves to strangers. And many couldn't read or write any of the nation's hundreds of languages.

Almost six decades later, India's amazing diversity hasn't led to chaos. Its democracy is rock-solid despite traditions of corruption and violence. A sudden economic powerhouse, it now produces many of the most brilliant minds on the planet and threatens the dominance of the United States.

"India is a macrocosm, and may be the world's default setting for the future," writes journalist Patrick French.

How on earth did that happen? French searches for answers in India: A Portrait, a perceptive and rambling stroll through a nation's body and soul.

As its bland title makes clear, this book isn't a lush travelogue or a spiritual journey. Instead of "Eat, Pray, Love," this is more like "Analyze, Interpret, Understand," with a wonky British scribbler replacing Julia Roberts in the title role. The detail-oriented author even pores over elaborate spreadsheets to help him get a handle on India's politics and economy.

But this is might be just the approach India needs, one without all the gaping that it inspires in visitors. Overwhelmed journalists tend to get a bit whipsawed:

Suffering! Beauty! Food! Despair! It is – cliché alert! – a country of contrasts.

French goes beyond the obvious and grounds himself by focusing on three areas: political, economic, and social.

On the political front, he explores the incredible hurdle of creating India in the first place, a chore that taxed the immense brain power of the nation's founders.

Unlike its neighbors in Pakistan, India adopted a constitution and stuck by it, "taking a gamble on democracy." Leaders even set a precedent by firmly keeping religion out of politics, a concept that still remains foreign to many in the US.

"Like the United States," French writes, "modern India was founded on the idea that a few good men (and women, in this case) might come together and dream of a great nation, and enshrine that dream in law."

As in the US, inspiring words on paper didn't prevent bloodshed. To complicate matters, India rejected one monarchy only to adopt a kind of hereditary rule.

The nation shuffled through top leaders from a single family, for better and worse.

French intimately captures the horror that haunts Indian politics while appreciating its American-style wackiness: a former wrestler becomes defense minister, a denizen of New York's party scene turns into a respected politician, and a leader's mistress takes control of a political party. Not to mention the faction whose initials spell out a dirty word. (French is saddened that it's no longer seen on posters.)

But what about India outside the halls of power, the land so many Americans view as deeply spiritual or full of suffering or simply as the place where their calls to tech support end up?

French touches on all these visions and finds connections between them, just as India does itself. He finds the country to be a place where "materialism and religion were united," with none of the Bible's camel-through-eye-of-needle-style bashing of the rich. This may be one reason why Indians were four of the eight richest people in 2008, as judged by Forbes.

Why so much wealth amid so much misery? French partially explains the tolerance of India's stunning poverty by pointing out that compassion toward strangers – feeling like part of a common whole – isn't a hallmark of Hinduism. "Loyalty is shown to the family or to your particular community, rather than to people in general."

French also notes that Indians, unlike their former British overseers, care little about race. But they're still obsessed by caste, although prejudice is on the decline.

Overall, India's progress on all fronts is both lightning fast and achingly slow – 1.2 billion people, after all, can make 120 billion bad decisions every day. You could say it's a country of … well, you know.

Cliché and contrasts aside, India is a burgeoning nation with an inspiring message to the struggling people of the world: It gets better. Now we'll get to see if its rising tide uplifts us all.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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