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Book Review: 'India: A Portrait' by Patrick French

The author vividly captures the complexities and contradictions of the world's largest democracy in his latest work of nonfiction.

June 12, 2011|By Richard Rayner, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Naipaul once observed that Gandhi led India to independence but left it without ideology, and this was a curse. French takes a different view, perceiving the lack of cohesiveness as a source of energy and dissent, driving India into a future that involves Naxalite-Maoist insurrection at one pole and the possibilities of global economic domination at the other.

The idea that Western power will remain intact is "outdated and fantastic," French notes. India's rapid economic surge is just one part of a realignment. "Bangalore had everything: fair male strippers for hen nights, shopping arcades with Hugo Boss and Montblanc, apartments that were rising at a ferocious rate," he writes, describing a center of India's technology industry, having just told the story of a bonded laborer who lived for years in shackles, cracking stones in a Mysore quarry, because he had fallen into debt with his boss.

French offers no solutions or prescriptions (that's not his job, after all), and even if he sometimes seems blandly hopeful about what the future might hold he's always sympathetic and alive to India's anomalies, mingling the famous, the striving, and the downtrodden in juxtapositions that do indeed achieve a feel of jostling, contentious intimacy.

Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."

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