I first picked up Liberty and Death when I was researching a book I was planning to write in 2015. I had never read Patrick French before, and it wasn’t long before I was absorbed in a story of bloodshed, political machinations and – most fascinating of all – of people. The years leading up to the independence and partition of India in August 1947 is one of the most intricate and turbulent periods in the modern history of this country. It is, for a writer, not easy to explain the hows and whys of the events that occurred during these troubled years. In India, in particular, it is easier to dress eulogies in the robes of history. Leaders from Nehru and Patel to Jinnah are presented as saviours or quislings, depending on what colour the political administration of the day might be wearing.
In Liberty or Death however, I found a refreshing difference. French didn’t ascribe motives or agendas. His message was clear: this was an era where decisions and outcomes were contingent upon fluid circumstances. Most of the principal actors on this stage were confronted by questions to which there were, even in the early 1940s, no real answers.
Writer of empathy and erudition
When was the Empire planning to bow out of India? What did that mean for the princely states? Was independent India to be federal or confederal? It is a testament to the scale and scope of French’s writing that he made it clear, even as he navigated the choppy waters of subcontinental history, that history was made by people. Often, these people suffered from quirky idiosyncrasies. They were brilliant, flawed, humorous and compassionate, but most of all they were human.
The story I was planning to tell was set during the same time as Liberty and Death. It was the life of a school-dropout, who never attained either the educational or the professional qualifications required by the Crown to enter the bureaucracy. VP Menon would, despite the odds, rise to become India’s highest – and arguably its finest – civil servant, by 1947. Not only did he serve as Reforms Commissioner to India’s last three Viceroys, but his were the hands that drafted the final plan to divide British India, giving birth to Pakistan and freedom to India, thereby changing the face of South Asia forever. But he was also a bureaucrat and by dint of easy stereotype, bureaucrats are often consigned to the footnotes of history. So, the question that lay before me, as I finished reading Liberty and Death, was how I wanted to bring a civil servant out from the shadows of the giants he walked with.
To paraphrase LP Hartley’s wistful opening line in his novel, The Go-Between, the past is a foreign country – but French made the foreignness seem familiar. He did this by bringing people – their quirks, failings and virtues – to the forefront. He was drawn to the complexities of human nature, the scales it could climb and the depths it could plumb. He may not have been, as that popular term goes, a “professional” historian, but his methods of research were immaculate. He wrote not as an armchair historian, but as a writer who immersed himself in the period and the people of whom he was writing.
Liberty or Death laid the foundations – even though I didn’t know it then – for how I wanted to write history: through the lens of the people who created it. French’s retelling of complex modern Indian political history had empathy as much as it had erudition. He was unafraid to ask difficult questions, to probe the dark corners of history and memory. As a biographer, these were some of the values and principles that appealed to me, and to the way I wanted to tell stories of the people in the past.
For French, it seemed, the desire to write history was intertwined with his desire to personally walk in the footsteps of those who created it. Between 1991 and 1992, he travelled across Central Asia, following the trail of Francis Younghusband, the intrepid explorer and epitome of Victorian imperialism, who led the British punitive expedition to Tibet in 1904. In Younghusband, the book I picked up after Liberty and Death, French told the story of what he called the “last great imperial adventurer” with humour, wisdom – and that rare gift of objectivity. This wasn’t simply historical writing.
French brought his own personal anecdotes to the narrative as well. He retraced the route that Younghusband took in 1884, when he trekked over the snow-laden Rohtang Pass in North India. He travelled to the northern reaches of Sikkim, through which Younghusband passed on his way to Tibet in the freezing winter of 1903. In the dusty Bengal archives, French argued with bureaucrats as he tried to untangle the red tape that bound Younghusband’s original correspondence and diplomatic cables. It was history mixed with travel writing, and it was an entirely unique blend of observation and research.
From French’s skilled pen emerged a portrait of a maverick, whose undoubted individuality led him to teeter briefly on the edge of greatness. But Younghusband was shackled by the blinkers of his time, assuming an air of insufferable condescension for what he called “the Oriental races.” The Tibetans, he recorded even as the British invaded, were “not a fit people to be left to themselves.” It was a strange life of exciting heights – there was a time when Francis Younghusband was considered to be a significant player in the Great Game – and odd eccentric lows, when the once-great explorer became convinced that he was a Messiah, topping it all by suggesting to the woman in his life that they produce a “God-Child,” who would be “greater even than Jesus.”
Fascination of an explorer
Younghusband was French’s debut book, and even as it won him numerous accolades and acclaim, it entered him in to the ranks as one of the finest young biographers of his time. It is easy to see why. French’s narrative was brisk, his research immaculate and deeply personal at all times – and he was never short of compassion or humour while drawing portraits of complex personalities. Nor did he lose sight of the larger geopolitical milieu in which Younghusband functioned; of empires facing off across the rooftops of the world, and of men, egos and dreams. For someone who was grappling with questions of how to contextualise the subject of her own biography, Younghusband was a masterclass in what biographical writing should be.
I continued to read much of French over the coming years, picking up his books as and when the mood would strike. Through all of them, I found one common denominator: interest. French’s interest in his subjects – in the way that they thought, in what motivated them to do or say the things they did, in the grey areas of their personalities – was akin to the fascination an explorer might feel in discovering places where nobody else has gone before.
In The World Is What It Is, his biography of VS Naipaul, French achieved what he himself called, “perhaps the last literary biography to be written from a complete paper archive.” Naipaul had, by then, been arguably the most important writer in the English language for over three decades, not to mention an extremely complex personality to unravel. His personal life was strange to say the least. French, taking on the formidable task of writing the biography of a living subject, demanded complete access to Naipaul’s life, both private and public. As a result, he had over 50,000 pieces of paper to sift through, not to mention frank interviews with Naipaul. If Younghusband had been a masterclass in the art of biographical and political writing, The World Is What It Is was revolutionary for the way I thought a biography should be written.
In his interview to Outlook, French said, “To me, what’s interesting in a biography is looking at a way in which he (Naipaul, in this case) develops as a character. Looking at things like the upbringing they have. The way in which they see themselves and invent themselves, when they’re a teenager, in their early 20s, in their formative years. And the way that plays out in their lives.” It sounds simple enough, but in reality, these are the foundation stones on which every story – great or trivial – is built. I was, at the time, facing the exact opposite of the wealth of material that French was given. I was also facing the challenge of avoiding writing a hagiography. As VP Menon’s great-granddaughter, I am often asked if this biological fact results in a skewed assessment of his personality. French’s maxim was that there was no real “key” to a person’s life.
“People,” He wrote, “are too complicated and inconsistent for this to be true.” While any real answer to a biographer’s assessment of her subject lies with the reader, as a writer, as I finished reading The World Is What It Is, telling VP’s story became about understanding his circumstances, his perceptions of the hand he was dealt in life and what he made of it – and, as honestly as I could – to marry the personal with the public.
Reading Patrick French taught me that the real art of biographical writing lies in the humanisation of historical leaders, in finding the emotional and ideological drivers behind the decisions that led to milestones in a nation’s history. It lies in following your interest in finding the missing pieces to a life that has been lived, and in asking questions where there are no answers. History, after all, is born of its subjects – flawed and human.
That is how it should be told.