Critical review of two books by Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul and India: A Portrait
French, Patrick Rollo
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This submission for the PhD by Research Publications consists of two published books by Patrick French, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul (2008) and India: A Portrait (2011). The portfolio is accompanied by a critical review summarising the aims, objectives, methodology, results and conclusions of the books, and showing how they form a coherent body of work and contribute significantly to the expansion of knowledge. The World Is What It Is (2008) is a biography of Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, positioning him within a Caribbean and early postcolonial literary lineage, despite his ancestral connections to India and his “stateless” claims as a world novelist. India: A Portrait (2011) is a study of Indian politics, economics and society since 1947, told mainly through the stories of individuals from different sections of society, and using historical background to analyse rapid recent social change in the period after economic “liberalization”. The trajectory of the two publications is built around a conviction that individual experience can illuminate a larger period or civilization, and that our ideas of the unfamiliar, whether in the past or in different societies, can often be poorly grounded in the way people perceive themselves. In each case, the books challenge existing notions and use evidence based on detailed research and interviews in the field. In the case of The World Is What It Is, almost none of the archival material used had previously been studied, and in India: A Portrait, subjective one-to-one interviews were supplemented by new original data. For example, a survey was undertaken to determine what proportion of MPs in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, were hereditary: this involved double-sourcing information on the family background of all 545 Indian MPs – and revealed that nepotism was more deeply embedded than had previously been realised. Both books come out of a vision developed during two-and-a-half decades of research into colonial and postcolonial history. The guiding motivation has been to communicate a distinct historical view of the period before and after the end of the global British empire, in particular in South Asia and among its diaspora.