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Opinion

Naipaul's celebrated biographer Patrick French passes away at 57 

PUNJAB NEWS LINE | March 16, 2023 07:42 PM

NEW DELHI: Patrick French, the biographer of Sir Vidia Naipaul and Francis Younghusband, and Dean of the School of Art and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, passed away on Thursday in London, leaving behind his wife Meru Gokhale and four children.

He was 57 and suffering from cancer.

Reacting to the shocking news, fellow writer and Indophile William Dalrymple tweeted: "Heartbroken to hear about the death of Patrick French, who I have loved and admired since we were both thirteen, and who was the Best Man at my wedding. He was funny & clever & charming, always full of enthusiasm & energy. He was also the greatest biographer of our generation."

At the time of his death, French was writing a biography of British-Zimbabwean Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.

He first attracted the attention of the world with his authoritative account of the life and adventures of Sir Francis Younghusband, the British explorer and diplomatist who revealed, as it were, Tibet to the western world after his historic 1904 expedition.

French, however, will be remembered in India, apart from his work to put together Ahmedabad University, for his insightful book on Partition -- "Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division" -- which offered a revisionist view of the respective roles of Mahatma Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah in India's independence movement.

His biography of Naipaul, "The World is What It Is", made Ian Buruma in 'The New York Times' declare him as the inventor of a new genre -- "the confessional biography".

Apart from writing and setting up an academic institution of note, French also unsuccessfully contested the 1992 parliamentary elections in the UK as a Green Party candidate, actively crusaded for a 'Free Tibet', and in 2003, politely declined the Order of the British Empire, which the Queen wished to bestow upon him.

Tributes have been pouring in from the friends and admirers of French, who remembered him as a warm and kind person. Author Aatish Taseer described him as "a wonderful biographer, historian, essayist and teacher". He added in his tweet: "His Naipaul biography is a classic. And we had many funny times telling Naipaul stories."

Looking back at their last public event together (a "delightful conversation" at a lit fest), Thiruvananthapuram MP and author Shashi Tharoor tweeted: "Though he looked forbiddingly serious (as in this pic), he had a delightful sense of humour. The cliche 'witty and wise' could have been devised for him."

Jairam Ramesh, Congress general secretary in-charge of communications, said he had "profited hugely from my conversations with him on Tibet" and noted in his tweet: "Patrick French was a wonderful writer, two of his books particularly are scholarly and riveting: his biography of Francis Younghusband and his account of events leading up to Partition."

The author of "Slumdog Millionaire" and India's former High Commissioner to Canada, Vikas Swarup, said: "I had met him for the first time during my posting in London and he was always a source of inspiration, for his writing, his intellect and his passion for India."

On a more personal note, and summing up the feeling of those whom French knew well, Alex von Tunzelmann, author of "Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire", tweeted: "Patrick French was brilliant company, so witty and charming, as well as an extraordinarily gifted writer and scholar. This is a huge loss."

 

 
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