British writer and historian Patrick French dies of cancer at 56

British writer and historian Patrick French dies of cancer at 56

British author and historian Patrick French passed away in London on Thursday. He was 56. Author of books on India and Tibet, and an authorised biography of VS Naipaul, Patrick French was battling with cancer for four years, sources at Penguin Random House, French’s publisher, told The Federal. He was married to Meru Gokhale, former publisher at Penguin Random House; the couple had a son four years ago.

Patrick French was working on a biography of Nobel laureate Doris Lessing; The Golden Woman: The Authorized Biography of Doris Lessing has been listed by Fourth Estate for publication in 2024. Also an academician, French served as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor for the Public Understanding of the Humanities at Ahmedabad University and as a member of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Following in Younghusband’s footsteps

A PhD in South Asian Studies, Patrick French studied English and American literature at the University of Edinburgh. He set off on a trail across Central Asia to retrace the steps of British explorer Francis Younghusband at the age of 25. This resulted in the publication of his first book, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer in 1994. 

The book won the Somerset Maugham Award and the Royal Society of Literature’s W. H. Heineman Prize. Younghusband began his colonial career as a military adventurer and became a radical visionary who preached free love to his followers. French’s biography follows in Younghusband’s footsteps, from Calcutta to the snows of the Himalayas. French pieces together the unpredictable life of a man who embodies all the romance and folly of Britain’s lost imperial dream.

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French’s next book, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division, which was published in 1997, chronicles the chaotic final years of colonial rule in India; he journeys across India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to bring to life a cast of characters, including spies, idealists, freedom fighters, and politicians from Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi. It was described in the Indian media as presenting a “revisionist view” of Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s role in the Indian Independence movement and there were calls to ban it. It, however, got an endorsement from Khushwant Singh, who described French as “a first rate historian and storyteller.”

Travelling through Tibet

French published his third book, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of A Lost Land, in 2003. French had described once how his interest in Tibet was triggered by a meeting he had with the Dalai Lama when he was 16. However, French said the book emerged from “a gradual nervousness that the western idea of Tibet, particularly the views of Tibet campaigners, was becoming too detached from the reality of what Tibet was like.”

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French had travelled through Tibet in 1999, meeting exiled monks, nomads and a nun secretly fighting Chinese rule, but also young Tibetans with a more “pragmatic attitude to their situation”. In the nuanced and fascinating account of the country, he interweaves these encounters with little-known stories of war and turmoil from Tibet’s past.

The biographer of Sir Vidia 

French’s biography of Naipaul, the controversial and enigmatic Nobel laureate, The World Is What It Is, was published in 2008. Giving us rich detail of Trinidad, where Naipaul was born into an Indian family, French skilfully examines Naipaul’s life within a displaced community; his fierce ambition at school, his move to the UK on scholarship for Oxford, and subsequent homesickness and depression.

French also writes about Naipaul’s first wife, Patricia, who helped him to cope, and their fraught marriage. He also traces Naipaul’s struggles throughout subsequent uncertainties in England, including his twenty-five-year-long affair, as well as his  extraordinary gift: producing, uniquely, masterpieces of both fiction and nonfiction.

In 2011, Patrick French released his book India: A Portrait, which was billed as “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people”. The book tells the story of a changing India; human stories are employed to explain a larger national narrative. The book blends on-the-ground reports with a deep knowledge of history, and exposes the cultural foundations of India’s political, economic and social complexities.

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