Rich Tributes Pour in for Historian Patrick French

The historian, who died at 57, had a special interest in India. He was mourned by friends, readers and colleagues after his untimely death on Thursday.

New Delhi: British historian, author and academician Patrick French died in London after battling cancer for four years on Thursday, his family was cited by PTI as saying.

French, best known for his biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, and India: A Portrait, died at 8 am (London time), his wife Meru Gokhale said. “At 8.10 am this morning my beloved husband Patrick French passed away in London after a brave battle with cancer. He was an exceptional father, friend, husband, teacher and mentor to many. His kindness and love will stay with us forever. He went in peace, without suffering.”

Born in London in 1966, French went on to develop a close friendship with another famous British author historian who moved to India, William Dalrymple, during his school days. French went onto study  at the University of Edinburgh and University College London.

Dalrymple told The Hindu that French, who came from an Irish family, “honed his sense of the absurd and resistance to authority which stayed with him all his life” while at the school, which was run by monks known for their tough discipline.

Historian Ramchandra Guha, who had a long association with French, said, “he was a wonderful writer, whose books on Francis Younghusband and VS Naipaul are classics of modern biographical writing. He was also a very fine human being, unfailingly generous to friends and strangers alike.”

The Independent writes that he was widely respected for his writing on India, including his chronicling of the nation’s struggle for liberation from English rule in his 1998 work, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division. “He frequently received praise for books and journalism that demonstrated his intensive research process and engaging writing style, along with his ability to tackle complex subject matters,” said the newspaper.

Along with a number of award-winning books, French was respected for his open-access dataset on the career paths of each Lok Sabha Member of Parliament he created in 2011.

French was the inaugural dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, appointed in 2017. The Hindu wrote about how his role in institution building was one less acknowledged. Harvard University professor and historian Maya Jasanoff, who was among those he invited to the school, told the newspaper that she was struck by his foresight in developing the architecture as well as bringing in diversity. “Institution building is challenging at the best of times. Patrick showed himself to be adept at the process — interacting with people across cultures, disciplines and professions,” she said. French was understood to have been particularly disappointed when Ram Guha was unable to take a position at the University, due to objections from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the ruling BJP, in 2019.

He was last working on The Golden Woman: The Authorized Biography of Doris Lessing, about the activist and novelist.

French is survived by his wife Meru Gokhale and four children.