Author and historian Patrick French dies in London

The writer, best known for his biography of VS Naipaul, ‘The World Is What It Is’, loses battle with cancer


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Patrick French. — Twitter
Patrick French. — Twitter

Published: Thu 16 Mar 2023, 9:20 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Mar 2023, 9:35 PM

Award-winning British author, historian and academic Patrick French, best known for his biography of VS Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, and India: A Portrait, died in London on Thursday after a four-year battle with cancer. He was 57.

French, who was inaugural dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University in 2017 and also held a visiting position at Ashoka University, died in the morning, his mother-in-law and Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) co-founder Namita Gokhale said.

“It was so sudden. We all are so heartbroken. The death took place in London. He had been suffering from cancer for the past four years,” Gokhale said.French is survived by his wife Meru Gokhale, former publisher at the Penguin Press Group, and four children.

He was “an exceptional father, friend, husband, teacher and mentor to many”, Meru Gokhale said from London.

“At 8.10 am this morning my beloved husband Patrick French passed away in London after a brave battle with cancer. . . His kindness and love will stay with us forever. He went in peace, without suffering,” she said in a statement.

The London-based historian, who did his PhD in South Asian Studies and an MA in English and American Literature, both from the University of Edinburgh, majorly focused on political and social analysis of India in the decades directly before and after independence in 1947. He also worked on the period following economic ‘liberalisation’ in the 1990s.

Besides his writing and his academic work, French also briefly dabbled in politics. In 1992, he unsuccessfully contested the general election in the UK as a Green Party candidate.

His famous works, translated into more than a dozen languages, include Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (1994), a biography of British explorer Francis Younghusband, Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division, and Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land.

French, who also held visiting positions at the University of Warwick, University of the South Pacific, NYU Abu Dhabi and University of Pennsylvania, won several awards for his work. These included the Hawthornden Prize, the Royal Society of Literature WH Heinemann Prize, the US National Book Critics Circle Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award.

Among those who paid tribute to French, who was perhaps most popular as a biographer, were Congress MP and author Shashi Tharoor, his party colleague Jairam Ramesh and historians William Dalrymple and Ramachandra Guha.

Dalrymple said he was heartbroken to hear about the loss of his close friend and the best man at his wedding, and described French as the “greatest biographer of our generation”.

“He was funny & clever & charming, always full of enthusiasm & energy. He was also the greatest biographer of our generation,” tweeted Dalrymple.

Guha said, “Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Patrick French. 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.” Tharoor said he was profoundly saddened by the news.

“… Have just spoken with his mother-in-law @NamitaGokhale_ to express my condolences. My heart goes out to @MeruGokhale and their 4year old son Krishna. We have lost an outstanding writer & fine human being. RIP,” tweeted Tharoor.

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