Patrick French (1966-2023) was described as a “charming man who never submitted to authority.”

Despite a lifelong absorption in historiography and biography, Patrick French was always perplexed by a universal marketing term: book launch. In the 1990s, upon the publication of his biography of British Army officer Sir Francis Edward Younghusband, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (1994), he showed up to the function in a London gallery dressed as the military officer and inserted his book into a clay pigeon trap (designed to throw clay). Finally, the phrase is fitting.

“That sense of humour was typical of Patrick; he always had the ability to perceive the bizarre and humorous everywhere,” says Dalrymple, who watched the trip and went to school with the India-based English writer and historian who died Thursday after a long fight with cancer.

Born in 1966, French was an irreverent giant of the field, penning acclaimed works such as Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division (1994) – a portrait of India’s freedom struggle recontextualised through the triumphs and follies of Churchill, Mountbatten, Jinnah, and Gandhi – and The World Is What It Is (2008) – an authoritative biography of Trinidadian-British writer VS Naipaul, extracted from exhaustive notes delivered The latter received both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Hawthornden Prize. He also received the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Prize, and the Somerset Maugham Award.

“He was a fascinating man who never bowed to authority,” Dalrymple recalls, “and the hilarity of his youth also gave way to a serious side as he grew older.”

French, married to former Penguin Random House editor-in-chief Meru Gokhale, was the first Dean of Ahmedabad University’s School of Arts and Sciences (AU). He stood down in 2022 after a stint of five years, shifting his attention to a biography of Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing, expected to be released next year.

“Our connection grew in recent years through Ahmedabad University, where Patrick was the founding Dean of Arts and Sciences and invited me as a visiting professor. That institution’s survival owes him so much and serves as a homage just as much as his writings. We frequently collaborated on workshops and other events, and I was astounded by Patrick’s breadth of curiosity, depth of thought, and sheer intelligence and erudition each time. It’s uncommon to meet people who are equally striking on and off the page, or who flourish in literary and intellectual environments. “Patrick was in a league of his own,” stated researcher and historian Maya Jasanoff.

“He was very passionate about his job at Ahmedabad University and passionately committed to selecting the proper people to teach there,” says Chiki Sarkar, co-founder of Juggernaut Books.

“And it was as a biographer that he found his calling. When Naipaul provided him all of his correspondences, he told him to write whatever he wanted without censorship, and such generosity places a heavy weight on a biographer. Reading Naipaul’s wife’s letters revealed a brutal aspect to the writer, which is difficult to capture skillfully. It takes a certain personality, which Patrick had.”

“On learning that the shrewd French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord had died, Prince Metternich is reputed to have enquired: ‘What did he mean by it?'” French wrote in the obituary for Naipaul in The Deccan Era Sunday magazine in 2018. I had a similar feeling a fortnight ago when word broke of VS Naipaul’s death, only days before his 86th birthday. The sense of enduring permanence that Vidia Naipaul produced, I realised afterwards, stemmed from the extent to which his mind was always present in his books. For a lifetime, he had hedged against extinction; like Mr Biswas when he obtained his house, he staked claim to his piece of the soil.”

Despite knowing about his four-year fight with cancer, word of the writer and historian’s death came with a similar sense of incredulity Thursday.

“Writers and artists, particularly men, can be selfish and vain, making everything about themselves. Yet Patrick was the polar opposite. In reality, unlike Naipaul, whose work will be remembered for years to come, Patrick was a shining example of compassion, caring, and human decency, especially to those younger than him. He was a gifted writer, biographer, and a fantastic impersonator, but he was an even better human being. It is a tragic loss. “I was looking forward to his biography on Doris Lessing because she was a counterweight to Naipaul – woman, Left, White – and if anyone could do it justice, it would be Patrick,” historian Ramachandra Guha remarked.

“We met a couple times, and he was just the most loving and affectionate man. “He was extraordinarily generous, someone who loved to offer his time and attention,” writer Mirza Waheed remarked.

Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor, in a Twitter post, wrote, “Profoundly saddened by the news of the demise of Patrick French today. I just spoke with his mother-in-law, Namita Gokhale, to express my sympathies. My heart goes out to Meru Gokhale and their four-year-old son Krishna. We have lost an exceptional writer as well as a wonderful human being. “Rest in peace.”

“I met him soon after things had soured with the Naipauls over the biography,” writer Aatish Taseer, who got acquainted with French following the release of the Naipaul biography, stated. I thought him to be friendly and very amusing. His impressions of Naipaul – the triple repetition, the awful things he could say – had me splitting my sides. I devoured his biography of Naipaul. It was really sharp. He grasped the grandeur and pettiness that are so much a part of the contrasts of many great writers. The sentence, in which he portrays Naipaul’s function as a subject as “at once an act of narcissism and humility,” will live on as “a whole social fact” about the man as a whole. Patrick’s death so early is a tragedy for Indian intellectual life. I shall miss him as a friend, but also as a reader – I will miss all the novels he has yet to write.”


Hi, my name is Nisha and I'm an educational journalist based in India. I've always been passionate about the power of education to transform lives, and that's what led me to pursue a career in journalism focused on this area. I completed my Bachelor's degree in English from Hindu College in Delhi in 2013 and then went on to earn my Master's in Journalism and Mass Communication from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in 2017. During my studies, I also completed several short-term courses on Education in India, Sociology, and other related subjects to deepen my knowledge in this field. I'm particularly interested in improving access to quality education in rural areas, where students often face significant challenges. I've worked on a number of initiatives to address this issue, including advocating for better policies, resources, and practices that can make a difference. As an educational journalist, I'm passionate about using my platform to highlight important issues in the education space. I've covered a wide range of topics, including the impact of technology in the classroom, innovative approaches to teaching and learning, and the challenges facing students from marginalized communities. One of the things I love most about my work is the opportunity to constantly learn and grow. I'm an avid reader and believe that reading is key to expanding one's knowledge and perspective. I'm always seeking out new ideas and insights to help me better understand the world around me. In summary, as an educational journalist, I'm dedicated to using my skills and expertise to make a positive impact in the field of education. I'm committed to improving access to quality education for all students and to using my platform to raise awareness about important issues in this area.

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