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A Formidable Biographer and a Chronicler of Our Times

After pursuing a degree in English and American Literature from Edinburgh University, he stayed on to do a PhD in South Asian Studies.

Through the course of an illustrious career, French received numerous honours for his writing, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Though he had no family connection to India, French became fascinated by the country as a boy, making the first of many visits as a 19-year-old university student. He was also drawn to Tibet, after the Dalai Lama paid a visit to Ampleforth, England when French was 16.

As sympathy for the situation of Tibetans under the Chinese government increased in the 1990s, French quickly got involved in networking with the Tibetan government in exile.

He later joined the Free Tibet campaign as its director, advocating for worldwide pressure to be put on the Chinese to get them to leave the country.

After embarking on a long journey through Tibet with “a sense that the practicalities of daily life were being drowned out by Communist restriction and the white noise of foreign sympathy,” in 1999, he published Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land.

French questioned the widespread notion that the old Tibet was a peaceful paradise and, without supporting the Chinese government’s atrocities and cultural appropriation of Tibetan culture, also stated his concern that pressure from abroad on China might be having a negative effect.

His books and journalistic work frequently garnered accolades for their thorough research, compelling writing and ability to handle difficult subjects with utmost sensitivity and affection.

His official biography of VS Naipaul, The World Is What It Is (which won the Hawthornden Prize and the US National Book Critics Circle Award and was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize), published in 2008, was largely responsible for earning French the well-deserved reputation of one of the most talented biographers of our times.

French, described by Ian Buruma in the New York Review of Books, as the inventor of the genre: ‘confessional biography,’ was a formidable biographer. For instance: he conducted over a hundred interviews to pinpoint a single episode in Naipaul’s life and tracked down the facts via conflicting accounts and jumbled memories.

His writing and life were also influenced by Naipaul, who used in-depth character profiles of specific Indians to add value to his work on the democracy and economy of India.

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