In 2022, Patrick French stepped down as Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences after five years. “We built the school from scratch," he tweeted posting a picture of him then and from 2017. Dressed in peach, the only difference between his photo in 2017 was that the colour of his shirt, pink then, and his glasses now, owl round. There was no hint of the battle that he was fighting, cancer, as he smiled broadly. It was his own war, fought valiantly, quietly, fiercely but privately.
“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,” his wife Meru Gokhale has been quoted in a statement on Thursday. He was 57.
Historian, writer, spotter of talent—undoubtedly nurturer and supporter of talent—and teacher, French wore many hats, all rather lightly. He was a columnist with THE WEEK for years. “He was funny and clever and charming, always full of enthusiasm and energy. He was also the greatest biographer of our generation,” tweeted William Dalrymple, who was a close friend of the writer.
French burst on to the scene in 1994 with Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer. A gifted writer, he wrote extensively and deeply. He will possibly be remembered for his biography of The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of V.S. Naipaul. French insisted that Naipaul gave him unfettered access to interviews and his archive at the University of Tulsa, where the first wife’s diaries where located. Eloquent and witty, French’s biography creates a vivid picture of a complex writer. He was currently working on a biography on the British writer Doris Lessing.
His last book came out over a decade ago, India: A Portrait. It captures India at the cusp of change for decades trying to make sense of the country after the sweep of the socio economic reforms. French travelled the length and breadth of the country for the book profiling a villager in Karnataka and the dentist doctors Rakesh and Nupur Talwar. French was convinced of their innocence and visited them in jail, even after the book was published. Yet, the personal never crept in writing to tilt his balance. What set French apart was his curiosity, his empathy and his gentleness. He perused subjects with a journalistic passion, profiling Sonia Gandhi and also getting a rare in-depth interview with Home Minister Amit Shah in 2016 offering a glimpse into how ideologically agnostic he was. In a deeply polarised world, French was an exception.