Patrick French, historian and author with deep India connect, dies in U.K.

World-renowned biographer and historian Patrick French, who was the inaugural Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University, passed away in London on Thursday, after a four-year battle with cancer.

Mr. French, 56, authored a series of books, but was most famous for his biographies of the Trinidadian writer V.S. Naipaul, and Francis Younghusband, a British explorer in Tibet. “He was, without doubt, one of the finest biographers of our times,” historian Ramchandra Guha, who had a long association with Mr. French, told The Hindu.

Along with a number of award-winning books, Mr. French was known for his research and compilation of an open-access dataset on the career paths of each Lok Sabha Member in 2011, studying their links, dynastic roots, student activism, regional backgrounds and other factors.

Mr. French was born in London in 1966. He was sent to a strict Catholic school in remote Yorkshire, where he was close friends with William Dalrymple, British author and historian who moved to India. Mr. French then studied British and American literature at the University of Edinburgh and University College London.

Mr. Dalrymple said that Mr. 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. “He was always sceptical of the establishment,” said Mr. Dalrymple, explaining Mr. French’s decision to turn down the Order of the British Empire in 2003.

At the time, Mr. French had said that accepting an award from a “government or a monarch” would limit his independence. “The greatest thing about being a writer is that you have freedom to say what you think...Once you take a medal from a government or a monarch, it looks as if you have been brought into the fold,” he told the BBC.

First book

Over time, the subjects of Mr. French’s work drew him inexorably to India. In 1994, he published his first book, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, about the British soldier who led a military expedition to Tibet in 1904, on a journey through the Rohtang pass and Sikkim, which Mr. French travelled in part during the research for his book. While Colonel Younghusband, who led a brutal “invasion” of Tibet, was scathing about the people in the region, Mr. French was never so.

He kept up his travel-writing but also began to write more about politics, with frequent columns and television appearances that made him a recognised public intellectual in India. He wrote Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division in 1998, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land in 2003 which drew him further to the Dalai Lama in India, his much acclaimed official biography of V.S. Naipaul The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul in 2008, and India: A Portrait in 2011, each of which won him several international awards.

In his final years, Mr. French was working on The Golden Woman: The Authorized Biography of Doris Lessing, the activist and novelist. The book is understood to have been “substantially completed”. Mr. French’s writing style stood out for its empathy, possibly born of the many causes he identified with, from environmentalism, to Tibet and anti-colonialism.