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Subcontinental Drift
New York Times[Wednesday, July 26, 2006 18:58]
Book Title: Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond (Hardcover)
Author: Pankaj Mishra

Reviewed by Ben Macintyre

During the Soviet Union’s long, doomed attempt to subdue Afghanistan, Soviet helicopters dropped countless butterfly bombs, brightly colored devices looking much like toys that Afghan children picked up when they fluttered to earth. Then they exploded. That grim image might be a leitmotif for Pankaj Mishra’s fascinating, angry book about the impact of modernity on India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Tibet. “Temptations of the West” tells of the complex, often violent struggle of ancient societies to define themselves in the face of cultural, political and religious intrusions from outside — the gaudy butterflies that seem so pretty and then blow up.

The book’s title is somewhat misleading, and its subtitle even more so. This is no mere attack on the vacuities of Western pop culture transplanted to the East, nor yet another condemnation of the legacy of colonialism. Instead, Mishra painstakingly picks apart the complex, contradictory relationship between South Asia and the West. He lives in both India and England, so cannot claim to be personally immune to the temptations of Western life. Certainly his book offers none of the prescriptions and bromides of a “how to” manual. Part autobiography, part travelogue, part journalism, it is written not from a political or polemical position but from that of a small-town, upper-caste, lower-middle-class Indian with a taste for Western literature.

Mishra’s journey begins in the dusty reading room of a university in Benares, the ancient city on the Ganges, holy to both Hindu and Muslim. There he finds the works of Edmund Wilson and Gustave Flaubert, and briefly befriends an intelligent, frustrated young man named Rajesh, trying to make his way in a society riddled by bribery and nepotism. One day, Mishra gives Rajesh a copy of Wilson’s essay on Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education.” Later, Rajesh reveals that he has read the novel. “It is the story of my world,” he remarks. Mishra makes Flaubert’s tale of “the small, unnoticed tragedies of thwarted hopes and ideals” the subtext of an India that promises so much to so many but delivers on those promises to so few. (Much later, the author discovers that Rajesh has become a contract killer.)

Mishra has a talent for discovering such extraordinary, even lurid characters to illuminate his account of dashed dreams, clashing religions, huge wealth, crushing poverty, corruption, oppression and, almost unbelievably, hope. He wields a poignant vignette: the Bollywood starlet, stripping off her clothes in search of fame over the objections of her horrified father, while outside the studios of the film moguls, as powerful in their way as the Moguls of history, would-be actors wait like supplicants at the gates; the politician with the pencil-thin mustache, claiming to represent lower-caste Dalits against the “Brahmanical forces,” who turns out not be a Dalit at all, and is the owner of a large agricultural estate; the Afghan writer who composed her verses in longhand while living under the stringent rules enforced by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, a body at once Orwellian and medieval. In the fly-blown town of Peshawar, near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, Mishra comes across a former soldier from Bangladesh, on the run for his part in the 1975 assassination of that country’s president. The refugee spends his days as a heroin-addled copy editor on a doomed newspaper, claiming the killing was “an accident” and insisting he has a great book in him.

Mishra reports on a world in which the cultural definitions are constantly evolving, eliding and colliding. His travels are also interwoven with pungent commentary on modern politics in South Asia. Few politicians escape unburned; some are roasted. Indira Gandhi is held up as a triumph of mediocrity: “a not particularly sensitive or intelligent woman . . . exalted by accident of birth and a callow political culture into the chieftancy of a continent-size nation.”

While there is fury in Mishra’s account of his homeland and its neighbors, there is also a fierce love. He is particularly moved by the sight of ordinary Indians trudging off to vote for politicians who often do not deserve it. The political culture of India may be callow at the top, but at the roots it is a remarkable tribute to the resilience of democracy.

Mishra watches a Kashmiri mother mourning her son, the victim of yet another sectarian killing that will never be solved, and finds it “hard not to be moved by her grief and the pain, amid the great human waste of Kashmir, of her helplessness.” Yet a vein of optimism runs alongside his rage. There is growth and opportunity in Kashmir after more than a decade of devastation, and even in Tibet, where more than a million people have died through execution, torture and starvation since 1950, he finds small glimmers of hope. The Tibetan high plains and mountains move Mishra to lyricism, but his prose is untainted by the romantic Orientalism that skews so much writing about the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, he has nothing but righteous scorn for visitors prepared to see and accept suffering and cruelty as part of the general quaintness of the East.

Mishra’s book will enrage many Indian readers. Indeed, he has already come under attack in Indian newspapers for suggesting that the Muslim insurgency in Kashmir has been fueled by the brutality of the Indian military. He will win even fewer friends at home for his contempt toward India’s middle class, perhaps 200 million strong and growing, at once nationalistic and craving Western approval. As for the more strident Hindu nationalists, he declares that “Hinduism in the hands of these Indians has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of popes and mullahs and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians.”

This is not a gentle book, but it is a brave one — and, for anyone in the West able to look beyond clichés and rhetoric, an essential one.

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