By Craig Seligman
Aug. 7 (Bloomberg) — Pankaj Mishra calls his book “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond.'' His subject, though, isn't modernity but its opposite: This very fine, very disturbing collection of essays is about the hopeless medievalism of South Asia, the ineradicable poverty and the ethnic hatreds that have made life hell for millions and have beaten back modernity as though it were a plague. (For many religious fanatics, of course, it is.)
The notable exception — the rapid globalization of the Indian economy over the past decade, with the concomitant rise of an Indian middle class — Mishra views warily, since wealth isn't trickling down to the hordes still trapped in what he calls, in another context, “the dwindling of human possibilities and the steady grinding down of individual lives.''
Mishra is a novelist who grew up in north India and whose essays often appear in the New York Review of Books; his tone is rational, angry, calm and above despair, an emotion he would consider luxurious and, probably, histrionic.
The centerpiece of the book is his long essay on Kashmir, the breathtaking mountainous region to the north that the Indian and Pakistani governments are both eager to claim, with little regard on either side for the region's tormented populace.
According to Mishra, jihadist guerrillas steal across the Pakistani border to plant land mines and lob grenades at the Indian forces; the soldiers, enraged, retaliate against the mostly Muslim inhabitants.
“Whole towns and villages had been laid waste in this way: shops and bazaars burned, houses razed, people shot at random.'' A sentence from this essay could stand as a motto for the whole vast region Mishra covers: “For those who live in Kashmir, the expectations of justice, rarely fulfilled in the Indian subcontinent, are more than optimistic; they belong to fantasy.''
A reference in the same essay to some erstwhile Kashmiri politicians as “small men with small aims of personal empowerment and enrichment'' crystallizes a recurring theme. Mishra chronicles with quiet rage the historical irresponsibility and endemic corruption of the Indian government, offering poisoned sketches of Indira Gandhi (whose “drab inner life came to be filled with an exaggerated sense of self and mission and an all-consuming quest for personal power'') and her venal younger son, Sanjay (“an admirer of Ferdinand Marcos and a devoted reader of Archie comics'').
He is appalled at the gleeful bigotry of the Hindu nationalists who have acquired power in recent years. (There are still 130 million unlucky Muslims in India.) His portrait of India, which takes up two-thirds of the book, is layered, nostalgic, disgusted, sorrowful, riveting.
The final four essays, on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet, are equally probing, but as a journalist-tourist Mishra doesn't bring the same nervous ambivalence to these discussions. He is superb, however, on history and context, especially if most of what you know about these places comes from news reports. He's done grade-A homework, and because he writes well and synthesizes shrewdly, he has produced a dense, substantial, highly recommendable book.
But not a great one. That's a scruple it would hardly occur to me to raise if the book didn't glimmer so often with the possibility of greatness. Mishra brings a novelist's eye to people and places and a novelist's grasp of character to his political analysis:
“Behind all the endless drama of politics in India, there lies the fear these men exalted above their station feel: that at any moment the richness of the world might be withdrawn and they might be returned to the small house in the dingy lane, the meanness and insignificance from which the profession of politics has rescued them.''
Sporadic illuminations like this light up the even plains of Mishra's thoughtful prose. The author (who makes it clear that he, too, came from a small house in a dingy lane) is, unlike the politicians, admirably responsible to the suffering masses he represents.
Too responsible, maybe. He has put his writer's extravagance aside; he's egoless to a fault. As much as I admired this book, it took some diligence to make my way through it. Mishra's voice isn't beguiling. In fact, it's rather neutral. Such an objection may seem like carping, given an achievement on this level, but art isn't fair, and “Temptations of the West'' is so clear-eyed and humane that I wanted it to be more. I wanted it to be art.
“Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond'' is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (323 pages, $25).
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this story: Craig Seligman at [email protected] .