28 September 2007
Temptations of the West:
How to be modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond
By Pankaj Mishra
Price: Rs 525
On the trail of Deobandi-bred jihadis in Pakistan, writer-critic Pankaj Mishra is asked by Rahamat, who turns out to be an innocuous handyman at a madrasa rather than an activist of the Sipah-e-Sahaba as Mishra’s fixer had promised, “if women in London went around with their legs exposed.”
Mishra writes: “This was a question that came from my own past: the kind of thing I would turn around in my mind when I was still a boy in isolated towns, with no TV or cinema around to inhibit my imagination. It was strange and unsettling to think how quickly that past... had vanished... how dramatically my circumstances had changed.”
This self-revelatory moment perfectly captures the spirit of Mishra’s ‘new’ book (not really new, since most of it has appeared in essay form in the New York Review of Books over the last five years), which explores the relationship between traditional societies and the West, the perceived fountainhead of that elusive modernity, and mulls over why they (unlike him) have been unable to benefit from the bounties of the West.
Mishra’s confessional style -- employed admirably in An End to Suffering to paint a piquant portrait of the Buddha as a real person and a radical thinker -- never tumbles into self-indulgence. Instead, by putting himself in the picture, Mishra precipitates the relevance of and provides human scale to the larger historical and political landscapes. His personal style infuses complex issues with the thoughtfulness and honesty of a writer ready to admit his own prejudices.
In ‘Prologue,’ Mishra engagingly narrates his own life-changing tryst with the West through his chance discovery of the works of the writer-critic Edmund Wilson, while he, an impecunious drifter, read obsessively “in a dusty old library in the ancient town of Benares.” A student-turned-contract-killer friend, Mishra realises, had better understood Wilson’s dictum of “the symbiotic relationship between life and literature” despite his own wider reading. But unlike his friend, Mishra went on to earn his living abroad, establishing the book’s theme that how one relates and benefits from the West and ‘modernity’ depends on the assumptions one brings to such concepts as modernity.
Mishra’s acerbic exposition of the harm the Nehru-Gandhi family did to India (thwarting the process of “the reclaiming of India by Indians”) is so waspish that at times it feels he holds them responsible for not just a whole generation’s but even his own “many stages of drift and futility.”
He is more surgeon-like dissecting the BJP and the RSS’ concept of Hindutva, with its “mishmash of anti-American rhetoric, paranoia, moral arrogance and ill-digested history”, explaining how, unlike fanatical Islam, the Hindu right, which “doesn’t reject so much as seek an alternative route to western modernization” would embrace globalisation to prove “the profound modernity of religious nationalism.”
Mishra unleashes delicious but predictable ironies exploring Bollywood’s take on modernity, via an awkward rendezvous with a flirty Mallika Sherawat plugging her ‘bold’ film Murder. Mishra seems equally unconvincing and impersonal in his despatches from Nepal, Afghanistan, Tibet, and to some extent even Pakistan -- the “late arrivals to the modern world,” which are consequently repetitive, slight and pessimistic.
If this intelligent and dark review of stasis and warped visions is a Bildungsroman, reflecting his personal journey from naivety to self-discovery, Mishra seems to be overextending himself the farther he is from Mashobra. Its time he find his bearings as a writer, again, its time to find the centre again.