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Friday , April 4 , 2014
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- Dispatches from home

A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through foreign eyes By Sam Miller, Penguin, Rs 599

Sam Miller isn’t your average Indophile. For starters, not many members of this burgeoning tribe can claim to possess Miller’s delightful irreverence towards venerated figures from his adopted homeland. The extensive footnotes — they make for an engaging parallel narrative, but, occasionally, intrude upon the primary text — mention an incident in which Miller, while on an assignment, accidentally knocks Mother Teresa down at the Chittagong airport. Teresa, given her saintly disposition, grants Miller an audience but chooses to answer every single question with the words, “God Bless You”. Miller attributes Teresa’s bizarre utterance to mild concussion.

Like many other visitors to India, Miller has not managed to leave the country behind. But unlike them, he seems to have made his peace with the anxiety of remaining, perpetually, the outsider within. He surprises his readers, and perhaps himself, when he confides that he experienced a surge of unmitigated hatred towards a pretty east Asian woman, who had complained about India’s squalor amidst the ruins of Nalanda. “I searched for a brilliant reply,” writes Miller, “to crush her insolence. But nothing came.” Miller should be thankful for his silence. Because this cool distance that separates Miller from India gives him a rare, though often privileged, insight into the workings of this beguiling and complicated civilization.

Towards the end of the book, we come to know what makes Miller love, loathe but never part with India: “The enormous scale of India is important... And this notion of scale and variety, turned about, helps me to understand why I love living here so much… India has everything that is old, and everything that is modern, and everything in between.” Precision and candour — instead of hackneyed romanticism— inform Miller’s analysis of his relationship with India.

The scale of Miller’s present work is almost as impressive as the scale of his subject. He chronicles the visits to India by foreigners — Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Arabs, Africans, Portuguese, French, Dutch and, of course, the English — over a span of 2,500 years. And not every visitor would ring a bell in the minds of historians and laymen. Jostling among Saint Thomas, Xuanzang, Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta, Vasco da Gama, Babur, Clive and, later, E.M. Forster, Allen Ginsberg and Steve Jobs are others who have slipped through the cracks in history. They include, among many others, the Greek sailor Scylax (he, apparently, met the Enotikoitoi, who could curl up their monstrous ears and use them like sleeping bags); the eccentric Thomas Coryate (who, having decided to walk to India, delivered an oration to the Mughal emperor and perished of dysentery soon after); Zeigenbalg (a German preacher with a deep interest in Tamil); Rose Aylmer (a teenaged beauty who died of “a surfeit of pineapples”); and the imperial pornographer, Captain Edward Sellon (“There is much... thrusting and licking as he [Sellon] makes his way around Southern India”). Also resurrected are such canonical, but now forgotten, texts as Camoes’s The Lusiads (the first notable textual account of European imperialism), Thomas Williamson’s East India Vade-Mecum (a rich ethnographic account of colonial India in the guise of a traveller’s guidebook) and the hilarious and bawdy Venus in India.

That India left variable impressions on its visitors is aptly demonstrated by contemporaneous literary sources that differ in their tone. Thus, Edward Terry’s Voyage to East India remains an objective account of the country’s diversity, but the memoirs of the pompous Thomas Roe are blatantly prejudiced. Miller remains free of both bigotry and bias, a rare gift that lets him re-examine hallowed legacies. William Jones, Miller reminds us, has been accused by modern historians to have been complicit in the imperial agenda.

The pleasure of a work like Miller’s lies in the surfeit of choices it offers to readers. One can treat it like a voluble source of real or imagined anecdotes. There is also the option of looking at it as an informed account of a nation that remains indifferent to its own past. (Miller “foot-gropes” derelict Mauryan column-stumps in a marsh in Pataliputra.) The book also holds up a mirror to the tangible threat to the idea of India itself. The soft-spoken Islamophobe, who lectures Miller on the Hindu holocaust in Gujarat’s Somnath temple, is a chilling reminder of an India that is both menacing and vulnerable. Those with a more cheerful disposition would adore Miller for his seemingly inexhaustible and revealing witticisms. Here is one sample in honour of an early visitor to India, a proselytizing apostle: “He advises everyone to forswear fornication and continues on his Indian travels — until he convinces one queen too many that she should give up sex.” Unsurprisingly, the coitophobe is lanced to death on the king’s orders. Miller notes a signboard in English that prohibits petting or other intimate acts in St Thomas Mount near Chennai.

Miller sleuths not just through the history of a nation but also of words with Indian roots and resonance. Enlightened readers know that Juggernaut, a term that Charlotte Brontë uses in a passage in Jane Eyre, originally referred to Jagannath.

Structurally, Miller’s narrative, interspersed with several “intermissions” that recount episodes from his life and travels in India, retains a charming degree of fluidity. This is only to be expected, given the fact that Miller had led a peripatetic existence. Till he found another home on these shores.