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  • Published 15.09.06

Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond
By Pankaj Mishra,
Picador, Rs 595

Pankaj Mishra is now well settled in the genre that merges the personal and the political. And there is no doubt that he is on a most noble mission of explaining the workings of the subcontinent to the West. There is very little in Temptations of the West that readers in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Tibet too (although one suspects that the chapter on Tibet was added purely to use up the residue of his last work) do not already know about their own political history. There is no reason why they must know what Mishra feels about the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, of jihadi fervour in Pakistan, of Maoism in Nepal, or of regressive conservatism in Afghanistan.

There could have been plenty of reasons for Indians, Pakistanis, or Nepalis to pick up the book had Mishra offered an interesting and fresh take on the geopolitics of south Asia. It is not only that the author fails to grasp the socio-political complexities of India’s neighbours. He seems thoroughly out of sync with the Indian scene as well, relying heavily on his accompanying journalist or on the ‘contacts’ given to him by friends, most of them away from the subcontinent themselves. This parading of one’s expatriateness might fetch great reader-response abroad, but could have quite the opposite effect on readers in this part of the world.

That would be unfortunate, since Mishra does have certain gifts, among them the eye for noticing significance in small things and conveying a sense of that significance in his prose. The description of Sanjay Gandhi as “an admirer of Ferdinand Marcos and a devoted reader of Archie Comics” provides deeper insights into his character than do long passages on his activities during the Emergency. The fear that crossed the face of Rasheed, a Kashmiri pro-India renegade when a cricket ball lands on his corrugated-iron roof is more telling than video footages of militants inside their hidden camps. The lost authority in Hamid Gul’s voice when he threatens to put in place anyone “who dares stop you from visiting my home” points at what has gone wrong in the power equations between the army and political leadership in Pakistan.

Mishra falters where he had generated the maximum expectation — when he writes on India. All the unmentioned distances come up to the surface here, turning Mishra into an alien even in the milieu where he spent his student days. It is possible that the sheer volume of material, including both first-hand and received accounts, made his job difficult. But jumping from Wajed Ali Shah to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to election campaigns is to present a random sort of history, which may be lapped up by a Western audience, but would be largely unacceptable in India.

Mishra is right about politicians who, “despite the difference in rhetoric, spoke for themselves alone and in the end, were fighting for the same things”. It is a truth well put, unlike most others in the book, which come out too pat, such as “the great disaster of Partition...locked the new nation-states of India and Pakistan into stances of mutual hostility”.

One final point. The West is as distant from the world of the book as the small railway-town quarters of his childhood must be from Mishra’s current London flat. Which brings us to the conclusion that if anyone has succumbed to the temptation of the West, it is Mishra himself.