Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 August, 2006, 12:00am

Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond

by Pankaj Mishra

Picador, HK$195

Indians grow up with the idea of leaving India. The sought-after destinations are the US, Canada and Britain. The temptations of the west are too many and Pankaj Mishra should know, having grown up in provincial India and being based in London, from where he writes for American and British publications.

Mishra has leveraged his intimacy and understanding of the hinterland well. His first book dealt with his travels in small-town India, his novel centred on a back-of-beyond region. Now, in his fourth book, Temptations of the West, he leads us on a journey into the Asian subcontinent, whose people are forever gravitating towards the west.

The book comprises nine essays (part memoir, part historical narrative, part travelogue), which deal with five countries - India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet - bound beyond geography by a shared, to varying degrees, colonial past. Mishra threads this past with recent history, resurgent religion and changing economy to develop insights into the baffling relationship each country has with the west.

India is his starting point, a sputtering democracy whose politicians have jettisoned secularism, enshrined in the constitution, for vote banks created from a complex linguistic-cultural-religious-caste identity matrix.

He follows Murli Manohar Joshi, a minister who tried to revise Indian history as a continuous battle against idol-breaking Muslims, on his election campaign. How many bombs should we build? Joshi quizzed the audience before revealing that he told Pakistan: 'If you provoke us one more time, we'll smash you to pieces.'

Mishra recounts a lab experiment - distillation of the holy liquid, cow urine, as a way to make dental powder. It's a quest by Hindu nationalist party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for a non-western route to modernity.

In Bollywood, Mishra meets a director who claims that 'Hindu fundamentalism will destroy the nation' and asserts his right to watch pornography. His protege is a young actress, Mallika, who has created history with her first film, Murder (2004), pushing the boundaries by kissing the male lead 17 times. What she really wanted was to work abroad, with auteurs such as Pedro Almodovar and Roberto Rodriguez who made 'real' films. But when Murder turned out to be the most successful film of the year, the west was forgotten: 'I have worked like a Viagra when the market was so down.'

Meanwhile, Pakistan, a nation created on the basis of a shared faith, failed early on in its attempt to reconfigure the diverse regional and linguistic communities into a new nation. Army officers wrecked Pakistan's nascent democratic structures and the US leveraged the Islamic zeal of its rulers to rouse the Muslims of the world against the godless communists. Afghanistan provided the pretext. 'Now, we can give the Soviet Union its Vietnam war,' said then US president Jimmy Carter's security adviser. Twenty-two years later, life came back full circle: the US was sponsoring Operation Enduring Freedom to flush out its nemesis, al-Qaeda.

With great acuity, Mishra recounts a world breached by western civilisation, devastated by globalised jihad, exposed daily to new kinds of terrifying pain. However, Nepal and Tibet have been given the footnote-treatment.

The complex dynamics of Nepal, the only Hindu monarchy, besieged by Maoist guerillas, warrant more study. Tibet, glamorised by Hollywood stars, reclaimed by China, surely has more to offer than platitudes such as 'Tibetans have survived ... social engineering better ... due to their Buddhistic belief in the primacy of empathy and compassion'.