Book review: A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes, by Sam Miller

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 April, 2014, 12:40pm

A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes
by Sam Miller
4 stars

Victoria Burrows

The third book by journalist and writer Sam Miller is an impressively researched and thoroughly entertaining exploration of how India has been portrayed by foreigners through the millennia.

Accounts stretch back to 500BC when Scylax, a Greek seafarer, returned from a scouting trip down the Indus River with tales of the Enotikoitoi, or ear sleepers, whose ears were so big and pendulous they could curl them around their bodies as sleeping bags.

Some of today's depictions, while less fanciful, are equally questionable: Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who said the seven months he spent in India in the 1970s had a big impact on his work, provided his biographer with the sweeping generalisation that Indian villagers had never learned to think rationally and that they "don't use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead".

Miller has a formidable knowledge of Indian history. In A Strange Kind of Paradise, he combines wide-ranging historical research with amusing personal anecdotes in 15 whimsically titled chapters, such as, "In which the Author hears of tales of 'Muslim devils', learns the Latin for 'sperm-swallowing eunuch', and reveals the sexual secrets of the good ladies of Kannauj".

Between chapters are "Intermissions" in which Miller reflects on his own relationship with India - married to a Parsi, he has lived in India for 20 years.

The book begins in modern Patna, the capital of Bihar state, where he performs "archaeological toe-Braille" in what he calls "arguably the country's least impressive archaeological site". A mosquito-ridden tract of swampland as big as four tennis courts is all that is still visible of Pataliputra, the first great Indian city and capital of the Mauryan empire of Ashoka the Great. The empire, in power from 322 to 185BCE, at its peak covered the entire sub-continent. Now, only one column has been dug up and is on display.

"It is, however, possible to feel some of the stumps … by removing one's footwear and paddling through the marshland - and I was able to foot-grope a couple of Mauryan column-stumps with my toes." A loitering gardener - "whose breath and clothes were sour with alcohol, and who had great tufts of hair growing horizontally out of his ears, which appeared to have been combed and gelled into unnatural straightness" - approaches Miller and apologises for Bihar's thieving politicians, explaining that corruption is why no one has drained the site of Ashoka's palace. Then, almost regretfully, he tries to sell Miller an obviously fake Mauryan terracotta head.

From this rather unglamorous start, the book weaves through historical sources over the millennia, including the Buddhist monk, Tripitaka, who travels to India from China in the 7th century, and later appears in the 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Ch'eng En, one of the "Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature". English readers will be familiar with the 1942 abridged translation by Arthur Waley, titled Monkey.

Miller investigates claims that Jesus is buried in India, follows in the footsteps of the famous 14th-century explorer Ibn Battuta from Morocco, and traces the depiction of India through the Mughal and European colonial times. He also looks at how India has been portrayed in the literature of Rudyard Kipling, Allen Ginsberg and Mark Twain, by the music of the Beatles, the cinematic performances of actors such as Rowan Atkinson, and the news broadcasts of the BBC.

The book leaves the reader with the understanding that while peculiar things have been written over the millennia, the most mystifying are those that seek to encapsulate India in sweeping statements. What makes the country indeed a strange (in the sense of unknowable) paradise is its enormous scale and its confusing, confounding variations.