Magazine article The Spectator

Beauty and Bigotry

Magazine article The Spectator

Beauty and Bigotry

Article excerpt

TEMPTATIONS OF THE WEST : HOW TO BE MODERN IN INDIA, PAKISTAN AND BEYOND by Pankaj Mishra Picador, £16.99, pp. 439, ISBN 0330434675 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

When I was a child in the 1950s, I had a delightful book called The Golden Geography which tried to encapsulate every aspect of the globe -- its landscape, its climate, its people and their occupations -- in a small sketch with a brief caption. From a section called 'This is Asia', I learned that Arabs drank water from goatskins, that Indians usually lived 'out-of-doors' (a nice way of putting it) and that the Japanese had weird houses with sliding paper doors.

Such apparently timeless images were imprinted on my mind and, without much scope for revising them, remained there a long time.

I was reminded of The Golden Geography while reading Pankaj Mishra's wonderful book, Temptations of the West, because it is a sort of 'This is Asia' (or rather South Asia) for grown-ups. A native of the north Indian plains, Mishra writes lyrically of landscapes he has only been able to discover as an adult, of the 'exhilarating revelation of beauty' when he first sees Kashmir, of the yaks and monks and hillside monasteries he encounters within 'the immense empty spaces' of Tibet. He wants to begin with the stereotype, the 'resonant cliché' of a place -- Tibet, for example, as 'the roof of the world' -- before introducing other dimensions and examining contemporary conflicts in the area. The central purpose of the book is to understand those conflicts through travels in their territories and interviews with selected participants.

Its title may seem a little misleading, however, because the struggles described are really contests between traditional societies and competing visions of modernity.

Mishra is a stylish writer, self-taught and well-read, a man whose education seems to owe little to his formal studies at the beautiful, chaotic and very violent university of Allahabad. He is also a good traveller, patient, inquisitive and only occasionally naive: it is not until he reaches Lhasa that he discovers -- in embarrassing circumstances -- that 'massage parlour' is a euphemism for 'brothel'. Like V. S. Naipaul, he goes to the most uninviting places to meet the most unattractive and unpromising people: gangster politicians in northern India with bodyguards and Dobermans and Japanese jeeps; Afghan warlords who swear they are eradicating poppy cultivation while storing large quantities of opium in anticipation of a price rise; a Taliban apologist ranting at the West for condemning the destruction of the great Buddha statues of Bamiyan. Yet he understands the complexities of conflicts and usually finds some sympathy for the people caught up in them, the deluded fanatics as well as the losers and the victims.

The author is naturally less charitable to the inciters and manipulators of the conflicts. He starts his journeys, which span several years, in northern India, where he is particularly scathing about the Hindu fundamentalist politicians who attract voters from the new, paunchy, vodafoned middle class by pandering to anti-Muslim prejudice, by attacking Nehru's vision of a secular state and by asserting that the success of the 'Hindu nation' requires putting Muslims and other minorities 'in their place'. …

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