'A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes', by Sam Miller - Review

By Parker, Peter | The Spectator, June 7, 2014 | Go to article overview

'A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes', by Sam Miller - Review


Parker, Peter, The Spectator


Credit: Peter Parker

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

Cape, pp.422, £18.99, ISBN: 9780224093415

From the Greek seafarer Scylax in 500 BC to the Beatles in 1968, there is a long history of foreign visitors being drawn to India. Many have come in search of the 'exotic' or the 'other', an idea of India that persists despite the best efforts of Edward Said's post-colonial disciples. Not unnaturally, the Indian ministry of tourism colludes in this, their website displaying photographs of flower-bedecked idols, brightly painted elephants and smiling dancing girls, and encouraging the browser to 'Match India's rhythms to your heart, its colours to your mind, and find a travel experience that is yours alone...'

Down the centuries foreigners have also come to India for rather more concrete reasons: the promise of trading opportunities and great wealth; invasion, conquest and the creation of empires; imperial service and missionary work; spiritual enlightenment. In his wide-ranging and hugely entertaining new book, Sam Miller explores the varied motives that brought people to India, their experiences when they got there, and the portraits they provided of the country and its people in the form of letters, diaries, memoirs, travel books, novels, poems and would-be anthropological, archaeological, cultural and other studies.

As in Miller's earlier book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2009), A Strange Kind of Paradise consists of main chapters with brief 'intermissions'. The chapters follow a broadly chronological path and bear titles parodying those of a 19th-century adventurer ('Chapter Eight: In which the Author is slightly rude about the Taj Mahal, considers the curative powers of cows' urine, and fails to take a nuanced view of sati'), while the intermissions tend to be autobiographical. Miller married into a Bombay Parsi family, travelled widely in India as a correspondent for the World Service during the early 1990s, and has lived in Delhi since 2002; and while he insists that it is impossible to 'know' any country, let alone one as populous and diverse as India, he writes from a wealth of personal subcontinental experience.

The first reliably detailed account of India was provided by an ambassador called Megasthenes, sent in the early years of the third century BC from the eastern empire of Alexander the Great to the court of King Chandragupta at Pataliputra, a vast and sophisticated city which stood on the site of modern Patna. Like Scylax before him, and many of those who came after (including Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville), Megasthenes told unlikely tales of the fabulous monsters to be found in India, but elsewhere and more plausibly he described culture, architecture, engineering, army formations and government administration, as well as the inevitable tigers and elephants, and his Indika 'cuts a small window through the opaque haze of ancient history'.

Other visitors were less favourably impressed, even or perhaps especially when they arrived with various forms of conquest in mind. Miller describes St Thomas, on a mission to spread Christianity and sexual continence through the subcontinent, as 'a pretty strong candidate for the most reluctant visitor to India of all time', though similar claims could be made for Vasco da Gama, the emperor Barbur or Sir Thomas Roe.

Da Gama, 'like a significant percentage of visitors to India ever since, became angry when things went wrong', his bad temper resulting in the slaughter or forcible conversion to Christianity of a shipload of Muslim pilgrims. The memoirs of Barbur, the first Mughal emperor, though lively, were filled with complaints about the land he had invaded and subjugated:

There is no beauty in its people, no graceful social intercourse, no poetic talent or understanding, no etiquette, nobility or manliness. …

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