The second part of Temptations of the West begins on a bleak note. The massacre of 35 Sikhs in 2000 at Chitsinghpura has never been convincingly explained. Mishra takes unsuspecting readers into the labyrinth of insurgency and counter-insurgency, in a region that continues to carry the brutal legacy of a leader without ideology (Sheikh Abdullah), a king without values (Maharaja Hari Singh), a statesman without convictions (Jawaharlal Nehru) and a “pork-eating barrister from Bombay” who does not need to be named. But even here, the author sometimes gets carried away by the prejudices of his target audience. A sentence such as, “The Pakistani army itself was infiltrated by Islamic fundamentalists; and the possibility of these fundamentalists seizing political power in a nuclear-armed Pakistan is ever present” may sound fine to a reader of The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement, but to a sceptical Southasian the London-based author needs to offer a little more by way of explanation for audacious observations such as this one. Collusion of conflicting emotions is the central theme of the chapter on Pakistan. This is a country that was once imagined as the secure homeland of all Indian Muslims. It has turned out to be one of the most unsafe places in the world, including for the Muslim citizenry. Iqbal dreamt of fraternity, but the country he inspired into being is known for extreme fractiousness. Jinnah hoped for a Muslim-majority state administered in a secular manner, but the society he left behind is notorious for flashes of fanaticism. It is difficult to say what really went wrong with one of the biggest experiments of political engineering in human history – tearing apart a common culture and shared civilisation to create two unequal countries – but it is definitely not what the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington calls the ‘clash of civilisations’. Mishra captures the bewilderment of common Pakistanis through characters he catches off-guard – the frustrations of a sub-editor in Peshawar, the rage of a retired army general in Rawalpindi, the disenchantment of a former serf in Karachi. Their stories reveal the fragility of a state caught on the anvil of obscurantism as the hammer of modernity pounds incessantly. Despite the risks taken in reporting from a conflict zone, stories from Afghanistan often lack the authenticity of firsthand accounts. Some of Mishra’s factoids are indeed interesting: “Afghanistan … supplied 87 percent of the world’s heroin,” “28 out of the country’s 32 provinces now grow poppy,” and “the CIA was complicit in the drug trade.” But so what? This chapter needs a premise to give meaning to diligently compiled details. The chapter on Nepal is quintessential parachutism – reporting done on the run so as not to miss the fleeting interest of a Western audience in a country before it falls off the map. It has all the works: conversations with a businessman in touristy Thamel, an encounter with the father of the progenitor of armed insurrection in idyllic Chitwan, and the roar of former US ambassador Michael Malinowski: “These terrorists, under the guise of Maoism or the so-called ‘people’s war’, are fundamentally the same as terrorists elsewhere – be they members of Shining Path, Abu Sayaf, the Khmer Rouge or al-Qaeda.” What redeems the Nepal section, however, is even weaker account of Tibet in the last chapter of the book, dismissed simply as ‘A Backward Country’. Temptations of the West appears to be a collection of rehashed articles previously published elsewhere. The connecting theme of modernity appears to have been superimposed as an afterthought. Fred W Riggs, the International Relations professor who coined the concept of a ‘prismatic society’ evolving on the threshold of tradition and modernity, uses the terms ‘ortho-modern’ and ‘para-modern’ to refer to the aspects or repercussions of modernisation considered to be positive and negative respectively. He says: We have yet to see, I think, that the negative consequences of modernity, its para-modern aspects, are as much a product of modernisation as the ortho-modern achievements which we justifiably celebrate. In popular usage, ‘modernity’ refers only to ‘ortho-modernity,’ and the ‘para-modern’ consequences of modernisation are viewed as residues of traditionalism. We still need to learn that the para-modern is truly modern – the dark side of the moon is as lunar as the bright side. From its early beginnings, the para-modern and the ortho-modern have been linked and both are equally ‘modern’. This point is so important that it bears frequent repetition. In Temptations of the West, Mishra shows the ‘para-modern’ part of modernity without understanding the processes at work in Southasian societies. That is just as well, because when the author is brilliant when he shows rather than tells, but his tales turn out to be tiresome. The pathos of the seemingly distracting description of the jade-green shawl of a grieving mother in Chitsinghpura leaves the reader shaken. In comparison, Mishra can also repeat clichés, such as: “Tibetans now confront a dissolute capitalism: one that seeks arrogantly, and often violently, to turn all of the world’s diverse humanity into middle-class consumers.” Naipaulian parallels with the plot notwithstanding, much of Mishra’s prose is laboured, a distinctive mark of writers who have learned English as a second language and are overeager to display their mastery over the masters’ phraseology. Mishra’s Southasian cows are emaciated, dogs mangy and every human character best exemplified by his flaws. Had these stories been woven into a novel, it would have been a riveting book. But in the form of non-fiction, the book has too much detail and too little insight to make it an interesting read. But the curry-kebab crowd in the West will undoubtedly love Temptations: it is conveniently middle-brow, affirms prejudices and leaves the status quo unquestioned. It has already been declared “a very good and original book” by a haughty Economist reviewer. A more critical reader is left to wonder, however, what is so original about blaming the victim for the pathologies of colonialism; Orientalists have been doing it for centuries.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Flickr / girl.from.melbourne
An early monsoon
On June 16 2013, the India Meteorological Department confirmed the early arrival of monsoon rains across the whole of India. Full coverage was not expected until the middle of July, making farmers hopeful for a bumper crop.
From our archive:
C K Lal discusses the fixation of Southasia's political leaders with 'monumental waterworks.' (September 2007)
Somnath Mukherji explores the sights, sounds, smells and feelings that monsoon evokes. (June 2007)
Venu Madhav Govindu notes the 'fundamental importance' of a good monsoon for both city and rural dwellers. (August 2003)