Monday, July 03, 2006

Pankaj Mishra and the West

I hadn't realized that Pankaj Mishra is becoming one of the rising stars of India's literary world. His debut Butter Chicken in Ludhiana I read with the zeal and fascination that I bring to travelogues. It was great (and hilarious, though his portrayal of real people was, in the words of my sister-in-law, "relentlessly cruel."), and brought back all kinds of memories of the little bits of rural India (that vast other country so different from my big city upbringing) that I had glimpsed. He's written for Granta and the NYRB [nope, neither available online.] Now the Guardian is reviewing his latest offering, The Temptations of the West, a fascinating account of the intersection of modernity with non-Western cultures such as India and China.
Stalinism and Maoism were not versions of oriental despotism - as generations of western scholars have maintained. They were the result of a utopian experiment that aimed to realise the most radical ideals of the European enlightenment. The current view of Islam as being somehow anti-western is just as unreal. In terms of its basic picture of the world Islam belongs in the western tradition of monotheism, and radical Islam is in many ways a hybrid offshoot of Leninism and anarchism - also western ideologies. Like Soviet Russia and Maoist China, Islamist movements owe more to the modern west than we - or they - care to admit.
Writing of Benares as he knew it when he lived there in the 1980s, Mishra tells us that he did not know that the ancient Hindu city was also holy for Muslims as well and was unaware of the 17th-century Sufi shrine to be found behind the tea-shack where he spent his mornings reading. In late Mogul times a tolerant Indo-Persian culture flourished in which Islamic and Hindu traditions could coexist and develop without needing clear boundaries between them, but as India has become more like a western state this easy-going hybridity has been compromised. Religion has come to be a tool of the state which is used to homogenise society - just as it was in early modern Europe, and remains in parts of Europe today.
What I find most interesting is his take on Hindutva and Hindu nationalism. Of course, like so many other Indian authors (and the intelligentsia in general), he seems to be unrelentingly anti-American (no wonder the Guardian likes him!). In their (positive) review of his book, the Economist (link works only for subscribers)finds "his eagerness to blame America for all manner of ills is surprising, given his disdain for puerile analysis elsewhere." And this blog (found via the wonderful folks at Desipundit) fisks some of his (clealry Leftish) claims about the economic development of India.

Finally, William Dalrymple has a great review of Mishra's earlier book, on the Buddha.
He was born in Jhansi and grew up in dusty railway colonies around Uttar Pradesh, before taking a degree in the decaying anarchy of Allahabad University. In contrast to the optimistic platitudes of a diaspora writer like, say, Sunil Khilnani—educated abroad and clearly knowing nothing of the grim reality of the boondocks of Bihar—Mishra does not lecture the world about South Asia from the sanitised safety of an East Coast campus. Instead, he writes as a man who really knows, from hard experience, the provincial India he writes about and in which he still lives for most of the year.
[Now I'm depressed. I've just blogged about three books that I want to read. Maybe more reading and less blogging? Hmm. Yeah right! :)]

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