Book Review ( Rating-5/5 )
Pankaj Mishra is one of the finest essayists of contemporary literary sphere. He is a native of Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Allahabad University, he earned his M.A. in English Literature from JNU ( Jawaharlal Nehru University ), New Delhi. He started his writing-career by contributing literary essays and reviews in various literary journals and newspapers, especially in The Pioneer, in early 1990s.
I must say that I was ignorant about this man of letters until an online friend from Assam who provided me a lost story that I was looking for, told me recently, and suggested to read his first book, ‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiyana.’ Well, I couldn’t get that one, but I got his other book, ‘Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond.’
Apparently, this is a non-fiction, but it was hard for me to categorize it in any certain sub-genre. It’s a mix of autobiography, history, contemporary politics and travelogue.
The book is divided in three parts and it has a Prologue also. In the Prologue, the author talks about his Benaras days where he spent four months in late 1980s and how he came across reading Edmund Wilson in BHU (Benaras Hindu University )’s library, and how his writings affected Mishra’s thought process. A great many other writers are also fleetingly mentioned whose works Mishra read and how they helped him to analyze the cause and consequences of the present days and History, is also described. Rajesh, a frustrated graduate from BHU, author’s friend in Benaras, has got the special mention and how he becomes a contract-killer under small leaders of eastern UP (Uttar Pradesh ), and also, how young men like him get entangled in crime going through an identity crisis and end up in jail. Later, the author tries to formulate an equation between Rajesh and Fredrich Moreau, the protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. Mishra asserts that both, Rajesh and Fredrich, were in the search of identity, survival and happiness, and thus, their actions were motivated by that.
Part-1 has three essays based on Allahabad, Ayodhya and Bollywood (Mumbai) respectively. Mishra had lived in Allahabad as a university student during 1985-1988, and in September 2000, he visits Allahabad again as a journalist. His narrative about Allahabad is not specific about any certain topic. He starts with the rise of Hindu nationalism, then describes city’s culture and festivals, then how the city was developed, its markets, civil line, Anand Bhavan and some memories related to it; and he visits some villages on the outskirts of the city with a Samajwadi (Socialist) Party leader who was contesting in the upcoming elections. Mishra meets and talks people from all walks of life – merchants, bureaucrats, auto-drivers, jhuggi-dwellers, mafia-cum-politicians and hatemonger-cum-nationalists also.
He visited Ayodhya, the city of Rama, in January 2002, a month before the Gujrat Pogrom followed by the Godhra Burning, killing 2000 Muslims and displacing almost 100,000 in relief camps. The essay about Ayodhya deals with historical details about the ‘Ramjanbhoomi discord’, the demolition of Babri Mosque, and the rise of Hindu Jingoism supported by the so called Nationalist Party. And after that, he proceeds with many historical and personal details as how Hindu-Muslim lived together in those times and how much the scenario has been changed since then; how secularism and majoritarianism and the propaganda related to them have shaped Indian middle-class conscience, all these have been described in detail. RSS has been given a lot of space in the essay.
The author visited Bombay in December 2003. He meets Mahesh Bhatt, Mallika Sherawat, J. P. Dutta and a few other personalities of Bollywood. The whole essay is about the politics in Bollywood, and of course, Mahesh Bhatt’s open remarks on the present state of Indian politics can be heard aloud. Besides, Bombay-blasts and its causes and consequences are also mentioned.
Part-2 consists of essays about Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Kashmir section opens with the killings in Chitisinghpura. The massacre and its aftermaths are described in horrific details. It sent a chill down my spine; if you aren’t aware of this massacre of March 20, 2000 in which 35 Sikhs were murdered in cold blood on the eve of Bill Clinton’s state visit to India, you need to read about this; just search it on Google, read it on Wikipedia and other sites, and get the essence of security agencies’ working style. Not only this, the essay deals with Kashmir’s political and cultural history, its people and fine places and also with Kashmiri Pundits and Kashmiri Muslims. I found this as the most important piece in the book. Everyone in this country should read about Kashmir and should ask himself – who has paid the cost of Nationalism?
Essay on Pakistan starts from Peshawar, Mishra was there in January 2001. In this essay, he has covered a great many topics, like Islamization of Pakistan, its history with Bangladesh, US backed-up Jihad in 1980s against the communists of USSR in Afghanistan, the proliferation of Jihad in the region as a political tactic, rivalry with India, Kashmir discord and its left-liberal English-language press that has been more adventurous and engaging than its Indian counterpart.
Essay on Afghanistan is more informative, traces the last 100 years history of Afghanistan and with how many ups and downs it has gone through communists, mullahs and warlords. The essay talks about the rise of Taliban, ruining of its cities and villages by bombings, invasion of US, role of NATO and USSR, and the establishment of Karzai government, US’s stalking horse. Part-2 is important to understand the rise of Islamic terrorism in the hilly and snowy region of Indian Subcontinent.
Part-3 has two essays, one on Nepal and the other on Tibet. The author landed in Kathmandu in March 2005. He was to meet a businessman there who knew why exactly Prince Dependra committed parricide, killing his own parents and relatives of the Nepalese Royal Family. As the essay progresses, many aspects of Nepalese culture, society, politics, maoist insurgency in rural and hilly areas, unlawful activities, tourism and Buddhism etc are described in a mix of retrospection and speculation. Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ the chairman of Nepali Communist Party and Ex-Prime Minister of Nepal, has given much space in the essay.
The essay on Tibet is smaller in comparison but deeply emotional. Though I was aware of Tibetan case beforehand, but it really affected me. Mishra has tried to cover almost its whole history, way too before the Chinese military invasion, and also the times of occupation and killing of Lamas and Tibetan people, and how the Chinese converted Lhasa in a westernized tourist hubbub full of Chinese filths like the streets of Thamel in Kathmandu. Mishra was there in 2004 and he visited all tourist spots and some poverty-stricken villages also, beyond the capital. Mishra has concluded that Tibetans are the people who truly love their religion. This essay is really readworthy.
Almost all these essays had already been published in prestigious international magazines and Mishra just compiled them by putting a Prologue and gave the shape of a book; some of them (the essays) are a bit edited and different from the previously published content, as mentioned on the last page. All essays are considerably long, but the flawless writing kept me engaged. Pankaj Mishra is well-read person and it appears in his writing; reading him was like reading Nirad C. Chaudhary – the great memoirist. And yes, whatever I have tried to tell above about the essays is just a glimpse, not the gist; in fact, the essays are more varied and complex.
If you’re really interested in some serious reading to know how the present chaos emerged in the above mentioned South Asian regions; how an imposed and corporatized modernity of the West transformed their cultures; how communism and nationalism killed millions of innocent people, you should read this book.
I am waiting for another book by Mishra that’s on Buddhism, and will receive soon.