Book Review of Pankaj Mishra’s “Temptations of the West- How to be modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond. Published by Picador 2006.
When a reader starts quoting from portions of a book instead of remembered bits of movie dialogue, you can be sure that this reader loves this book. The reader is me, the book in question Pankaj Mishra’s latest travelogue cum memoir cum history cum philosophical tract cum political analysis.
This is not my first experience of a Pankaj Mishra book. A couple of years back I read his very first book, a hilarious account of his travels through small town India. The wryly titled “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana” brought back memories of my own small town (Jamshedpur, then Bihar) upbringing.
Uncannily enough this new book, his fourth, had the same effect right from the first paragraph. Read this: “I spent four months in Benares in the winter of 1988. I was twenty years old, with no clear idea of my future, or indeed much of anything else. After three idle, bookish years at a provincial university town, I had developed an aversion to the world of careers and jobs which, having no money, I was destined to join”
Lyrical writing, economy of language, evocative turn of phrase: “I read randomly, whatever I could find, and with the furious intensity of a small town boy to whom books are the sole means of communicating with, and understanding the larger world”. What more do you need?
How about dogged pursuit of subject, adequate research? Sample this: “The oldest among Kashmiris often claim that there is nothing new about their condition; that they have been slaves of foreign rulers since the sixteenth century when the Mughal emperor, Akbar, annexed Kashmir and appointed a local governor to rule the state”.
Then there is introspection, an attempt by the author to look at himself, a successful Indian writer and his place in the western world of books and reading: “I still felt myself on the margins writing about subjects that appeared remote from the preoccupations around me, the obsessions with food, sex, money, movies, celebrities that I saw reflected in the weekend papers in Britain”.
If like me you are sick of the Philistine nature of urban Indian media, save a few papers like The Hindu or Tehelka, this is the book for you.
You can travel with Mishra to places as far apart as Allahabad , Kashmir, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, all the way to lonely Tibet. You can read and try to understand what turns an ordinary God-fearing Muslim youth into a dreaded jihadi terrorist. Conversely there is also the attempt to understand the workings of the RSS. The book does not give all the answers; but it sure wakes up the middle-class reader’s complacency and may even question deep-rooted beliefs
And it is easy reading; there are portions that make one laugh out aloud: “In the reading room” (at BHU) “students of a distinctly criminal appearance smoked foul-smelling cigarettes and noisily played cards”.
Only one chapter disappointed me a bit- the short one on Bollywood. Assumptions are too facile and much of what is written seems dated information. Contrary to what Mishra says, Bollywood is making a few films using institutional finanace, proper scripts and new elements like synchronized sound. The chapter on Bollywood is poorly researched. I say this with authority of one who follows the media rigorously. I am not an insider, simply a lay reader who’s been noticing the positive changes Bollywood has wrought in itself.
However, leaving aside the world of Hindi Cinema, there is so much more to Mishra’s modern world. It is a book to be dipped into, savoured , read and reread. Read it.