Temptations of the West, by Pankaj Mishra

On a wrong track in India
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The Independent Culture

Pankaj Mishra's first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, captured brilliantly the shoddiness and shabbiness of middle-class, middle-town India. It was in the nature of a travelogue, and I was greatly impressed by his descriptive powers and his ability to excavate the commonplace to expose the pretensions of upwardly mobile Indians. After this auspicious beginning, he wrote a book of fiction and then of biography. With his latest offering, he has gone back to the genre he began with: travelogue.

Temptations of the West, although more voluminous, is slimmer in substance, especially with regard to India. The most obvious reason is that the book is dated. Many of the incidents Mishra describes and analyses occurred several years ago, and in regurgitating them he often ends up by not adding anything new. This becomes painfully obvious in the chapter on Nepal, but is evident, too, in the piece on the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, which happened a decade and a half ago. Much about India is, indeed, timeless, but a great deal is changing faster than ever before. A travelogue needs to be timely, otherwise it loses its relevance.

A second weakness is that the author is often mesmerised by his own image of what India is. No one can argue with the fact that dalits and other lower castes have been the victims of centuries of discrimination, and are still poor and exploited. But, over the decades since 1947, they have ceased to be as helpless or as vulnerable as Mishra imagines them to be. Almost 60 years of participation in democratic politics, even if as underdogs to begin with, have made them aware of their rights and the value of their votes, and no political party can afford to ignore them.

In India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party, which avowedly seeks to represent dalit interests, is tipped to win the next state elections. It is also not always appreciated that India has run one of the most successful policies for affirmative action. There are seats reserved for the lowest castes in government jobs and parliament. Although sometimes such reservations benefit disproportionately the creamy layer from within these sections, these measures, along with the democratic process, have been a hugely empowering tool.

One proof is that, while reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in parliament was pegged at 22.5 per cent, today the number of lawmakers from this section exceeds this quota. Similarly, representation of the lowest castes and tribes in the higher echelons of government was a mere 4.5 per cent in 1965; by 1995, it had risen to 22.5 per cent, and today is even higher.

The condition of the Muslims in India is another case where Mishra remains a prisoner of preconceived notions. He harps on their sense of isolation, of a "besieged secularism" in which Muslims are "full of anxiety about their fate in India". Mishra is a Brahmin, and while such solicitousness may reinforce his liberal credentials in the eyes of some interlocutors, the facts on the ground are quite different. It is true that Muslims are more poor and backward than some Hindu compatriots, but they are increasingly a part of the national mainstream.

The way Muslims vote influences the results in as many as 125 parliamentary constituencies, almost one-fourth of the house. No party can survive without taking their welfare into account. Nor is India on the verge of some cataclysmic religious confrontation. In 1996, a study by two scholars at Harvard confirmed that religious violence in India is neither chronic nor pervasive, and that most of the time Hindus and Muslims live peaceably enough together.

In fact, today both Hindus and Muslims want to swim away from the islands of religious exclusiveness towards the secular opportunities of the mainland. The membership of the RSS, the right-wing militant Hindu organisation, is falling, and the most conservative Muslim seminary at Deoband has quietly begun classes in computers and the English language. In a "mood of the nation" survey carried out by the magazine India Today in August 2003, a majority of the Hindu respondents said that the Ayodhya agitation does not determine their voting choice. And the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose cadres spearheaded the destruction of the mosque in 1992, has been out of power in UP since 1996.

Any observer who chooses to write on India must be very vigilant about stereotypes. He must be careful not to be simplistic, and yet Mishra's book abounds with simplifications. To believe, as Mishra does, that the Indian state carried out the murder of 35 Sikhs in Kashmir to convince President Clinton, who was to visit Delhi, about Pakistani terrorism is bordering on the absurd. To argue that Pakistani troops evacuated the heights of Kargil in Indian Kashmir in 1999 only because the US put pressure on Islamabad is an unforgivable distortion. Thousands of Indian soldiers and hundreds of officers went to certain death in dislodging the invaders. It is inconceivable that Mishra is not aware of this, but that he chooses not to take it into account says a great deal about the biases he has uncritically internalised.

The book has redeeming features. Mishra writes well; his narrative powers are exceptional; and his profiles of ordinary people all over the subcontinent make for good reading. But these talents are marred by his inability to overcome the judgments he has already come to about India while living in London, where he confesses "he knew security and stability for the first time". Why this should be so is not clear, because Mishra does not exactly belong to the great exploited masses he conjures up so often. I suspect his distaste for the pretensions and deceit of the small towns in India where he grew up overly colours his vision. In Butter Chicken in Ludhiana he transmutes these experiences into a brilliant polemic; in Temptations he is defeated by them. A pity.

Pavan K Varma is director general of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and author of ' Being Indian' (Arrow)