Temptations of the West: How to be modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond

By Pankaj Mishra

In many ways, this is an uncomfortable book. For English-speaking Indians used to the ‘India Shining’ story streaming out of newspapers, magazines and TV channels, it is disquieting to come across someone who holds a mirror to what can only be called the failures of the Indian state. That is what Mishra does with his latest book. Yes, he has an agenda – a liberal, left-leaning, anti-West one, and that can colour a lot of what he says. And one does get the sneaking suspicion that this is a book meant for the West, and not the South Asians he writes about. Yet, it is thought-provoking and interesting and worthy of note.

The book is Mishra’s take on how traditional societies in
South Asia are coping with the Western version of ‘modernisation’ – of closed economies suddenly coming face to face with a globalised world; of free market economics coming into play in areas that are extremely poor; of Western ideologies of colonization, communism and democracy touching traditionally feudal societies. It is a memoir, a travelogue, a narrative that touches upon history, politics and philosophy. Mishra travels to small town India (Benares, Allahabad, Ayodhya, Srinagar, Jammu) and its biggest city Bombay; to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet; to bring a provocative point of view of what it means to be modern in these places.

In India, he elaborates on a favourite theme – the ‘grimy underside’ of middle class society. A society that is impatient with ‘the stubbornly destitute majority’, an impatience mirrored in their support for ‘strong’ leaders like Indira and Sanjay Gandhi and the creation of a national identity whose ingredients include ‘Hinduism, nuclear bombs, beauty queens and information technology tycoons.’ It is the very same middle class that created the RSS, an organization Mishra equates to the fascists of Germany, creating a self-assertive Hinduism that found its strongest support in wealthy expatriate Hindus. It is this class’s profound distrust of a reclaiming of India by the lower classes and castes, and their fear of letting go of the old order and stability that form the basis of most conflicts in modern India.

And there is a reclaiming. Power has passed to a class of ‘professional politicians’, we have been forced to accommodate Dalits and Muslims and a million other underprivileged classes in politics and a re-arranging of the old order is underway. There no longer is a monolith Congress Party, able to accommodate any and everyone. Each class has its own demands and grievances and its own play for power. Indian democracy is unruly and untidy, and while politicians of all political hues have consistently failed the poorest of the poor in this country, the faith in elections and in their ability to change people’s fate is touchingly alive.

But Mishra has a warning – especially on resurgent Hindu nationalism. ‘Hinduism in the hands of these Indians has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of popes and mullahs, and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians,’ he says. And this ‘profound modernity of religious nationalism’ is disquieting for Muslims and other minorities whose faith in Indian democracy has been tested time and again by the repeated violence unleashed against them. No Indian Muslim so far, other than Kashmiris, has ever been responded to jihad calls anywhere in the world. That statistic is steadily coming under threat.

The chapter on Kashmir is an unflinching look at India’s role in a troubled region. The Indian government’s and army’s continually insensitive handling of a very sensitive issue has exacerbated tensions to almost a point of no return. Draconian measures to curb an insurgency fed on calls of jihad and India’s growing strategic importance to world powers have meant that the majority of Kashmiris live in a state of an uneasy accommodation with the Indian presence in the valley.

In Pakistan, Mishra talks of ‘the dwindling of human possibilities, and the steady grinding-down of individual lives’; of a feudal society at odds with democratic institutions; of an ancient Islamic global civilization broken down by ‘the invincible modern civilization of the West’ and producing a fanaticism that crushes freedom; of Deobandi madrassas that train people from areas as far flung as Kashmir, the Philippines, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Afghanistan, Mishra says is a story of ‘the tragic violence and disorder of a near-primitive society modernizing too fast.’ The modern ideologies of communism, democracy and globalization clash in a country that had missed the 19th century altogether in its history. Its current state is the result of its calamitous encounter with modernity. An interesting take, I thought. In Nepal, he explores the rise of a militant Mao-ism and an ironical clash between two archaic ideologies – communism and monarchy. To the West that is prepared to do anything to stop the Mao-ists from coming to power, he questions the nature of a democracy protected by an autocrat.

But his most touching analysis is left for Tibet. He calls it a ‘unique civilzation’; one whose leaders in exile still believe that ‘you cannot achieve a good end through the wrong kind of means.’ He takes us through their history, the inexorable march of China through Tibet and the unique perspective the Dalai Lama brings to the table. His last words on this distinct place are inspiring, to say the least. ‘It is no accident that the Tibetans seem to have survived the large-scale communist attempt at social engineering rather better than most people in China itself. This is at least partly due to their Budhistic belief in the primacy of empathy and compassion. And, faced with an aggressively secular materialism, they may still prove, almost alone in the world, how religion, usually dismissed as ‘poison’, can be a source of cultural identity and moral values. They may prove how it can become a means of political protest without blinding the devout with hatred and prejudice; how it can help heal the shocks and pains of history – the pain that has led people elsewhere in the world into nihilistic rage – but also create a rational and ethical national culture – a culture that may make a freer Tibet, whenever it comes about, better prepared for its state of freedom than most societies.’

Strangely enough, Tibet is the land Mishra seems most optimistic about. It is an intensely, almost naively optimistic view of what to most people looks like a lost cause. In his world view, Western modernity is almost the call of the pied piper – leading nations, including India, into some mode of self-destruction. It is Tibet, by its ability to hold on to its traditional sources of inner strength, which seems to him most capable of encountering this hostile modernity.


UL said…
I dont fully agree with Mishra's outlook, looking inward definitely helps to learn one's capabilities and increase one's strength. But looking outward, learning from the developed nations, is also a must, else a nation would be like a frog in the pond. There needs to be a way to test one's competencies, to compare and to progress and it cannot be done by merely looking inward, can it?
small talk said…
hmmm...maybe i did not put it across correctly - mishra is not really saying we should not look outward. his is a commentary on what has happened when forces of modernisation (like democracy and globalisation) have touched traditional societies in south asia. some have been able to cope and flourish, some have not. he does have an anti-west view sometimes but that is not what the book is about.
30in2005 said…
I am compiling a list of books to bring back from India and this is going on it NOW. Thanks for the review - you sold me on it....
Anil P said…
It might be alright to let a civilisation evolve its economics over a period of time to a point where it takes shape as a finished product, but it is another matter to thrust it into othe civilisations who're evolving their own economics based no doubt on factors peculiar to their culture.
Anonymous said…
I couldn t agree more! good job! financial help

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