In his new book, Free World, Timothy Garton Ash remembers the friends he had behind the Iron Curtain who used to tell him, “We are the West trapped in the East.” There are many kinds of East, as Garton Ash quickly acknowledges, and yet sometimes they seem to be linked by this theme of imprisonment and what arises out of it, a longing for enlightenment and liberation (in a secular form). We in the West have watched for years would-be refugees going off to find—or lose—themselves in India, or in a Buddhist monastery, eager to absorb the “wisdom of the East.” Yet what’s awaiting them at the other end, increasingly, is people hungering for the wisdom of the West.
The West, for those far away, means a haven of modern thinking, reason, and clear-headedness, qualities not always apparent at home, and a refuge from ritualism and superstition; those who long for it are Occidentalists in a hopeful sense. And though such admirers are to be found in every traditional or impoverished culture, they are especially conspicuous in countries such as India, where centuries of British rule have left many people thinking of London or Oxford as the natural culmination of their ambitions, social or intellectual. Nirad Chaudhuri was able to complete his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, in some sense, by moving to North Oxford; V.S. Naipaul, though growing up far from Asia, began to take an interest in his Eastern and colonial roots only after he had established himself in England, and felt he could bring a Western sense of history and critical inquiry to his often disheveled homelands. The note of sorrow and even bitterness one increasingly hears in his work comes in part from his sense that, having arrived at last in the West, he finds it crumbling all around him.
Pankaj Mishra is the latest distinctive heir to this tradition, and his deepest theme is how the dream of the West at once inspires and confounds a hopeful young man in small-town India who longs to escape the “cruel, garish world of middle-class India” and to remake himself, much as Naipaul has done, through books and reflective wanderings alone. Mishra’s first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995), describes his travels around a provincial India where a new video-and-Vegas culture is creating a bumptious bourgeoisie that has taken in the latest toys from the West, but has no sense of how to use them. His first novel, The Romantics, in 2000, brought the theme closer to home by describing an Indian student in Benares, his head full of Flaubert and Turgenev, watching, in bewilderment and with mingled wonder and disappointment, the Western visitors around him picking up and dropping philosophies and partners with an ease unimaginable to him. These drifters look nothing like the people he has met in the pages of Edmund Wilson or Schopenhauer; more hauntingly,…
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