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Revelations for the West

We want to know who’s taking us on this ambitious voyage through India and Pakistan, through Kashmir, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Tibet, and in his opening chapter, “Learning to Read,” Pankaj Mishra offers us a self-portrait. We are back in the 1980s; a young scholar sits in a library in Benares, poring over Edmund Wilson, flicking through back issues of this journal, reading Heinrich Mann and then discovering he had a more famous brother. He knows that what a writer reads is as interesting as his own output, and inseparable from it; while he lurks in the shady library, student mobs run riot in the sun, and the police move in with their batons. But do not pity the students; they have guns.

Both the person and his circumstances will be familiar to readers of Mishra’s highly praised debut novel The Romantics, which was published in 1999, and features as protagonist a young Brahmin scholar called Samar. His sensibility is strung tightly on East–West tensions; he is full of nostalgia for an old world and yearning for a new. When Samar moves outside the city, he is a tourist in his own country. James Hopkin in the New Statesman suggested that The Romantics was a “novel about procrastination” and in a sense all of a young writer’s works are acts of procrastination in themselves—a period of constructive delay as one tests the limits of one’s talent, patience, interests, and ambitions. It is a story about a young man trying to locate himself, beset by the fear that he may never arrive but always be passing through. The Romantics looks to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, to E.M. Forster, to Turgenev. But it is the product of a distinctive and sharp intelligence, beautifully and fruitfully deployed in this new book, which is part political history, part memoir, part reportage. It is a huge project, and if it all starts in Benares, that is appropriate; the city is a sacred place, dedicated to Shiva, a god who both creates and destroys. The dead are burned on ghats by the river Ganges; the cycles of incarnation are broken here, and new patterns begin.

In 1995 Mishra published Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, an exploration of nineteen small Indian towns; a US edition is now in preparation. As he begins this much longer journey, his first exploration must be inward; the writer is now a man of letters, with an international reputation which he must leave behind on the road, as he travels into places where a bilious Naipaulian gloom would seem an appropriate response; we need more than the news of his mood, and he supplies it in the form of copious, eloquent facts: a mini-history of India since Independence, an overview of the calamitous history of Western intervention in Afghanistan. A Hindu, a Brahmin, he has to inspect his own prejudices and reposition himself, sometimes drastically; in order to be free to travel and ask questions in Pakistan, he pretends to be a London-based Muslim journalist. Only when he reaches Tibet can a little personal optimism shine through; his last book, An End to Suffering, explored the Buddhist tradition that he hopes can save this vast and remote country from the lure of armed nationalist conflict on the one hand, and on the other hand the cultural suffocation of the Chinese version of modernity.

This is a book written for the West, by a man with a stake in two worlds, who moves through languages—a skill of which Mishra makes little—and who travels uneasily, so that most of us can stay at home. For the West it makes bitter reading. It explores a legacy of bungling and bad faith, of cultural incomprehension and pragmatic exploitation, and the export of two ideas—the idea of the nation-state and the idea of democracy—which have arrived in the East in a deteriorated and contaminating condition. Looking at modern India, with its wildly uneven distribution of wealth, its high-tech dreams existing beside the most debased squalor, the West is inclined to say, “At least we are not responsible for the caste system.” But are those white hands quite clean? How far is modern Hinduism an “Empire product”? How far is it a synthesized organism, bred to rule, bred to be capable of taking over the reins of power when the British quit?

Mishra argues that during the years of British rule a Hindu elite embraced a notion of its own history created at least in part by Western Orientalists. This vision looked back to a pre-Islamic India, and excused its most stomach-turning practices—widow-burning, for instance—as a reaction to the cruelties of Muslim rule. What this elite took from the imperialists was “the European idea of the nation—a cohesive community with a common history, culture, values, and sense of purpose—which for many other colonized peoples appeared a way of duplicating the success of the powerful, all-conquering West.”

Post-independence India was conceived as a secular and tolerant state, but the fiction soon splintered; Pakistan split off, and it was clear there was little room for Muslims in a nation-state imagined on Western lines. In his childhood, Mishra remembers noticing that Muslims were poor, though his own family was poor; that they were poor in a different way, and ghettoized:

The streets and houses suddenly shrank and were edged with open drains, the women disappeared behind sinisterly black burkas, flimsy rags curtained off the hanging carcasses at the butcher shops, and the gaunt-faced men with pointed beards standing outside dark houses looked quite capable of the brutality that our prejudices ascribed to them.

Among his neighbors, the blunt and familiar question was, why do they stay here, why don’t they just go to Pakistan?

Yet a common religion was not enough to hold Pakistan together; in 1971 the Bengali-speaking region, with Indian help, seceded to form Bangladesh. There was something wrong with the secular, nationalist model; in this part of the world it didn’t work. Hindu society, Mishra tells us, is not naturally cohesive:

Hindu nationalists have always sought to redefine Hindu identity in opposition to a supposedly threatening “other.” They hope to unite Hindu society by constantly invoking such real and imagined threats as are posed by the evangelical Christians and militant Muslims.

He explores in some detail the history, philosophical and electoral, of the Indian nationalist party, the BJP, elected to power in 1998 and backed by the middle-class elite which began to flourish early in the decade, when the quasi-socialist and protectionist India of Nehru’s vision succumbed to the seductions of the free market. Whether the party is in or out of power, he says, the BJP’s cheerleaders and bankers are the expatriate Indians who have done well in America, and have an investment in an image of an India with high status in the world, a country that is strong and unified, “one people, one culture, one language.” It does not exist, but the East, so long a subject of fantasy for the West, is no doubt entitled to some fantasies about itself. And the fantasies, as always, shuttle money around.

As for attempts to even up the social deficits caused by caste—the results of this piece of social engineering were right outside the author’s window, when he looked out from that quiet library in Benares. Any trivial event could provoke battles between students and police, but one issue which constantly drove student unrest was graduate unemployment: anger at government quotas for civil service entry which reduced the opportunities of higher-caste students. The quota system was a leftover from the more idealistic, egalitarian society envisaged at Independence. The BJP philosophy is a return to paternalism; what it has to offer to poorer and lower-caste voters is simply a return to authority and tradition. Yet it is not the Brahmins, necessarily, who are prospering in modern India, but the crooked policemen and politicians, and the mafia fat-cat financiers he describes in his wry chapter on Bollywood.

Native coyness and Western-style sexual consumerism make an unlovely pairing. Flashing her “promo” photographs at him, one hopeful actress says, “I want you to look at them. I want you to tell me if men are going to drool over me or not in this film. I want you to give me an honest opinion.” Indian English, Mishra tells us, is a confusing language. The middle-class elite uses it well, uses it correctly, but the undertones are deceptive. Westerners may detect irony where none is intended. It’s hard not to think of the West as mishearing India from the beginning—from the first colonists to the latest wave of businesses who have “outsourced” and placed “offshore” that most desolating Western invention, the call center. When one executive who has dabbled in the film industry complains that “the place works in ways we couldn’t begin to explain to our shareholders,” it is hard not to extrapolate from Bollywood to India as a whole, and to feel that, by and large, the shareholders have deserved their confusion.

Women are not highly visible on his journey; the Indian actress with her “skin show” is an exception. Where they are seen, they have no voice. In a derelict village east of Kabul in 2001, he finds no young men, because they are away fighting or have fled to Pakistan; the injured and the prematurely aged men “in their late forties” sit on the dirt floor of a hut discussing the drought, while in other rooms around the courtyard, Mishra says, “I could sense the presence of women, could hear occasionally the rustle of thick cloth and the clink of pots and pans.” In the Tibetan city of Gyantse, once an important trading city on the Indian route,

cheap Chinese-made goods fill the shops and the stalls that spill onto the dusty pavements, and in the lobby of my resoundingly empty hotel, very young Chinese girls stood smiling vacantly in identical red silk dresses under a barbershop sign offering “24-hour massage service.”

The prostitutes, the empty hotel: these are the sights and signs offered to the West. The stranger can only see what he is allowed to see, even when his eye is sharp and discriminating. Mishra writes unshowy but well-composed prose, which often has an eerie effect, as if a cameraman had lingered, panned out beyond the shot he intended to frame, and caught something affective, something just beyond the here and now:

Jamal worked as a sub-editor for the Frontier Post, one of Peshawar’s English-language dailies, at whose offices I spent many hours on those bleak winter evenings. As I drove up to the boxlike narrow building, the three spies parked their car a few meters behind, before an empty lot where scrawny dogs loitered around mounds of assorted rubbish: these men had already ordered tea and barely looked at me as I walked past the pale mist-blurred lights of the chai shacks. Inside, at the reception, an old Pathan in a coarse-textured military coat hunched over a rickety table, a Kalashnikov leaning against the seat of his wicker chair; on the floor beside his feet squatted a bar heater, and occasionally he would bend towards its weak orange glow, palms stretched and facing outward, to gather some warmth. Upstairs, low doors led in and out of one cramped smoke-filled room after another, and in the room where I usually sat, a windowless cube really, the cigarette smoke stayed suspended in the air, the delicately curled plumes outlined against green walls and brown paper files and aging computers with grimy screens.

Whatever truth is to be seen, you feel Mishra has brought it home and set it out for us in plain view. If you want to understand India’s latest terrorist outrage, the “7/11” bombings in Mumbai, you can turn for background to his densely written chapter on Kashmir’s rebels, who are seeking, in some cases, independence for the region, and in other cases unity with Pakistan. And for those who remember how in 1993, more than 250 people died in an earlier Mumbai bombing campaign, a chapter describes the violence that spread through India following the destruction of a mosque in the Hindu holy city of Ayodhya. The BJP politicians who led the crowd that razed the mosque claimed that it had been built as an act of contempt by a sixteenth-century Moghul emperor on the site of the birthplace of the god Ram. Such long-held grudges are largely incomprehensible to Westerners, and sound very like excuses; if you want to get power in India, it seems, you must look back to the past and manipulate religious and communal grievances.

But in his chapter on Allahabad, Mishra introduces us to the incumbent BJP member of parliament, who has coined a slogan, “Computer chips, not potato chips.” That, Mishra tells us, is the aspiration of Hindu nationalism—to pick and choose from the modern world’s menu, then to beat the West at its own game. Like John Gray in his 2003 book Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern,* Mishra tells us that modern society does not smooth out our differences, make us alike, make us reasonable and comprehensible to each other. He provides us with some data to help us understand difference; in an alien landscape, he tells us where to look.

Left to itself, where does the Western gaze stray? Always to the exotic, to that which we can easily define as incomprehensible and therefore shockingly wicked. We notice the women’s shapes swallowed up by the burka and the Buddhist statues blown up by the Taliban, and we are outraged, in our feminist certainties, and in our sentimental archaeologists’ hearts. Taliban excesses made us look at Afghanistan; many misconstrued what they saw as some medieval survival, something archaic and barbaric, failing to note the desperate modern qualities of radical Islam. In his chapters on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mishra is unsparing in his analysis of stupidity and bad faith—from the anti-Russian strategies of the nineteenth-century “Great Game” through the Carter-Brzezinski cold war years and the attempt to “sow shit in the Soviet backyard”; from the CIA cultivation of jihadists in Pakistan to the present-day attempts to claim—in Afghanistan and Iraq—that a victory is won whenever the shooting stops, and that democracy is installed wherever a polling booth is set up.

One reiterated theme of his book is that the electoral process can be the most dangerous of delusions, tending to confer a spurious legitimacy on those most willing to corrupt it. If he were to extend his travels—though at a risk no one could recommend, and in what disguise is hard to say—he might like to visit Saudi Arabia, to be at the heart of a society where by many the democratic process is thought fundamentally damnable, where the whole Western value system is inverted; though of course, to speak of inversion is to make the patronizing Western assumption that the model was the right way up in the first place.

Always the urgent question is, what has modern society to offer, what will it destroy if it is embraced, and who will profit? “US-backed warlords,” Mishra writes, “have initiated Afghanistan into the globalized economy”—it has become the world’s top heroin producer. Tibet, a region which Mishra explains is of sentimental interest to Indians as well as Westerners—“sacred homeland of great seers and sages, people capable of levitation and astral travel”—is in danger of having its population stifled by immigrant Chinese, who may accomplish by birthrate the conquest which years of colonialist brutality have not made sure. Mishra says that “since the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet in 1950, they have killed—mostly through execution, torture and starvation—up to 1.2 million people.” They have also destroyed, as best they can, Tibet’s religion, its temples, its monasteries, in the belief that Tibetan culture would cease to exist. It has resisted, and now its remnants are being marketed strenuously by a China seeking international acceptance in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, to be held in Beijing. It has recently been reported that the Tibetan city known as Zhongdian is now redesignated as Shangri-La.

Never mind that Shangri-La is itself a Western fantasy, a utopia first mentioned in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, published in 1933; the present Chinese fantasy-masters are there and ready to cash in. An airport has been built, to receive the millions of visitors expected—the credulous, the rich, the ecologically unsound, all of whom will go away and say they have seen Tibet, or maybe, confusedly, that they have seen China. Mishra has already noted the “tawdry kitsch” of Chinese restoration efforts and would surely relish the ironies of this next wave of Disneyfication.

One aspect of modernism he notices is the rapid rewriting of history, the formulation of a past which is useful to the power brokers of the present—a past which ratifies their sense of themselves, or can be marketed to tourists. A book like this can’t be updated with every news item, but it can lay down markers, and it can take a stance: this is who I am, this is where I was, this is what I saw. Honest and thoughtful, it can claim the expertise of immediacy and the authority of the long view.

It is probably hard now to find anyone who entertains the notion of “the end of history”—even in its heyday, it was a notion that appealed only to those who didn’t get out much. Anyone feeling nostalgic for the “terminus of liberal-capitalist democracy” should read Mishra’s chapter on Nepal. It is the only one in the book to begin on a sensational note, and that can hardly be avoided, since one can’t approach that region without recalling that in June 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra burst into a drawing room of the royal palace in Kathmandu and shot dead his mother, his father the king, a sister, a brother, five more relatives, and finally himself. Was it, as the official version gave out, a fit of pique because his family didn’t like his fiancée?

A businessman whom Mishra meets has a deeper explanation. Like India’s great post-independence leader Nehru—who began to understand his native country when in England—the prince was radicalized outside his kingdom, by his British education. With Nehru it was Harrow and Cambridge; with Dipendra—known as a schoolboy as “Dippy”—it was Eton. Britons will know this is not impossible; if there’s one thing that old Etonians carry into later life, it’s a confidence that their most casual analysis is the right one. As the author says of himself, “the more money you have, the more liberal you become,” and in the businessman’s analysis the prince had passed through liberalism and into a drugged and drunken outrage, his reform plans constantly thwarted by his conservative elders, until finally, in pursuit of his vision of progress, he simply shot the King.

Events in Nepal have moved fast since Pankaj Mishra wrote. In response to a Maoist revolt which has claimed an estimated 13,000 lives, the new King, Gyanendra, sacked his cabinet, scrapped parliament, and instituted a fifteen-month period of direct rule; a shaky democracy is now reinstated, the King is stripped of all but ceremonial powers, a truce has been negotiated with the rebels, and land redistribution is on the agenda. Mishra’s essay is enlightening on the background to this dizzying series of events, showing how the Communist movement in Nepal connects with the Naxalite movement in India, a peasant–student Marxist alliance which began in the 1980s in West Bengal and Bihar. A disillusioned Nepalese guerrilla whom Mishra meets sees the Maoists as just another bunch of chancers and grafters. But the Marxist-Leninist vocabulary is alive in his mouth, if principally as a source of insult: opponents are “feudal forces” and “bourgeoisie” while his old comrades he now indicts as “anarchists.”

This is the rhetoric he has in which to describe—and in some degree, hold off from his own vulnerable body—his sad and striving past and seemingly hungry future. His formulations may be empty but his need for justice is real—it is this need for which Pankaj Mishra has a sharp ear, just as he has a sharp eye for self-serving hypocrisy. It is impossible in a short form to do justice to the density and complexity of his arguments, to his comprehensive illustrations, to his scathing demolition of the comfort zones of both East and West, and to the intrepid and endlessly questioning spirit which lies behind his book. One final word: it is dedicated to the late Barbara Epstein, whose own fine and discriminating spirit must have appreciated it.

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    New Press.

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