September 24, 2012

Book: Temptations of the West by Pankaj Mishra

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:29 pm

The full title is : Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond – By Pankaj Mishra

First of all, the good points. Mr. Pankaj Mishra seems really to feel the distress of the downtrodden. His English and narration is excellent. He starts from a personal experience of a single man and pans back into the national context with telling effect.

Unfortunately, the bad side of the book vastly overwhelms the good side. We start with the Title itself. It is completely wrong. It does not tell you how people should prepare to face the modern world. There is not even one piece of advice. Nor does it offer solutions to anything. It just rails about the misfortunes of the poor and reaches completely wrong, simplistic and even irrational explanations on why this should be so. And in doing so, it completely disappoints a reader who wants to be informed dispassionately about the great issues he thinks that the author seeks to tackle.

It reads like a book Michael Moore would have written if he wrote about India and was at his unreasonable best. It employs much of the same techniques. First, the author states a conclusion based on his personal prejudices and biases. Then he seeks to substantiate it. How? He simply gets hold of a few people who hold similar views and then “interviews” them. Based on such “evidence” he “proves” that his theory is correct. He ignores every fact or aspect of the issue that is inconvenient, presumably because may potentially sow the tiniest doubt in the minds of any reader, or spoil the narration or bring a balanced argument to the issue at hand. Mix it with some facts that slant the way of the argument  and throw in some narration of past history, and it reads like a well researched book.

If you want a balanced view, please stay well away from this book. If you want an one sided, biased view, go ahead and read this book. Like the viewers of Rush Limbaugh’s programs or, at the other end, Michael Moore’s tirades in his films, you will find much to gladden your heart.

Another comment about the Title: the book seems to be all about India, with hastily added sections on Pakistan, Nepal, and Tibet added to make it more appealing to the intended international audience the author wanted to attract. ‘Kashmir‘ is dealt separately, clubbed with other independent countries. Of course, the author does not argue that it is, or should be, a separate land, but you make your own conclusions.

Not that much is hidden. The theme is India is that Muslims and low caste Hindus are much oppressed by the high caste Hindus and have no way of expressing themselves. The Hindu Nationalist BJP was systematically exterminating them and Congress is no better. All foreigners are ignorant of all facts in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Tibet and Kashmir and are content to fully buy into Indian Government Propaganda. The British favoured Hindus against Muslims all through their rule.

Well, the inconvenient facts are ignored. The fact that BJP came to power, and to broaden their appeal, had to move to centre, and get a more secular outlook is completely ignored. Even magazines like India Today, which started reporting on facts and not the prejudices were dismissed: “The once respectable India Today lost its quality” is his conclusion. Well, what about the rise of parties dominated by the lower caste people in many states? (BSP of Mayawati and the regional parties in Tamil Nadu). Well these are never mentioned because it unfortunately proves the opposite view of the author. Better to completely censor such inconvenient facts. Even the hardships of Kashmiri Hindus forced to leave their homeland is “justified” by saying that “Most of them are rich anyway; many of them moved abroad and are well off. What is the problem?” He even goes to the extent of alleging that they were evacuated from Kashmir so that the cruel governer Jagmohan can ‘get at the Muslims undeterred‘.   Wait…. what?

Sadly, even though there is absolutely no grounds to do so, still they are unhappy to lose their homeland and homes, those ungrateful Hindus of Kashmir! Should they not be happy that they were driven away from their homeland?  Better not compare their fate with the Palestinians, that would be inconvenient.

Don’t get me wrong: I am sympathetic to the problems and troubles and anger of the oppressed, no matter who they are. But when you read a blind tirade from a very extreme biased position, it rubs you the wrong way.
Other Nuggets from the author:
Caveat: I have not produced his arguments verbatim but have faithfully tried to replicate his central ideas. The stuff in brackets are my comments regarding

1. Muslim rulers were benevolent to all religions but the entire Independence Struggle of India was led and cornered by Hindus and Muslims were completely
excluded.. “Natually” they wanted Pakistan. (Don’t mention Gulam Nabi Azad or any of other leaders Don’t even think about the Bollywood domination by the
three Khans – Shah Ruck, Amir and Salman. Don’t look at all the industries led by Muslims and do not speak of the ex President of India, Dr Abdul Kalam. Don’t
bring inconvenient facts into the discussion. Nor bring up the cruelty of Aurangazeb, for example, for his own subjects or Ghazni’s expensive antics. Shhh! )

2. Afghanistan’s Buddha Statues were blown up by Taliban only because they wanted to get the World’s attention. Anyway they were ugly and an eyesore according to ONE British writer. (So why all the fuss about these being blown up, anyway? Moreover, I thought westerners did not “get” Asia. Now I see it applies only if they disagree with the author’s views. When they agree, well it is an “enlightened expert opinion”.)
3. Everything in Taliban’s rule was great, even for women. The only problem is that travel in the buses is not safer for women, which is why they were not allowed to travel in buses alone. (Who told the author? By his own admission, the wife of a Pushtun villager. But she was not allowed to talk to him directly, so the husband took the question to her and brought back the “answer”. It is better than not talking to her at all, is the author’s only explanation on accepting this in full, and basing conclusions on these)
4. The crown prince in Nepal, Dipendra, committed regicide because he was a ‘sensitive man, and could not take the plight of the poor folk in Nepal’. (What? Do I need to even say anything to illustrate how stupid this argument is? )

5. Based on one, obviously a known eccentric, producer’s evidence, the entire Bollywood is corrupt and has a close nexus with the Underworld – without exception. (What about actress Preity Zinta’s and Rakesh Roshan’s courageous stand against the extortions? No inconvenient truths please! Shah Rukh “caved
in” by being decent enough to apologize for the unintended slight to Amitabh Bachan?)
6. You cannot both be religious and modern – in the context of Tibet, especially the description of Lhasa. (What about Malaysia? Or Turkey? Please forget that these countries exist. They are inconvenient counter examples, and we do not allow them for the readers of this book)

7. Modernization and industrial productivity are all unbridled capitalistic activities and are uniformly bad. Look at what the Evil China has done? (“Huh?”)
8. In one case he seems to imply that a boy whom he met was subsequently killed by police brutality but then says, “It could not have been the boy because he had lost his father and this boy who was killed had both parents alive.” (I amvconfused, Mr Mishra, what was the point of the whole statement?)
It is not to say that the book is devoid of truths. There is definitely truth in the allegations that politicians have destabilized parts of India for petty political gains; It is true that Tibet is not given its due place by the Chinese government. But such arguments are lost in the drivel that fills most of the book and the argument is so flawed that a nine year old can poke holes in it.

The author is very proud of how, even though he is a Brahmin in India, did not fall for the high caste propaganda against Muslims and how he has trancended his “origins” to understand the various facets of the problem. Again, the empathy and the nobility are lost in the venom spewed indiscriminately throughout.

What could have been a thought provoking, balanced book has been sacrificed on the altar of partisan, almost crazy arguments. More is the pity.

I would award it a 1/10

— Krishna


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