Monday, March 24, 2008

Temptations Of The West

Pankaj Mishra's Temptations Of The West is titled misleadingly and contributes directly to the reader's disappointment. When the subtitle reads 'How to be modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond', you imagine that author will expand on the theme of the collision of ancient and modern cultures and its socio-political impacts on that part of the world.

Mishra is a undoubtedly good writer and starts of on a promising note but the story just does not get anywhere. After a 79 pages of Allahabad and Benares - cities he has known very intimately, Mishra rambles off in other destinations and offers us random slices of political history spliced with journalism. It makes for rather tedious reading. Yet, you plod along hoping for something larger to emerge in the end from these vignettes. Sadly that does not happen. While on the theme of India, Bollywood gets a fair amount of attention but one is not sure exactly to what end.

For those of us who lived in India when a lot of the political events he describes took place, there are no new discoveries. He gives us his version of the stories - one among many others the reader is already familiar with. I suspect, the minutiae of local Indian politics would be very hard for outsiders to follow and find interesting let alone be illuminating.

They would be much better served by the big picture of Indian politics and the historical events shaping it (assuming that had even been Mishra's intent). The same is true of his forays into Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tibet. I found myself getting bedeviled by the details but not learning anything new even 323 pages later. Since the western audience has showered praise on this book, maybe I am not the kind of reader Pankaj Mishra seeks and it is just as well.

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