TEMPTATIONS OF THE WEST:HOW TO BE MODERN IN INDIA, PAKISTAN, INDIA, AND BEYOND by Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, June 2006. 336 pages. $25.00. www.fsgbooks.com
If you’ve ever wondered why the countries of South Asia have so unevenly benefited from modernization and development, skim Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West. You will accompany him on his travels through the northern part of the subcontinent and learn about the inequity between India and some of her less modern and less developed neighbors: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Nepal. The choice of countries visited is not altogether clear, for a similar analysis of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would have made this a more encyclopedically complete book. Nonetheless, a quick reading of this fine book will introduce you to the recent history of a region that has piqued American interest not only because of the business processes and information technologies outsourced to India, but also because of the so-called “war on terrorism” that is centered around Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, and the brutal Sinification of Tibet.
If, however, you’ve questioned the benefits of Western-style free markets, the loss of traditional societies, and the violent response to modernity, read Temptations of the West with more patient reflection. Readers who are not given to the easy, pat answers given by politicians (Indian, Pakistani, Afghani, Tibetan, Nepali, or for that matter, American) will find in Mishra a writer who is sympathetic to their intellectual unease with political simplification of complex histories.
While reading the entertaining glimpse of Bollywood’s “Indian fantasy of wealth, political power, and cultural confidence,” I was jarred into the realities of violence on the subcontinent after eight bombs exploded throughout Mumbai’s train system in mid-July. I began to understand that Mishra was taking the shine off of the jingoistic “India Shining” party platform that caused the Bharatiya Janata Party to lose the last elections: “When the government itself supervises the killing of 2,000 Muslims, when Hindu mobs rape Muslim girls with impunity and force one hundred thousand Muslims into refugee camps, you can’t hope that the victims won’t dream of revenge.”
In the bargain with the West, India may be at risk of losing (or may have already lost) an alternative nonviolent vision for the world, first envisioned by Buddha 2,500 years ago and then put forward by Mahatma Gandhi in the middle of the last century. In describing the globalization of jihad, Mishra suggests that “Gandhi’s ambition—to form a society as different as possible from the one in the West—has few takers left in India. Ironically, his distrust and fear of Western modernity are now amplified best by the radical Islamists of Pakistan, where a Westernized postcolonial elite … had discredited itself.”
Temptations of the West closes on a more hopeful note in Tibet: “Partly due to their Buddhistic belief in the primacy of empathy and compassion [and] faced with an aggressively secular materialism, [Tibetans] may still prove, almost alone in the world, how religion … can be a source of cultural identity and moral values … [and] heal the shocks and pain of history—the pain that has led people elsewhere in the world into nihilistic rage.”
—Rajesh C. Oza