India: A partial story

Temptations Of The West by Pankaj Mishra

A young man at an Indian university library chanced upon a book that changed his whole life. He wanted to read everything by the author and all the things he had written about. He ended up in America, writing for the New Yorker, New York Times and the New York Review of Books.

The young man was Pankaj Mishra (photo from Columbia website about him), and the writer who changed his life, Edmund Wilson. Mishra describes what a deep impression Wilson made on him in Temptations Of The West — it’s the best part of the book — but not how he ended up in America. Instead, he describes the India he left behind and his subsequent trips to the subcontinent as a magazine writer.

He writes about the plight of Kashmiris, discrimination against Muslims, the spread of Hindu nationalism. His sympathetic accounts of the Kashmiris and the Muslims were appreciated by Pakistani diplomats in India, who gave him a visa to Pakistan, and led Indian intelligence officials to question his parents, he says.

Now, even the Indian government admits there has been discrimination against Muslims. Delhi last year urged the various state governments to recruit more Muslims as teachers, police officers, health and social workers.

And there’s no denying the plight of Kashmir. Even the India media has written about voting irregularities and police and military excesses, though it has no love for the terrorist insurgents about whom Mishra has little to say. He writes at length instead about how innocent Kashmiris have been framed, tortured and killed as terrorists.

This is a courageous book.

But Mishra’s account of Hindu nationalism is greatly exaggerated. India is not dominated by the Hindu nationalists. They have no influence at all in my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata), and my home state, West Bengal, where the communists are in power. The fight between Hindu upper castes and lower castes described by Mishra  is virtually unknown in West Bengal. We have intercaste marriages. There are other Indian states where the Hindu nationalists have never come to power. Even in the states where they are strong, they have to compete with other parties and are regularly voted in and out.

But Mishra does not write about West Bengal or other states outside the so-called “cow belt” where the Hindu nationalists are a political force. He focuses on the “cow belt”, where he grew up, and Kashmir, which he visited as a writer and reporter. He is a good writer, but this is a lopsided book.

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