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Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in…
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Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and…

by Pankaj Mishra

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Temptations of the West. How to be modern in India, Pakistan and beyond is a strenuous read about contemporary politics in India and Pakistan. In a prologue, the author Pankaj Mishra sympathetically sketches how he launched upon his career as a writer, relating details from his student days in Benares. This Prologue is followed by eight long essays in three parts: Part 1 about India; Part 2 about Pakistan and Afghanistan; and Part 3 about Nepal and Tibet.

The essays are a strenuous read because they are very long, and highly detailed descriptions of contemporary politics: politicians and events in the region which are unlikely known to the general reader, and likely of little importance, as ten years on, most will likely be irrelevant. (The book was first published in 2006.) The essay about Indian politics is 76 pages long, the essay about Kashmir, 90 pages, and the essay about Afghanistan 56 pages. Most of the other essays are about 30 pages long.

Particularly since the book was published more than a decade ago, describing a very turbulent region, it is questionable how useful and relevant it still is to the non-specialist reader. ( )
  edwinbcn | Apr 7, 2016 |
The introductory essay is amazing AND amazingly-written, and the rest of it is quite good - just sometimes difficult to parse. ( )
  maribou | May 6, 2013 |
A series of essays which are more personal experiences of an Asian Indian journalist. Well-written and each essay contains intriguing and/or lesser-known facts, e.g., Western involvement in so many of these countries and involvement that made the countries worse. The style is a bit chatty and wandering. ( )
  ming.l | Mar 31, 2013 |
A better title would be Essays on Strife in the Subcontinent. This would have the virtue of accuracy, as well as alerting the reader that this is a collection of essays that are not well-integrated. The 1-page preface promises something the book doesn't deliver, and is highly inadequate as a device to unify the book. The overall project would have been much better served by a chapter-length preface providing contexts for each piece and showing how each fit into and supported his contention. I still might have disagreed that he had demonstrated his point, but I would have had a better sense of what he thought it was. Not that the essays aren't sometimes interesting or useful, but they neither fit the title nor cohere; thus, Mishra does not reach the audience he intends. I was expecting a more socioanthropological text, but this a largely a collection of essays on politics.

Mishra says he "seek[s] to make the reader enter actual experience: of individuals...and of the traveler," but this goal is not realized by a number of the essays, which offer grueling pages of facts about Indian political history, e.g., with no subheadings, citations, index, or individual or traveler narratives, and a certain amount of jumping around and repetition. The lack of an index is particularly annoying and makes the book useless as a reference when reading other authors. The lack of citations makes it impossible to evaluate Mishra's contentions or to understand where they fit in the broader discourse of Indian-Pakistani relations, for example.

I am troubled as well by the notion of "temptations of the West" as ostensibly illustrated here. Histories of other Asian countries demonstrate considerable strife, brutality, abuse of power, corruption, and lack of respect for others' welfare emanating from and enacted by the colonial powers of the East long before Western colonization and influence. I am willing to be convinced, but Mishra does not take up the argument that this is a Western phenomenon rather than a human one. The question of how to modernize in a way that integrates two cultures rather than subsuming one is vital and fascinating. However, Mishra generally does not address it, which was my greatest disappointment in a book that I thought would have this issue as a major focus. The only "temptation" I can spot is Mishra's often-repeated concern that colonial powers offer education but there are then no jobs for the people who have been educated. This is an important and realistic concern, but one that might have been best served by an historical comparison, if one exists, to the relationship between education and vocation under colonial China, for example. As it stands, and without context, Mishra's complaint sounds like an indictment of providing education to the prolitariat. I assume that this is not what he intends, but that is how it reads without further elaboration.

Each essay in and of itself is interesting (though some are long, dry slogs for a reader who was not expecting 10-page recitations of historical facts), but suffers from the reader's ongoing question of what each has to do with "temptations" or "the West." I am sure that I am missing a great deal here; Mishra's writing is highly regarded and taken seriously enough that he is the focus of some bitter disputes. For a reader with no or little background, however, it is hard to see what is special or interesting about Mishra's ideas.

Though I read a great deal of history, and am conversant on several broad topics in Asia's political history, I cannot help but think that had this book's marketing been more accurate, I would not have picked it up. Having picked it up and read it in its entirety, I am incredibly frustrated by Mishra's lack of an orienting frame. By all means, read this if it looks interesting to you, but read 20 pages before you buy it to be sure it's what you think it is. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
Quite a disappointment after Mishra's book about Buddha's time and his own education, An End to Suffering. And what a misleading title. Apparently, he or his editor copied this from a similar title by Andre Malraux. As I was reading, I kept thinking: his editor has slapped on this title and hoped a unified theme might emerge.

The Kashmir chapter qualifies as journalism, good journalism. He uses his advantages--his contacts and his languages. It's the news behind the headlines, the human story, the color story. He even manages to give a more refined than usual version of how this whole conflict emerged. He follows a particular incident of a young man kidnapped by Indian security forces who is obviously murdered, along with others, to service the police's need for some Pakistani jihadists. Not that there aren't those as well, but it sure gives a different gloss on the new rising India. And the all too old story of how brutalization by the so-called protectors fuels an insurgency. What does this have to do with the pressure for modernity and the West? Beats me.

The book gets weaker and weaker as we plod on to other countries. All right, I forgot Nepal already. Did he do Nepal? The Tibet bit was startling in its flatness, lack of research and focus, poor descriptions of people and places. Like a blog post by a Lonely Planet zombie. Pankaj, button up, here's your focus: follow Tibetans that go to India or send their kids there, Tibetans that go back, Tibetans in India (and not just in Dharamsala). Follow one or two real human beings and hear of their experiences. And if you want to describe Lhasa or Tibet, you can easily describe the physical changes of the last 20 years, the crassness explosions and prostitutes from the Chinese by starting with Heinrich Harrer's Return to Tibet, your compatriot Vikram Seth's Beyond Heaven Lake (early 1980's?), Paul Theroux and there's one or two by English teachers that somehow washed up in Lhasa in the late 1980's. Also indispensable, which Mishra obviously hasn't read, is Isabel Hilton's book on the Panchen Lama, which must have come out 5-7 years ago. Orville Schell, John Avedon and memoirs of Tibetans are also worth a look and readily available in Delhi, Dharamsala, etc.

Anyway, Hilton is a journalist, Chinese-speaking. Because she starts off so non-partisan, her conclusions about the tragedy of Chinese occupation are especially powerful. I could tell Mishra hadn't read it just because of his repetition that monasteries were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution and the lack of details; actually, most of it happened even before that, in the early 1960's. Another aspect, in describing how the Panchen Lama's successor (a young boy; well, two young boys) were selected and how the Dalai Lama was involved in that, she got into the makeup of monks in Tibet. Well, some monks are "political"; some try very hard not to be, as at this particular monastery in Shigatse, and then there are the informers. I guess those would include the fake monk that shoved me backward at a monastery in Sanye and out of the premises--by pushing my breasts. But Mishra doesn't see or hear any of this. Come to think of it, the Panchen Lama problem never makes an appearance here. He makes a bland comment about Buddhism flourishing or looking ok. Once Mishra gets outside of India, he doesn't seem to possess a reportorial fiber in his body.

But I jumped ahead. Pakistan has some personal contacts to liven it up, though you won't get anything about the history of the past 20 years. He meets a character, a sad Bangladeshi journalist exiled after a coup in his home country. He later learns the man is a heroin addict. V.S. Naipaul (whose style Mishra mimics in some of the India chapters) would have run with this character. Well, there are other Pakistanis too. You wonder why Mishra didn't look up Ahmed Rashid (who made an appearance in Naipaul's last Muslim book), but I guess since 9/11 made him and The Taliban stars, he might be more inaccessible. But don't both Mishra and Rashid write for the New York Review of Books?

Wh ( )
1 vote Periodista | Dec 21, 2007 |
Showing 5 of 5
This is not a gentle book, but it is a brave one — and, for anyone in the West able to look beyond clichés and rhetoric, an essential one.
 
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312426410, Paperback)

 
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
 
In Temptations of the West, Pankaj Mishra brings literary authority and political insight to bear on journeys through South Asia, and considers the pressures of Western-style modernity and prosperity on the region. Beginning in India, his examination takes him from the realities of Bollywood stardom, to the history of Jawaharlal Nehru's post-independence politics. In Kashmir, he reports on the brutal massacre of thirty-five Sikhs, and its intriguing local aftermath. And in Tibet, he exquisitely parses the situation whereby the atheist Chinese government has discovered that Tibetan Buddhism can be "packaged and sold to tourists." Temptations of the West is essential reading about a conflicted and rapidly changing region of the world.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:38 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In his fourth book, following the acclaimed An End to Suffering, Pankaj Mishra brings literary authority and political insight to bear on journeys that are at once epic and personal." "Traveling in the changing cultures of South Asia, Mishra sees the pressures - the temptations - of Western-style modernity and prosperity, and adroitly teases out the paradoxes of globalization. A visit to Allahabad, the birth-place of Jawaharlal Nehru, occasions a brief history of the tumultuous post-independence politics Nehru set in motion. In Kashmir, just after the brutal killing of thirty-five Sikhs, he sees Muslim guerrillas playing with Sikh village children while the media ponder a (largely irrelevant) visit by President Clinton. And in Tibet he exquisitely parses the situation whereby the Chinese government - officially atheist and strongly opposed to a free Tibet - has discovered that Tibetan Buddhism can be "packaged and sold to tourists.""--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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