Thursday, June 28, 2007

Temptations of the West: How to be modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond

By Pankaj Mishra

In many ways, this is an uncomfortable book. For English-speaking Indians used to the ‘India Shining’ story streaming out of newspapers, magazines and TV channels, it is disquieting to come across someone who holds a mirror to what can only be called the failures of the Indian state. That is what Mishra does with his latest book. Yes, he has an agenda – a liberal, left-leaning, anti-West one, and that can colour a lot of what he says. And one does get the sneaking suspicion that this is a book meant for the West, and not the South Asians he writes about. Yet, it is thought-provoking and interesting and worthy of note.

The book is Mishra’s take on how traditional societies in
South Asia are coping with the Western version of ‘modernisation’ – of closed economies suddenly coming face to face with a globalised world; of free market economics coming into play in areas that are extremely poor; of Western ideologies of colonization, communism and democracy touching traditionally feudal societies. It is a memoir, a travelogue, a narrative that touches upon history, politics and philosophy. Mishra travels to small town India (Benares, Allahabad, Ayodhya, Srinagar, Jammu) and its biggest city Bombay; to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet; to bring a provocative point of view of what it means to be modern in these places.

In India, he elaborates on a favourite theme – the ‘grimy underside’ of middle class society. A society that is impatient with ‘the stubbornly destitute majority’, an impatience mirrored in their support for ‘strong’ leaders like Indira and Sanjay Gandhi and the creation of a national identity whose ingredients include ‘Hinduism, nuclear bombs, beauty queens and information technology tycoons.’ It is the very same middle class that created the RSS, an organization Mishra equates to the fascists of Germany, creating a self-assertive Hinduism that found its strongest support in wealthy expatriate Hindus. It is this class’s profound distrust of a reclaiming of India by the lower classes and castes, and their fear of letting go of the old order and stability that form the basis of most conflicts in modern India.

And there is a reclaiming. Power has passed to a class of ‘professional politicians’, we have been forced to accommodate Dalits and Muslims and a million other underprivileged classes in politics and a re-arranging of the old order is underway. There no longer is a monolith Congress Party, able to accommodate any and everyone. Each class has its own demands and grievances and its own play for power. Indian democracy is unruly and untidy, and while politicians of all political hues have consistently failed the poorest of the poor in this country, the faith in elections and in their ability to change people’s fate is touchingly alive.

But Mishra has a warning – especially on resurgent Hindu nationalism. ‘Hinduism in the hands of these Indians has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of popes and mullahs, and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians,’ he says. And this ‘profound modernity of religious nationalism’ is disquieting for Muslims and other minorities whose faith in Indian democracy has been tested time and again by the repeated violence unleashed against them. No Indian Muslim so far, other than Kashmiris, has ever been responded to jihad calls anywhere in the world. That statistic is steadily coming under threat.

The chapter on Kashmir is an unflinching look at India’s role in a troubled region. The Indian government’s and army’s continually insensitive handling of a very sensitive issue has exacerbated tensions to almost a point of no return. Draconian measures to curb an insurgency fed on calls of jihad and India’s growing strategic importance to world powers have meant that the majority of Kashmiris live in a state of an uneasy accommodation with the Indian presence in the valley.

In Pakistan, Mishra talks of ‘the dwindling of human possibilities, and the steady grinding-down of individual lives’; of a feudal society at odds with democratic institutions; of an ancient Islamic global civilization broken down by ‘the invincible modern civilization of the West’ and producing a fanaticism that crushes freedom; of Deobandi madrassas that train people from areas as far flung as Kashmir, the Philippines, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Afghanistan, Mishra says is a story of ‘the tragic violence and disorder of a near-primitive society modernizing too fast.’ The modern ideologies of communism, democracy and globalization clash in a country that had missed the 19th century altogether in its history. Its current state is the result of its calamitous encounter with modernity. An interesting take, I thought. In Nepal, he explores the rise of a militant Mao-ism and an ironical clash between two archaic ideologies – communism and monarchy. To the West that is prepared to do anything to stop the Mao-ists from coming to power, he questions the nature of a democracy protected by an autocrat.

But his most touching analysis is left for Tibet. He calls it a ‘unique civilzation’; one whose leaders in exile still believe that ‘you cannot achieve a good end through the wrong kind of means.’ He takes us through their history, the inexorable march of China through Tibet and the unique perspective the Dalai Lama brings to the table. His last words on this distinct place are inspiring, to say the least. ‘It is no accident that the Tibetans seem to have survived the large-scale communist attempt at social engineering rather better than most people in China itself. This is at least partly due to their Budhistic belief in the primacy of empathy and compassion. And, faced with an aggressively secular materialism, they may still prove, almost alone in the world, how religion, usually dismissed as ‘poison’, can be a source of cultural identity and moral values. They may prove how it can become a means of political protest without blinding the devout with hatred and prejudice; how it can help heal the shocks and pains of history – the pain that has led people elsewhere in the world into nihilistic rage – but also create a rational and ethical national culture – a culture that may make a freer Tibet, whenever it comes about, better prepared for its state of freedom than most societies.’

Strangely enough, Tibet is the land Mishra seems most optimistic about. It is an intensely, almost naively optimistic view of what to most people looks like a lost cause. In his world view, Western modernity is almost the call of the pied piper – leading nations, including India, into some mode of self-destruction. It is Tibet, by its ability to hold on to its traditional sources of inner strength, which seems to him most capable of encountering this hostile modernity.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Shell-shocked. That was what I was after watching the biggest film of the year. What really was that? A man, a superman, a ghost, a god? Rajnikanth does have that kind of an effect on you. Especially if you are not a Tamilian, or you haven’t seen a film of his for over 20 years.

Rajni is a phenomenon – we’ve all heard that. He probably deserves a couple of hundred theses written on him. It still might not explain his incredible sway over audiences, apparently the world over. In Sivaji, he plays nothing but himself – El Mariachi, Neo, Superman, Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle, all rolled into one. There is seemingly nothing he cannot do. Halt a bullet in its trajectory, beat up a hundred goons single-handedly, fly into the air a la Matrix, die and then come back to life.

As Indians we are used to exaggeration – we are familiar with macho heroes, be it AB or MGR, beating up the villains to a pulp. We watch it in all seriousness, suspending disbelief. The difference here is, I am truly not sure if I am meant to watch it in seriousness. Isn’t this really a spoof? Isn’t Rajni kind of winking at the audience and saying, ‘Isn’t this cool? I can be what I want and do what I want – this is a movie,’ with a kind of awareness of the ridiculousness of it all?

Sivaji, an NRI returns to India wanting to set up schools and hospitals for the poor. He runs into obstacles – a ruthless businessman, politicians on the take, shady cops, a corrupt bureaucracy, all of who want their share of the spoils. Sivaji tries paying them off, but there is always one more guy to be paid, he loses patience and decides to take on the system, in the process making it his mission to rid the country of black money. So far so good – we know this happens in our films. A hero gets treated unfairly and he turns to vigilante justice. But then things turn bizarre – we are treated to a lesson in economics (what black money is and why it is bad), money laundering (with Muslims as the hawala traders), dying in police custody, and then being revived, ... the list is endless. Somewhere in between, Sivaji also manages to fall in love with a wholesome Tamil girl who wears revealing clothes only in dream sequences, bathes in Fair and Lovely (how much did these guys pay for the product placement, I wonder), turns a Michael Jackson white for the duration of one song and there is a whole comedy track which is pretty pathetic by Tamil film standards. The plots, the characters, all are secondary - you go to see the film for Rajni, nothing more.

For a movie that is touted as the most expensive Indian film ever made, the production values are not all that hot. The songs and the dream sequences look like a lot of money has gone into them; but otherwise, it’s just average on the looks variety. And I was quite disappointed with the music. Rajni himself looks a bit podgy and his Manish Malhotra clothes don’t do much for him.

But then, the ‘Rajni style’ stays intact. 20 years ago, he made flipping a cigarette into your mouth THE thing to do, for 12 year old boys. This time, they get to choose between flicking a deflected chewing gum into your mouth (the cigarette is too politically incorrect, I guess), drumming on your head, wearing sunglasses at the back of your head or flicking a 1 Re coin from hand to hand and then right into your pocket. And of course, saying ‘cool’ at the end of it all.

All in all, Sivaji is definitely worth watching if you have never watched a Rajni film or haven’t watched one in a long time. It gives you a glimpse into a movie world quite different from any other. You may leave the theatre a lifelong fan. Or you may vow never to subject yourself to this again.