Ben MacIntyre reviews Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Temptations of the West for the New York Times Book Review:
Mishra reports on a world in which the cultural definitions are constantly evolving, eliding and colliding. His travels are also interwoven with pungent commentary on modern politics in South Asia. Few politicians escape unburned; some are roasted. Indira Gandhi is held up as a triumph of mediocrity: “a not particularly sensitive or intelligent woman . . . exalted by accident of birth and a callow political culture into the chieftancy of a continent-size nation.”
While there is fury in Mishra’s account of his homeland and its neighbors, there is also a fierce love. He is particularly moved by the sight of ordinary Indians trudging off to vote for politicians who often do not deserve it.
It’s a very positive write-up, but I was surprised at the frequency of certain labels: “angry book,” “fury in Mishra’s account,” “book will enrage many Indian readers,” “not a gentle book,” and so on. Compare and contrast with this review by Charles Foran in the Globe and Mail, which uses words like “vivid,” “intrepid,” “daring,” and where the adjective “angry” is nowhere to be seen:
Were Temptations of the West simply a collection of travel essays that ponders how places like India and Nepal negotiate a globalized planet, it would still be a fine book. But the intensity of Mishra’s prose suggests that he wants the disruption, and the upheaval, to be felt viscerally. Daring reportage, and an obvious empathy for ordinary people, goes some way toward this ambition.
As important, though, is the use of his own narrative as evidence of the “bewildering complexity” faced by individuals swept along by those negotiations. If, as he claims, the movement for one traveller at least was from “ignorance and prejudice to a measure of self-awareness and knowledge,” then it might prove the same for certain readers. Great books, and great books only, can have that rare effect.