‘Bitter Reading’

It’s a shame that Hilary Mantel’s piece on Pankaj Mishra’s new book, Temptations of the West, is hidden behind subscription walls at the New York Review of Books. It’s a very interesting article that places the book in the context of Mishra’s earlier work, and I really enjoyed reading it, so I’ll share at least this paragraph from it:

This is a book written for the West, by a man with a stake in two worlds, who moves through languages—a skill of which Mishra makes little—and who travels uneasily, so that most of us can stay at home. For the West it makes bitter reading. It explores a legacy of bungling and bad faith, of cultural incomprehension and pragmatic exploitation, and the export of two ideas—the idea of the nation-state and the idea of democracy— which have arrived in the East in a deteriorated and contaminating condition. Looking at modern India, with its wildly uneven distribution of wealth, its high-tech dreams existing beside the most debased squalor, the West is inclined to say, “At least we are not responsible for the caste system.” But are those white hands quite clean? How far is modern Hinduism an “Empire product”? How far is it a synthesized organism, bred to rule, bred to be capable of taking over the reins of power when the British quit?

Mishra argues that during the years of British rule a Hindu elite embraced a notion of its own history created at least in part by Western Orientalists. This vision looked back to a pre-Islamic India, and excused its most stomach-turning practices—widow-burning, for instance—as a reaction to the cruelties of Muslim rule. What this elite took from the imperialists was “the European idea of the nation—a cohesive community with a common history, culture, values, and sense of purpose—which for many other colonized peoples appeared a way of duplicating the success of the powerful, all-conquering West.”

More here.