Interspersing dispatches with history lessons, Pankaj Mishra offers a bleak vision of contemporary South Asia in Temptations of the West. In India, he reveals, some politicians can’t be bothered to make false promises or smear their opponents; they opt for “booth capturing,” which involves armed men and stuffed ballots. In one village, the primary school teacher shows up only once a week: “There was no way of predicting when he would come, and so the students dressed each morning for school and spent the day waiting for the teacher outside the locked doors.” The other stops on the author’s itinerary—Kashmir, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Nepal—are no more cheerful. It’s easy to see why our own society, hanging chads and overcrowded classrooms notwithstanding, would hold such temptation. But in fact, the lyrical title is too optimistic. Temptation implies access, or at least awareness, and most of the people Mishra describes seem too busy reclaiming the corpses of relatives, eking out a shabby living, or waging separatist insurgencies to give much thought to the West.
As a native Indian who contributes to British and American publications, Mishra has the ideal résumé to write this volume. Previously the author of a novel and a book about the Buddha, he is an appealing narrator—erudite but modest, compassionate but unsentimental. His prose is endearingly formal (occasionally to the point of inaptness—two commanders “wished to rape” a boy, as though they had the thought while blowing out birthday candles). And he’s an insightful observer, especially of India and, in the final chapter, Tibet. This land’s magical properties still live up to the fantasies of foreigners, but China has razed hundreds of temples and flooded the capital with cheap kitsch and adolescent prostitutes. Mishra points out that what makes the place special—its Buddhist traditions, which he believes have shaped a national character of humility and kindness—has also undercut its resistance to China’s occupation.
Temptations ends rather abruptly after this chapter, adding to the feel of a collection of expanded magazine articles. Aside from the refrain of misfortune, there is no unifying theme. As if anticipating this charge, Mishra disavows “broad generalizations of the kind preferred by policymakers and op-ed columnists. These interconnected narratives do not presume to offer solutions.” Cheers to his suspicion of pat conclusions. But judging by the acuity on display here, more of his thoughts would have enhanced the value of his reporting.