“What is India?” A great many people of yore, mostly Europeans, who had only a faint idea about a distant land they thought, for a long time, incorrectly, to be located at the end of the world, must have wondered this. Even Alexander the Great was ignorant–he assumed that after conquering this land beyond the Indus, he would win the whole world. Back then, people didn’t have the comfort of quick modes of transport like aeroplanes and trains. And of course, the maps were incomplete and inaccurate… that is, if there were any. India wasn’t mapped (let alone accurately) until much, much later. If a sailor wanted to sail to the hitherto unknown parts of the world, he had scant chance of success due to poor navigation facilities and difficulties in procuring shipmates because of a general reluctance to visit an alien land.
In those days, India had a reputation of something akin to a fantasy world. Even when it was largely uncharted and unexplored, it impressed itself deeply upon the minds of the foreigners as a land of wonder, of unimaginable wealth (sigh!) magic, snake-charmers, and really strange inhabitants. Most of these impressions, as we know, were hyperbolic hogwash. Although, nothing like the exaggerated impressions regarding ancient and medieval India, which mythified it into a place somewhere in the Middle-earth, even today, the picture most outsiders create of India is pretty ridiculous, ill-informed and coloured by prejudices.
In his new book, A Strange kind of Paradise, BBC journalist Sam Miller tells us about what outsiders thought of India starting from the antiquity to the present. He demystifies this country for foreigners, debunks their prejudices, and writes a charmingly funny tale about his personal relationship with India. Miller, I came to know, has spent about twenty years in India (Delhi) and even has an Indian wife. Apart from his considerable experience with the Indian people and lifestyle, he is a discerning observer–a nice attribute for a journalist, of course, but it also helps him to have a profound understanding of India. Indeed, I have never encountered any other foreign writer who comprehends the tangled web that is India so well, and without any preconceptions and ready-made opinions. A telling passage:
We all have our patchwork ideas of India, our notions and opinions and prejudices–often fallacious and absurd–of this enormous, disparate country, which, as I take pleasure in reminding newcomers, bigger in population than all but its own continent: Asia. It is a place onto which foreigners have projected their own exotic fantasies and fears, their explanatory and simplifying schemata. And they never seem quite to make up their minds–as they swing from one extreme to the other–whether this country is of great wealth or of appalling poverty, of spiritual renunciation or of unabashed materialism, of fasting or of gluttony, of erotic sophistication or of sexual puritanism, of corruption or of moral superiority. They probably fail to admit that it might be all these things, and even more so, everything in between.
The book is very well-written, well-researched, imbued with a lot of humour and is ultimately very readable due to the simple fact that it is written by somebody who really knows India (to give you an idea, I finished it in a single sitting, and I’m usually a fairly slow reader). As much as a scholar born and brought up in the streets of Delhi or Mumbai. And also, the author has a genuine love for the country he has adopted as his homeland. This is quite clear from this passage:
The enormous scale of India is important. It seems both large enough and varied enough for most things imaginable on this earth to be possible in just one country. Whatever you are searching for: great food, spiritual learning, a good holiday, narcotic experiences, snowy mountains, a job, tropical jungle, love of any kind, or even the happy and not-so-happy poor. And it’s because (almost) everything is possible, that visitors continue to have such idiosyncratic fantasies and opinions and nightmares about India as a country, as if one tiny part stood for the whole. And this notion of scale and variety, turned about, helps me to understand why I love living here so much. For India makes the rest of the world feel small and tame and uniform and peripheral by comparison. India has everything that is old, everything that is modern, and everything in between. It has quite enough to challenge and surprise me intellectually, aesthetically and existentially for so many lifetimes. I have never been bored in India.
But keep in mind, this is not a fairy-tale. Miller, as much as he loves the country, doesn’t skimp over the ugly side of the country. The filth, bigotry, poverty, illiteracy, carelessness, ignorance. But he tells all of that in a passive way. He doesn’t judge. That is when you realise that he is as much an Indian as you are.
A bit of warning: this book has a good deal of sexual and, um, scatological references. So as fun and informative this book is, I certainly do not recommend it for children. And prudes too, please stay away.