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India Through Foreign Eyes

Stimes Review

My latest review in the Sunday Times is of Sam Miller’s “A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes”. You’ll find the original here. Or here’s the text.

A Strange Kind of Paradise India Through Foreign Eyes by Sam Miller

Cape £18.99/ebook £9.99 pp421

Ringo Starr couldn’t stomach Indian food. In 1968 he arrived with his fellow ­Beatles at the Maharishi’s ashram in Rishikesh in northern India lugging a suitcase of Heinz baked beans. Paul ­McCartney’s ­reaction to India’s ­poverty was “stoical” — he insisted that handouts to beggars were not the answer. George ­Harrison was instantly enamoured  of the culture, and referred to naked ­sadhus in the holy city of Varanasi as “really spiritual”. After the Maharishi made a pass at Mia Farrow, John ­Lennon left in disgust, penning the lines, “Maharishi, what have you done / You made a fool out of everyone”, although later he replaced “Maharishi” with “Sexy Sadie”.
The Beatles were hardly the first westerners to find India challenging or to form conflicting or half-cocked opinions about the place. They were merely the hippest in a long line of foreigners promoting a faddish impression of the country to the outside world — in their case as the land of “spiritual harmony”, the sitar and Ravi Shankar.
The imagery of India that author Sam Miller grew up with in Britain, however, was very different. The so-called “raj revival” of the 1980s that he remembers from his twenties was fostered by television adaptations of Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown and MM Kaye’s The Far Pavilions (the latter “the purest bilge”, according to ­Salman Rushdie) and Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, with its “romanticised tribute to the steam train and the Indian countryside”. Consequently, when Miller married an Indian and started visiting her homeland in the early 1990s, eventually settling in Delhi, he began a process of “unlearning”. His unusual book is a revealing juxtaposition of his wanderings, alongside the fascinating history of what ­millennia of foreigners have made of this ­
baffling country.
Miller, who says he knows “quite a lot about India, the kind of facts that might win a pub quiz”, follows in the footsteps of everyone from Vasco da Gama (who takes the prize for “the most foul-tempered and unperceptive visitor”) to the serial 11th-­century invader Mahmud of Ghazni (definitely “the most unpopular”). Fawning fans have included Mark Twain, who eulogised endlessly about “the land of tigers and ­elephants”, but definitely not VS Naipaul, who became obsessed “with the subject of shit”. Miller ­visits the tomb of Jesus in Kashmir, or so the locals assure him; spots the Kama Sutra pop-up book at New Delhi airport; encounters the Goddess of English; and visits the Hindu temple that inadvertently inspired the X-Men character, ­Juggernaut.
In sifting through such improbable cultural detritus, Miller illustrates how the world’s perceptions of India have oscillated wildly. To the ancient Greeks it was “an unknown land at the edge of the world” populated by giant, gold-digging ants. Muslim and European invaders slavered over its tantalising loot. And more recently, the Slumdog Millionaire generation has perceived it as a nation of extreme poverty and call centres.
The British relationship with India proved no less predictable. The East India Company’s nabobs ­merrily plundered the land, yet its servants “busied themselves…with the task of classifying everything and everybody”. William Jones, the 18th-century polymath and founder of the Asiatic Society, recognised
the common linguistic ancestry of ­Sanskrit with Greek and urged Europeans to stop seeing “India through a glass darkly”, and to develop an appreciation for its “thousand ­little nuances”. But that appeal went mostly unheeded. Although many in Britain, including Queen Victoria, positively thrilled to India’s exoticism, the infamy of the Black Hole of Calcutta and the 1857 mutiny conspired to perpetuate an impression of barbarism.
The emergence of the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and ­Jawaharlal Nehru on the world stage improved India’s standing, but Miller quotes a survey conducted in the US in the late 1950s among “influential Americans” that revealed little in the way of erudition when it came to matters Indian. Clearly, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with its monkey brain-eating Kali ­worshippers, didn’t help bridge that ­cultural divide.
It is a pity that Miller doesn’t dig deeper into the psychology behind why the country remains such an enigma for most outsiders. He is ­dismissive of Apple founder Steve Jobs’s astute observation that Indians are guided more by intuition than westerners, but offers no alternative view on what drives Indian culture to stand apart. However, for those he comes across searching for the “real India” (as opposed to the one of mega cities and shopping malls) Miller offers percipient advice: don’t generalise about this vast, extraordinary country. “India,” he writes, “has everything that is old…modern, and everything in between…enough to challenge and surprise me intellectually, aesthetically and existentially for many lifetimes.”
 + Available at the Sunday Times Bookshop price of £15.99 (including p&p) and £9.99 (ebook) on 0845 271 2135

 

 

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Nice Interview on Indiaphile.com

Piers Moore Ede of Indiaphile.com interviewed me recently and also wrote a short, very complimentary review of the Vish Puriseries.  You can read it here. But also check out the site. It has some great features.

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Trip Fiction LOVES Love Commandos

A lovely review of The Case of the Love Commandos (Vish Puri4) on the brilliant TripFiction. “I get very excited when a new mystery comes out,” writes Tanya, the reviewer, who admits she’s a huge fan. Good on her! Read the full version here.

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My Dad’s Autobiography

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I’m proud to announce the publication of my father’s memoir, “An English Baby Boomer My Life and Times”. Call me bias, but I’ve found it to be a very insightful and often amusing social commentary on the post-war years. Dad, born in 1947, grew up first in South Africa and Germany before being sent off to a British boarding school at the age of seven. The Britain he describes hardly exists anymore, and his recollections of the attitudes of his parents, grandparents and peers serve as a stark reminder of just how fundamentally attitudes have changed (mostly for the better). Dad went on to the public school, Marlborough, which is about as posh as it gets. But he broke the mould and, in the late 60s, joined a commune and started a decorating business in the West End. My favourite bits in the book are about his exploits with his Swedish business partner, Leon, with whom he attended church on Sundays with the sole purpose of picking up women. Go Dad! One detail did give me pause for thought, however. Apparently, when my Mum found out she was pregnant – and, no, she’s not Swedish and he didn’t meet her in church – Dad booked an appointment at an abortion clinic. Fortunately a friend told them it would be a mistake to get rid of me and my parents subsequently married, so I owe that individual a considerable debt! To think that there might have been one less Tarquin in this world.

Dad, who was 22 when I was born, proved himself an incredibly hard-working entrepreneur and a doting, enlightened father. Sadly, thanks to poor advice, irresponsible banking practises and mass-market competition, his businesses didn’t survive the recessions of the 80s. But always a survivor, he drove a minicab (his call name was “Spud”) to make ends meet and helped me syndicate my first feature stories with capital raised from the sale of his much-cherished family heirloom, his Grandfather Clock. That he also reinvented himself and forged a successful career in the financial services industry, which was full of snake-oil salesmen in the 80s and 90s, is not perhaps the titillating material of many best selling biographies. But it is a testament to a work ethic, common decency and fair mindedness that has made Britain such a liveable and tolerant place today. Inspiring? I would say so – certainly for anyone thinking about writing their own story. The book weighs in at 388 pages and he wrote it over the course of the past ten years. Personally, I can’t think of anything as precious to pass on to my kids…although one of these days it might be nice to buy back that Grandfather Clock.

To order a paperback go here.

For the kindle version here.

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Thoughtful Review of LCs

Here’s a very thoughtful review of The Case of the Love Commandos in The Telegraph in Kolkata. Do Indian book reviewers suffer from xenophobia, asks Devapria Roy? She put herself to the test by reading my book.   DIY PUBLISHING

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