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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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