Novelist and New York Review of Books regular Mishra (An End to Suffering, 2004, etc.) blends reportage with travel memoir in a riveting collection of essays about religion, poverty and political jockeying in southern Asia.
Examining the clash between tradition and modernity, the author seeks to understand the seeds and fruits of both Hindu nationalism and radical Islam. Mishra begins his peregrinations in India, where he grew up. Insisting that there’s more to his homeland than intractable tension between Muslims and Hindu nationalists, he zeroes in on the now-sizable middle-class, which wants the same things Americans and Brits want: stability, security and material possessions. By Mishra’s account, even the most ardent Hindu nationalists do not wish, “like the jihadis, to challenge or reject the knowledge and power of the West.” Pakistan, however, seems to him “much further away.” Though he constantly scrutinizes his own prejudices, the author cannot deny that he feels anxious about the Islam that he encounters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Throughout, Mishra slips in lessons for ignorant Westerners, even offering a sympathetic but hardly naïve discussion of Muslim thinker Mohammad Iqbal. And he rejects simplistic analysis: Ruminating on the Taliban’s destruction of giant Buddhist statues, for example, he admits to being silenced by a radical Islamist who asked why Western journalists were so up-in-arms about these statues but didn’t seem to care about the horrible conditions of refugee camps near Peshawar. The book has a few flaws, however. The author pays less attention than he should to gender; women pop up (there are Bollywood starlets, forceful politicians, veiled, anonymous Muslim wives), but only as cameo appearances. Short final chapters on Nepal and Tibet feel tacked on; readers would have had plenty to digest without them.
Subtle, sobering and very smart.