South Asia's Clash Between Tradition and Modernity

Pankaj Mishra is author of the book Temptations of the West, a collection of essays about religion, poverty and politics in South Asia. Renee Montagne talks with Mishra about the clash between modernity and tradition in the region.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next we're going to meet a writer who often finds himself explaining one culture to another. His name is Pankaj Mishra. He's a writer raised in India, now living much of the time in London. His latest book is a collection of what you might call political travelogues. They've appeared in places like The New York Review of Books and Granta. The collection of those travelogues is called Temptations of the West. It chronicles his travels through South Asia.

Renee spoke with him about one of his trips to Pakistan.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Pankaj Mishra is adroit at mediating the cultural differences between East and West. In Pakistan he found himself investigating his own prejudices born out of the bloody partition of the Indian subcontinent into Muslim Pakistan and majority Hindu India - two countries that twice went to war and have often been on the brink of war.

When he made his first trip to Peshawar, Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, it was January, 2001. In those pre-9/11 days, the city was thick with Taliban and beggar children from Afghan refugee camps, heroin addicts and a smattering of desultory journalists. Mishra spoke Urdu, but still, he writes, he was an Indian and a Hindu in a Muslim land.

You began your chapter on Pakistan with these words: Peshawar is a mess. What did you find there on your first visit?

Mr. PANKAJ MISHRA (Author, Temptations of the West): Well, I think that opening really speaks more about my state of mind than, you know, actually about Peshawar because I was really terrified. This was my first visit to Pakistan. And, you know, to be an Indian in Pakistan, to be a Hindu in Pakistan really brings with it all kinds of anxieties and fears. And I'd sort of grown up in India with all kinds of anti-Muslim prejudices and, you know, here I was in Peshawar, right in the heart of radical Islamist country. And everything I saw was really tinged with fear and anxiety.

MONTAGNE: Although you certainly had some reason to have that fear, as you saw it at least, you were being tailed by spies.

Mr. MISHRA: I was. And, you know, this is pretty standard for Indians visiting Pakistan, and indeed for Pakistanis visiting India. I mean, you know, especially journalists, especially writers who always have people following their every move.

MONTAGNE: Why don't you read us a bit that you write about these spies. You begin by saying not that the spies did anything...

Mr. MISHRA: Absolutely.

(Reading) Still, if you're not used to being followed and watched, it can get stifling. The world seems full of a vague menace. The friendly, rather camp bellboy with slicked down hair whom you think you have tipped generously turns into an ungrateful informer. So does, at one point, everyone else. And the liveliest street scene begins to look like an elaborate preparation for an arrest.

MONTAGNE: You were walking two lines. You are local to the region, but you're a stranger and a bit of an enemy in this place.

Mr. MISHRA: Indeed. I mean being able to speak the language there, being able to understand what is being spoken around me did sort of give me a kind of insight into how that particular society looked at itself, looked at the world.

MONTAGNE: What did they in fact tell you?

Mr. MISHRA: People were willing to talk about their private lives and, you know, that's what, primarily, I was interested in. That's what this book is about - to know how they arrived at the ideas they had. And, you know, a lot of them turned out to have not half those views, you know, in reality. And in a way they were kind of forced into espousing them, especially, you know, the people who I would call the foot soldiers of the jihad, you know, who were there in all the big rallies that you see.

And when you sort of, you know, talk to them in private, they really did not have these ideas and the opinions that they were spouting in public. It was an experience of frustration, it was an experience of poverty, it was an experience of humiliation that had, you know, made them enlist in these causes and that's what came through in these individual encounters.

MONTAGNE: You ended up working with a local fixer in Pakistan by the name of Jamal(ph). He says of Pakistan: They're all fanatics here. And you write, I immediately warmed to him. Because you had been, as you said of yourself, silently nurturing this commonplace prejudice.

Mr. MISHRA: Yes, indeed. But, you know, these prejudices were really a product of my upbringing, a kind of lower middle class upbringing in India where the Muslims were perceived, at least in the, you know, Hindu nationalist sort of demonology, as a kind of people who were not loyal to India. So, you know, it took me a while to stop looking at Pakistan through this kind of, you know, distorting prism of this anti-Muslim prejudice.

MONTAGNE: Well, when you were a kid how did Muslims look to you? You tell a tale in the book about your father from when you were a little boy, and you would see the workers out in the fields.

Mr. MISHRA: Indeed. And he would come back with them to our home after a very tiring working day and they would be offered tea in these sort of glasses that were kept separately for Muslims and for low-caste Hindus. So I had a very clear sense that these were not sort of people like us, that they were actually inferior people and people to be looked down upon. And, you know, those kind of prejudices, they kind of, you know, reared up at that time in Pakistan. I still have to be careful of them.

MONTAGNE: So actually in a way you could bring us to the present. When you were there a few years ago, you heard the expression Talibanization. We're hearing that expression now about Pakistan. Give us some context. Is it in fact the case that there is a process of Talibanization going on in Pakistan?

Mr. MISHRA: Indeed. I mean I think that's a very good question in that Pakistan has been in the frontline of the global jihad. And this was a global jihad created in the 1980s directed against the Soviet Union, and all the radical Islamists of the world were encouraged to come to Pakistan and to Afghanistan and to stand shoulder to shoulder and fight.

And looking at the experience of Pakistan, what happened there, the kind of flourishing of extremists ideologies in which, you know, people with guns, people with a lot of power created this sort of entire mood where it was impossible for people to be moderate. It's impossible for people to be liberal. There was absolutely no room for this kind of rational discourse.

So I do think, you know, this process of Talibanization is spreading extremely widely, very disturbingly so.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. MISHRA: Thanks, Renee. Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Pankaj Mishra is the author of the book Temptations of the West.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And by the way, Renee is now in Afghanistan. Over the next few weeks we will listen to her conversations with people about life there and how they're faring. This weekend marks the fifth anniversary of the launch of the U.S. bombing campaign.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

And I'm Deborah Amos sitting in for Renee Montagne.

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Books Featured In This Story

Temptations of the West

How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, And Beyond

by Pankaj Mishra

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