Pankaj Mishra – Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (#5 of 26)

butterchickenI must confess to never having heard of Pankaj Mishra before I was reading this article where William Dalrymple & Ramchandra Guha were trading barbs around a decade ago. And Dalrymple mentioned Pankaj Mishra as one of the Indian authors whom he was mighty impressed by or something. So I searched for his works and was wondering which one to start off with, especially wary of picking up something too high brow with the fear of not being able to plough through it at all. So despite this being 20 years old, I chose Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, because hey – travel writing is always interesting.

One of the best parts of the book for me was the Afterward.In this Mishra says, and I’m quoting verbatim

But I always felt slightly embarrassed by the book. For, as I continued to write, I began to find my own voice, and to see the need for intellectual and existential self-reckoning in much of what I wrote. Butter Chicken reminded me too much of my younger, callow, unresolved self, which had assumed positions of intellectual and moral authority without quite earning the always provisional right to them

That one lines sums up my feelings around this work. Mishra is evidently a child prodigy of sorts, to be able to write a work like this at the age of 25. I say this not because a 25 year couldn’t have made the observations he has made but for even aspiring to take a project like this on. He also reads all the high brow authors of the world right from Iris Murdoch (I had to Google), Kant  and Thomas Mann (just about heard the names). He has a solid knowledge and background of Indian history beyond what even an Indian interested in history is likely to have. The point is he is an outlier in Indian society – certainly not a representative of the mofussil masses but not even one from the self-appointed classes. And what that leads to is an annoying tone of superiority and a moral high ground that would seem snobbish even coming from an outsider – a foreigner – but feels downright judgmental when it comes from someone who by his own accounts has grown up in this country and for whom none of this could have been a complete shock. There is a pervading sense of us versus them, more like me versus them to be honest. which I found grated time and again. Take out some of the vernacular conversations, orientations of geography and cultural nous – this could very easily be mistaken to be written by a celebrated foreigner.

This is not to discount the observations or the writing at all. The basis for the high praise from Dalrymple even at that young age is evident, there is a narrative flow which is exceptionally smooth when you consider that the author interjects himself in and out of situations without it ever  jarring. A lot of nuggets and observations are just that – there isn’t always a backed up reasoning behind them. I’m on the fence about whether a writer should do that, on one hand I feel it gives more power to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions, but there is always the chance of it leading to misguided and incorrect conclusions.

For a book which is 22 years old, it’s also one which has aged remarkably well. Some of the observations are remarkably prescient. The chapters on Bangalore (sans the IT boom this), entrance exam preparation, the kitsch and loudness of the big fat Indian wedding, communal beliefs suppressed underneath a veneer of sincerity – this could be 2015. And yes, while a lot has changed over the last 2 decades – the fruits of liberalisation hopefully trickling down further into the hinterlands, the cellular phone revolution, cultural ambitiousness – to a large extent outside the yuppie hot-pockets of Mumbai’s, Delhi’s, Bangalore’s and Pune’s I suspect one will find a lot of le plus ca change le plus c’est la meme chose. 

Entertainment Quotient : ★★★
Education Quotient : ★★★★
Readability : ★★★★


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