The phrase “Third World poverty,” conjures up CNN-inspired images of starving, fly-infested babies clutching at their emaciated parents. This is raw human desperation that even we, in the comfort of our First-World homes, can comprehend. But what’s more difficult to imagine is the fate of the other hundreds of millions in these distant countries caught right in the cusp between such disaster and survival. They are truck drivers, street vendors, house-maids, unemployed college graduates, and farmers who lead precarious, desperate lives scratching and flailing against going under in a teeming mass of humanity. Theirs is a world where success is a small step up the social ladder, achieved against enormous odds and at great expense to one’s soul.
Except for the very privileged, to live in a poor country is to live in constant fear, surrounded by daily reminders of the dreadful consequences of failure. It is this secret terror that Pankaj Mishra brilliantly captures in his latest book, Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond. The travelogue, offered in the form of individual essays, offers rare insight into the long shadow that poverty casts over human endeavor in South Asia.
Take, for instance, elections, which we in the West view as political battles between candidates over ideas or policy. In India, however, electoral politics serve a more mundane and debased purpose as are one of the few available means of economic mobility for under-privileged, undereducated men who, once in office, seek only to secure their financial future and that of their families. “They all seek power that in societies degraded by colonialism often comes without a redeeming idea of what it is to be used for, the kind of power that, in most cases, amounts to little more than an opportunity to rise above the rest of the population and savor the richness of the world,” Mishra writes. So they plunder, loot – and, at times, kill – to keep at bay the fear that come election-time, they may find themselves back in their miserable, hovel-sized home, back within reach of their old nemesis: poverty.
But the politicians who ride around in their air-conditioned cars with a posse of body-guards are the rare, lucky ones who have “made it.” Less fortunate are others like Rajesh, a poor college-educated Brahmin who begins by dabbling in petty crime only to end up as a contract killer. Or a reluctant jihadi like Rahmat, who becomes a mujahedeen when he runs out of options in rural Pakistan.
[T]hese were people whose frustration and rage over their many deprivations could easily be appropriated into ideological crusades, for whom hallucinations of great power allayed their crushing sense of very real powerlessness. It was among the young unemployed men in small towns that [religious extremists] … had found its foot soldiers, the men who formed the faceless mobs, who were in charge of the dirty stuff, of the necessary lynchings and destruction.
Temptations of the West points to the great irony that defines the experience of modernity in the subcontinent, where globalization has crushed millions of such young men underfoot in the name of freedom and opportunity – prompting “the rage and despair of people who, arriving late in the modern world, have known its primary ideology, democracy, only as another delusion, the disenchanted millions who will increasingly seek, through other means than elections, the dignity and justice they feel is owed them.”
It isn’t surprising that Mishra is more sympathetic to those who fully reject the West – be they Islamic militants or Buddhist monks – than those who seek to emulate its power. He reserves his contempt for upwardly mobile middle-class Indians and their “fantasy of wealth, political power, and cultural confidence.” Theirs is the India of shopping malls, night-clubs, Swedish cell phones, beauty queens, and the nuclear bomb, the “India Shining” that the Hindu nationalist party BJP touted in campaign posters in the most recent national elections. For unlike their Muslim counterparts, Hindu extremists merely want to reproduce the material successes of the West – albeit suitably Indianized to meet local tastes, much like a Paneer Tikka burger. “They were content to take the world as they found it, dominated by the West, and then find a niche for themselves in it; they were, above all, sly materialists,” writes Mishra.
Temptations of the West is an angry book, and its rage is well-justified and on target. But so intent is Mishra on excoriating Western-style capitalism, he falls continually into misleading generalizations such as: “This pragmatic collaboration [of Hindu ideologues] with the West is what has produced the new Hindu renaissance of the last 150 years, a regeneration of which the software tycoons of Silicon Valley and the Indian writers in English are related aspects.”
Not only do these last 150 years include three very different eras in Indian history – colonialism, socialism, and most recently liberalization – the sentence also arbitrarily lumps together extremists with software engineers and writers under the misleading umbrella of the “Hindu renaissance.” It would be more accurate to argue that each of three represents a different effect of globalization over the past 20-odd years: the rise of a militant nationalism based on religious identity; success of millions of Indian scientists and engineers well-positioned to take advantage of the shift in the global economy toward information technology; and finally the emergence of a global literary market that has brought celebrity to not just Indian writers, but also to their Turkish, Iranian and Chinese peers. Programmers and writers are hardly cause for alarm.
What makes Mishra seem overly eager to demonize all things Western is his refusal to acknowledge his own debt to the processes of globalization that he so decries. While he speaks openly about his own lower middle class background – often comparing himself to the unemployed young men he writes about – he is oddly coy about how he managed to escape their fate. Mishra slides past the fact that he now lives in London, or that he owes a significant part of his well-deserved literary success to his patrons in the West. It’s a peculiar omission in a book titled, Temptations of the West.
Moreover, to argue that the success of the Indian info-tech industry is part and parcel of the rise of Hindu fundamentalism is a cheap and disingenuous way to delegitimize the very real opportunities that the information revolution has afforded to tens of millions of Indians. The same processes that drove 100,000 farmers in India to commit suicide have also brought unprecedented economic and social freedom to women, who constitute up to 70 percent of the workforce in many call centers and 21 percent of the information technology industry in general (compared to 13 percent of the larger economy).
Yes, these are educated, urban women, but it does not make them any less deserving than Mishra’s college buddy Rajesh of our empathy and support. As another wise Indian, Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, argues in his recent collection of essays, The Argumentative Indian, “There is, in fact, no real conflict between being determined to resist global inequality and injustice and at the same time understanding and facilitating the positive contributions of globalized economic, social and cultural relations across the world.” Such a recognition requires us to give a more full accounting of the temptations of the West, which include several worthwhile ideas such as equality, freedom, and opportunity. While these concepts are not exclusive to Western thought, their most recent iteration in global discourse – in the form of democracy, individual rights, rule of law etc. – is Western in origin.
Moreover, like many of his fellow anti-globalization critics, Mishra fails to acknowledge the central role of globalization in shaping human progress across space and time. For example, the infusion of Eastern mathematics, science and engineering helped power the Enlightenment in Europe. “Globalization is neither new nor in general, a folly,” writes Sen. “Through persistent movement of goods, people, techniques and ideas, it has shaped the history of the world. … That acknowledgement doesn’t, of course, undermine the overwhelming need to pay particular attention to the predicament of the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.” Our task, then, is to figure out how to promote a form of global development that reflects those concerns. A first step may be to stop defining ourselves as “anti-globalization,” and therefore against much of human history.
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