Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for March, 2008

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana — Travels in Small Town India — Pankaj Mishra — A book review

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on March 18, 2008

I have been reading a fair amount of serious literature these days and was feeling an ineffable reluctance to plod further. I desperately wanted some rest. So I had decided to drop everything that I was reading in preference to something light and more importantly something delectable. Nothing that was lying on my bookshelves appeared appealing. Therefore, over a weekend while attempting to kill the boredom resulting from what seemed an eternal wait for the renewal of my driving license , I walked into the only decent book house in Banagalore’s Jayanagar IV block complex – a small but well stacked one to while away time. I was not looking for anything in particular, although, I was open to buying anything that fitted the definition of being delectable. It is in this process that I found Pankaj Mishra’s “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana — Travels in Small Town India” and “Tempations of the West – How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond“.  There were no elements in the purchase that I could qualify as serendipitous for I had already read Mishra’s “An End To Suffering — The Buddha in the World“. I had a taste of his writing style — attractive and captivating. So I had no qualms in adding more of his titles to my library.

I really enjoyed reading this book and having read, I wondered if there were any takeaways for me from this book. I have to acknowledge that it is nothing profound or significant except that it illustrates brilliantly a micrcosmic picture of what is now being increasingly considered as a macrocosmic change that is sweeping the small towns of India — an aggressive aspiration for modernity. It is these changes that Mishra captures and portrays quite alluringly. In addition to the utterly engaging nature of the book there was something more that affected me in a way that I could not lay my finger on for a while. It took a while for it to gradually dawn on me that in some sense my own formative years lay to a large extent in the small towns and among the middle classes that Mishra was passing, observing and describing. There was a very good chance that I could have been any one of those characters that Mishra encounters during his sojourns. Since I am happy being who I am, the possibility of me being someone else also scared me a bit while reading the book.

I guess generations of my family have been slowly and grindingly migrating from villages to taluq headquarters to small towns to small cities to growing cities to metros to longish stints in large cities outside India. I have been part of that generation which belongs to that leg of the journey that can be  best described as “small towns to small cities to growing cities to metros to longish stints in large cities outside India “.  I have seen both ends of the spectrum from close quarters and a lot of what Mishra describes and copiously more than that is what I have experienced and continue to experience. It is my belief that hundreds of thousands like me have been experiencing this journey — a journey that has been driven by and in part for the relentless needs of globalisation. There is no denying that I belong to a segment of middle class that had its emphasis on education and unknowingly prepared itself for the opportunities that an industrialising India had to offer. I only wish it had occurred to and included a lot more people.

Mishra has come to represent a narrative style that is easy, engaging and absorbing. One cannot but notice that the edifice of easy insouciance one finds in Mishra’s narrative style is built on the foundations of hardwork and effort in building a purposeful learning, awareness and scholarship. The random but interesting references to Angus Wilson’s commentary on Rudyard Kipling, Osho’s — From Sex To Super Consciousness ( which I remember my father reading patiently), Iris Murdoch’s — The World Child ( about whom Mishra has to explain to enquiring others that she is not Rupert Murdoch’s wife), Veblen’s — Theory of leisure class and Arvind Das’s – The Republic of Bihar are demonstrations of widespread interest in topics that enable the kind of awareness and sensitivity in an engaging writer like Mishra.

I especially liked the poignant chapters on Benares, Shimoga, Trichur and Kottayam and Mishra’s encounters there in. One cannot escape Mishra’s sharp but detached observations on the transformations that these places have undergone. All in all Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is an engaging book and you would long that it had gone on for a while more as you close the last page

Afterword: I laughed myself silly on the following joke i found in the book i.e. what is the national bird of Khalistan? Answer: BUTTER CHICKEN

Btw My driving license stands renewed

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