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Through the looking glass

Nakul Krishna | Updated on April 17, 2014

Tranquebar, a forgotten corner of southern India that is forever Denmark. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes; Author: Sam Miller; Non-fiction; Hamish Hamilton (Penguin); Price: ₹599

Sam Miller’s rollicking book shows that the notion of a ‘real India’ is hopelessly incoherent

The complicated plot of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is set in motion by a lover’s tiff.

Titania, queen of the fairies, won’t let her husband have the “Indian boy” she wants to adopt. The boy’s mother had been a devotee of hers, she says. “In the spiced Indian air, by night, / Full often hath she gossip’d by my side / And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands / Marking the embarked traders on the flood... ”

Sam Miller’s compendious history of foreign travellers to India, A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes, gets it wrong when it claims that “Shakespeare ... has no Indian characters, or any characters who ever travel there”. It is a shame, because the “Indian boy” is a perfect illustration of so many of Miller’s themes, namely the ignorance and cliché that typify numerous European accounts of India. It is also telling that the Indian boy, much fought over by the fairies, seems to have no say in the matter. Miller’s book is, he says, “an attempt to understand how the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, the Arabs, Africans, Europeans and Americans — everyone really, except for Indians themselves, came to construct their ideas of India,” often without any attempt to ask the Indians.

We hear from Miller of Alexander’s invasion, St Thomas in Kerala, the Chinese pilgrim monks, the Arab scholar travellers, all the way up to Vasco da Gama’s great voyage and Babur’s invasion from central Asia. In the colonial era, Miller is spoilt for choice and his narrative here is a dazzling selection of revealing quotations from accounts of India left behind by commercial mercenaries, soldiers, administrators and their redoubtable female companions, the memsahibs of legend.

Like in his popular 2010 book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity, there are short sections of winsome memoir about his own relationship with India. This relation is sustained both by the nature of his work — Miller is a BBC journalist — and by the fact of his marriage to an Indian. All of this is done in a smooth, pacey prose sprinkled with wry footnotes that make it clear just how much reading has gone into Miller’s selections. His footnotes are full of temptations to look up this or that zany sight on YouTube, and the wisest course is to give in.

Miller is skilled at keeping track of the shifting clichés of history — India as a land of riches to India as a land of poverty, Indians as violent and barbaric to Indians as timorous and servile. He notes how in the memoirs of Edward Terry, a clergyman who visited India in the time of Jahangir, “There is not a word of complaint against a single item of food he eats in India, and not a note of nostalgia for English cuisine,” and lets us draw our own conclusions about the Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini who travelled around India carrying a hundred kilograms of spaghetti, and Ringo Starr, the least Indophile of the Beatles, who brought with him a suitcase of Heinz baked beans.

This book is amusingly opinionated, dismissing the Alfonso mango in half a sentence, and arguing on another that the notion of “the real India” is hopelessly incoherent. But its chief virtue is its author’s hard-won self-awareness. He is able to see why his friends are bemused at his love for Delhi’s medieval ruins and can feel some of the exasperation of the hotel manager in rural Maharashtra who must service his demands for toilet paper. He declares himself a man of the left and is desperate to avoid any suggestion that he might be an “orientalist” of the bad sort. He even name-drops Edward Said for good measure. But he knows that his pure heart won’t change the fact that he is a white man and a Briton in a country his compatriots once ruled.

Miller’s self-awareness appears the more commendable given how seldom travellers to India have bothered wondering how Indians saw them. His book builds a fascinating parallel narrative of the many ways in which Indians have seen their foreign visitors: with curiosity, respect, contempt, and more often than not, indifference.

He gently rebukes fellow European travellers who talk to him about the distress of seeing India’s poverty, their emphasis being on the word “seeing”. “I worry,” he writes, “that this shows a failure of both sympathy and imagination — as if people don’t exist when you can’t see them... I remember the words of my former BBC colleague Mark Tully, who when asked how he copes with poverty in India, replied that he doesn’t — the poor do.” It is a humane remark, and a humble one. In a history of how visitors have looked at India, he does not forget that most Indians have to live there.

Nakul Krishna is doing a doctorate in philosophy at the university of Oxford

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Published on February 28, 2014
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