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Book Reviews

A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes – My review

William Dalrymple called this book a “love letter to India”. I fully agree. “A Strange Kind of Paradise” isn’t intended as a history text-book, nor a dry list of “facts” (*cough* Romila Thapar *cough*).

What you have in your hands though, is an incomparable collection of selected writings from non-Indian writers about India as they experienced it through the ages – from the earliest Greek visitors to the modern American ones. From wondrous tales of fantastical tribes (one rumored to have their face on their chest, another took for its “food” the aromas of fruits and flowers) and animals (some dig up gold!) to modern rants about how this country is all about “shit and filth”, it’s all here. Megasthenes’ amazement the Mauryan palace of Chandragupta to Inman’s (oatmeal.com) characterization of India as “a sun-scorched, scabbed asshole of a country”, it’s all here. From respect to awe to disillusionment to hatred to derision and scorn, you can find it all.

And yet, for all the facts and profusion of narratives Miller puts in his book, it never feels heavy (nor does the book itself, despite being 400 pages long! :D). It’s a sumptuous feast, a veritable smorgasbord of stories, incidents, anecdotes and experiences. You get a taste of everything that has been said of India through the millennia. And all of this is beautifully interspersed with Miller’s own experiences in, and of, India. It is, at the same time, a history and a part autobiography, a discovery of India and of the self. But not once will you want to skip a page of the author’s journey to get on with your own. From Tony Mango to BBC-Delhi, Miller’s own story is as readable as the foreign narratives, and at times, a lot more pleasant.

You’ll find them all here – Fa-Hsien, ibn Batuta, Babur, Macaulay, Twain, Kipling, Rossellini (did you know he made a film on India?) and so many more. From the famous to the almost unknown, from mythical visitors who made India their home to real ones who never even visited, so many people’s voices are presented to us. And India is there, in all its beauty and ugliness, its grandeur and meanness, its simplicity and its convolutedness, its spirituality and its eroticism. You see how people have come to this land searching for their own idea of India, and for the most part they found it, whatever it might have been.

In the end you realize (unlike many narrators) that India is not a single concept, a genie to be bottled up in one, well, bottle. It never has been. People who thought they had found India had only found the facet they had come to search for here, nothing more. People who didn’t find theirs felt cheated and betrayed. But India was, and is, more than the sum of all that people came here for. From spices to gold to sex to yoga to mysticism to elephants and snake charmers to cheap labour to religion to peace………you can find pretty much all you want to here (yes, open-air shitters too). But if you attain your goal and go away thinking that you have seen and understood the “real” India, then you are just like those (quite racial) blind mice of Indostan.

And this is the parting message Miller leaves you with. And herein, as he explains, lies the charm and the unsightliness of India. And therein, in that moment of understanding, lies the beauty of Miller’s paean.

I would definitely recommend this book. It’s gentle, funny, sarcastic, and above all, honest. Read it and get a taste of this mass of contradictions you see as a rhomboidal piece of land “somewhere in Asia”, and maybe you will be able to judge it better than Inman.

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About hbhatnagar

I need to fill this up with much better content than I had populated it with earlier. Why I write a blog maybe? I started blogging in 2009 or thereabouts. I was a newly turned atheist and wanted to converse with others of the same persuasion. We're not exactly a big population group in India! It didn't go very well and I sort of lost interest, posting a few things now and then. I got a lot more regular over the last few months and have been posting almost daily since February '15. There were many reasons why I gradually became more regular in posting, but one way or the other, here I am! So this blog has taken shape, being at different points in time my showcase, my comedy club, my art gallery, my book club, my therapist, my close friend, my innermost self....but always my little corner of the world. You are all welcome to visit and I hope you stay awhile! A few points about me because I don't want to lead anyone on(and trust me this does become an issue more often than I'd care to admit). I'm Indian, the brown-skinned variety; if race, ethnicity or skin colour is an issue, you don't have to get to know me any more than what you see on my blog. I'm 40, so if age is an issue, please be informed accordingly. I was a doctor, an ophthalmic surgeon for 10 years before I quit practice.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “A Strange Kind of Paradise: India through Foreign Eyes – My review

  1. Sounds like my kind of book, Himanchu. *sigh* Another one onto the list!

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Mick Canning | 02/06/2016, 3:14 PM
  2. Thank you for the book review, Dr. Hb. Good to know that “it never feels heavy… and it’s a sumptuous feast…” It’s not an easy task to write a book about another country and a different culture, especially India has a long history and rich culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by Amy | 01/06/2016, 9:35 PM

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