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.