Saturday, February 04, 2006

Pankaj Mishra and self-reflection in a rising India

I always eagerly await Pankaj Mishra's essays in the New York Review of Books. His writing is crisp, his style and substance unerringly fair-minded and his worldview broad and mature even as it is firmly rooted in India. His three part article on Kashmir (first, second, third) back in the fall of 2000 is a superb work of clear-headed but empathetic journalism and helped me understand more about that heartbreaking conflict and its human costs than the millions of words that have been spilt by the media outlets in India, Pakistan and abroad. I have not yet had a chance to read any of his books (An End to Suffering; The Romantics; Butter Chicken in Ludhiana) but if they reflect anything like his sensibility as a reviewer they will not be a disappointment.

In contrast to the writings of Mishra, reading Indian newspapers is a deeply disappointing experience if, like me, you believe that India's emergence as a mature economic power will be a boon for South Asia. As seen through the prism of India's newpapers, any early signs of mature and thoughtful self-reflection within India's elite is sadly absent. There is a fairly vibrant civil society in India and one would expect to see more Indian intellectuals who can hold the mirror to society, question revered historic shibboleths and try to understand the future of India as a nation. Indian intellectuals abroad are increasingly doing this. Ashis Nandy, Gyanendra Pandey and Ashutosh Varshney have done good work on partition and its human and psychological impact. Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati are also engaged in a serious conversation about India's future but thinking coming out of India is still largely triumphalist rhetoric. My hope is that this will change over the next few years as India becomes more comfortable with its new status as a world power. If that turns out to be untrue and India follows a more virulently nationalistic path, the world in general and South Asia in particular will be the loser.

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