Pankaj Mishra has produced an interesting and varied selection of work – his novel The Romantics won critical accolades and awards. His next book, The End of Suffering: The Buddha in the World, found him taking an autobiographical and existential approach to Buddhist teachings and his more recent Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India was published to good reviews. He also pops up writing articles and essays in erudite journals and newspapers.
Given the above it probably seemed a good idea to reissue his first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, first published in 1995. It now comes in a revised edition with a new afterword by the author. I was looking forward to reading it, as The End of Suffering featured some tantalising vignettes of Indian life that whetted my appetite for more.
Unfortunately Butter Chicken in Ludhiana turns out to be little more than a diverting piece of juvenilia. In the afterword Mishra says the book reminds him “too much of my younger, callow, unresolved self, which has assumed positions of intellectual and moral authority without quite earning the always provisional right to them”. And that just about knocks the nail on the head.
If there is any merit in the book it is that Mishra travelled at the time the Indian middle-class “began to expand and reveal themselves just as culturally ambitious and politically conservative as those classes that have emerged in modern Europe and America”. So at least we get a window into a cultural phenomenon. Not surprisingly, as he moves from one small town to another, he finds little good to say about anyone or anything. But this isn’t the magisterial pessimism of a V. S. Naipaul, rather the cynicism of a youthful poseur. Even Mishra acknowledges he doesn’t “care much” for the book’s “sardonic young author”. Why should the reader?