A Foreign View
A Strange Kind of Paradise / Sam Miller/ Penguin2014/
pages 425/Rs 599
One peculiar idiosyncrasy of this reviewer is to read the Acknowledgements page first. In A Strange Kind of Paradise, Sam Miller has an ‘Apologies and Acknowledgements’ page, wherein he apologises to fans of many real-life as well as fictional Indians, and there is mention of Padma and Parvati Patil, last met in the Harry Potter books. You read that line and you know this is going to be a quirky kind of book.
Quirky it is, an entertaining read and what’s more, an informative one, too. Miller, with a quarter century of an India connect, weaves a personal chronology of his India assimilation with accounts of how the earliest foreigners, people like Megasthenes, Hiuen Tsang/Xuanzang, Ibn Batuta, Marco Polo, Nicolo Conti, Vasco da Gama, then the Mughals, the East India Company men and of course, the Raj rulers, down to Ginsberg, the Beatles, Naipaul, viewed this vast and complex realm. It’s a 2,500 year timeline, an investigation, the author states, into the history of stereotypes and the history of imagination.
And it’s all there: a plentiful and wince-inducing array of hoary stereotypes, psychedelic writing about India’s smorgasbord of curiosities, as also a gentle debunking of some enduring urban (and rural) legends about the country. Also scattered in the engaging narrative are gems that sparkle, either with false or genuine lustre: there is the suggestion that Ashoka might have had Greek (Seleucid) blood flowing in his veins (Ashoka the Greek?!); how Pope Leo Xth’s pet elephant Hanno’s name could well be derived from the Malayalam word for elephant aana, some details about the earliest animals to cross the seven seas from India: many elephants and some rhinoceros, and of Rose Aylmer, who died of a surfeit of pineapples.
We read about how the Portuguese lived in the perpetual conviction that all Indians were just waiting to be converted, of how Job Charnock was deposed as Calcutta’s founder, of the demonisation of Nana Sahib back in England, with derogatory doggerel about him even appearing in Punch magazine; we discover that there was a burgeoning industry in Empire pornography, which went beyond the Kama Sutra, and we take an interesting trip with the author to the now-abandoned Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in Rishikesh. Talking about much of Raj accounts of India in the late 1700s, Miller makes this perceptive comment: ...their wondrous and tawdry tales reflect as much the preconceptions and biases and fantasies as their actual experiences; landscapes are shrunken, belittled. The Himalayas become Alpine or were likened to the Scottish Highlands or Snowdonia. Rivers were measured against the Thames at Chelsea; ruins, such as Tipu’s palaces, were compared to Tintern Abbey.
Employing a chatty style, a favourite riff of many British writers, Miller shows us how people from the West and the East regarded this strange land of ours. Some delightful turns of phrase appear: St Thomas is called a curmudgeon of the highest order; how the numbers of named Europeans who visited India in the 3rd and 7th centuries AD can be counted on the fingers of half a hand; self-deprecatory statements of the author’s tendency to chunter on; how Kipling was untimely ripped from the land of his early childhood. The author’s visit to Heliodorus’s pillar in Vidisha and his meeting an old woman there is a priceless story.
This must also be the first time the Taj Mahal has been described as a building, which of course it is. For all that dry wit, though, Miller stands happily exposed as an India lover, one who flinches when other foreigners heap opprobrium on the country, one who tends to lecture others, albeit gently, on the many things he likes about India. There are fat footnotes, one to every page almost; the research work involved must have been prodigious. The basic line maps that accompany each chapter, with arrows showing the direction to variously, Paris, Bactria, Denmark, add to the charm. Somewhere at the start of the book, Miller confides that knowledge and experience have never been particularly well regarded as qualifications for writing about India. That could well be a thing of the past, given that Miller’s recent writerly predecessors like Mark Tully, William Dalrymple, Patrick French, all use these two attributes to tell us absorbing tales of India. Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise occupies a well-deserved place on the India shelf.
Oh, and one more thing: the reader would be well advised not to judge this book by its less than riveting cover.