A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes, by Sam Miller, Jonathan Cape, RRP£18.99, 432 pages
There is a poignant scene in A Strange Kind of Paradise in which Sam Miller strikes up conversation with a Thai pilgrim at the ruined Buddhist seminary of Nalanda, Bihar, and asks what she and her companions think of India. “She spoke to them, and they began discussing, very earnestly, with furrowed brows, what to tell me – as if they were trying to reach some kind of consensus,” he writes. “The three words she then uttered offended me so deeply that I’m still struggling to explain my reaction. ‘India is dirty,’ she said, enunciating each word carefully, but without emotion.”
The point of the anecdote, and of this delightfully eccentric book, is not that the Thai travellers are wrong – Miller has just seen a used condom and a fresh human turd in one of Nalanda’s ancient cells for monks – but that they are missing more important truths about a country that has fascinated and appalled visitors from east and west over the past 2,500 years.
Half a millennium before the arrival of Thai tourists, the Mughal warlord Babur was equally negative about the country, calling Hindustan “a place of little charm” without beauty, nobility, grace or good horses, but he acknowledged a quality that made it attractive to conquerors from central Asia and later Europe. “The one nice aspect of Hindustan is that it is a large country with lots of gold and money,” said Babur.
Miller, a former BBC correspondent who has lived in India for two decades, is foreign enough to recognise India’s faults without embarrassment and sufficiently sympathetic to India – he married a Parsi woman from Mumbai – to revel without restraint in its cultural glories. Funny and self-deprecating, he has written a very readable account of Indian-foreign interactions from the days of Alexander the Great to The Beatles and Steve Jobs in our own time.
He has done so, furthermore, without oversimplification or sparing the reader the most deliciously obscure academic, linguistic or social details of India ancient and modern. As in his previous book, Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity (2009), Miller is the master of the must-read footnote, while matching the travel writer Eric Newby (Slowly Down the Ganges, 1966) in his acute descriptions of contemporary life in India.
So we learn – interwoven with tales of Miller’s personal love affair with India – the bits of history that most of us never knew: how the emperor Chandragupta had a personal guard of female soldiers and a masseur to rub his limbs with wooden rollers when he emerged from his palace to dispense justice; how the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama mistakenly thought Hindu temples were Christian churches with rather odd forms of worship and how (like many subsequent visitors to India) he “became angry whenever anything went wrong”; how the English teenager Rose Aylmer, immortalised in a poem by Walter Savage Landor, died of “a surfeit of pineapples” in 1800; and how the 20th-century’s most famous Parsi was Farrokh Bulsara, a bisexual rock star born in Zanzibar but brought up in India, and better known as Freddie Mercury of the band Queen.
Such digressions do not mean that Miller forgets the broad sweep of history, the invasions and explorations that have helped shape Indian societies and sometimes pitted Muslims and Hindus against each other. But readers will be happy that he eschews generalisations in favour of the particular, and the particularly interesting.
As Miller explains in his prologue, India has always defied easy explanation, with visitors unable to decide “whether the country is actually a land of great wealth or of appalling poverty, of spiritual renunciation or of unabashed materialism, of fasting or of gluttony, of erotic sophistication or of sexual puritanism, of corruption or of moral superiority. They probably fail to admit that it might be all these things, and, even more so, everything in between.”
Victor Mallet is the FT’s south Asia bureau chief