Last Autumn, in Kashmir, we sat and listened to Jimmy, who looked after us on the houseboat, as he talked about the suffering endured by local Kashmiris, and the people of his village in particular. In spite of the vast military presence, and a sense of melancholia that seemed to hang over the (always male) residents of Srinigar we met, the full extent of this suffering remained concealed. There was a sense of the need to move on, to convince the Western tourists that things were improving, that there was nothing to worry about.
Of course, as a visitor, the reality of a society is hard to grasp. This is part of the reason we need journalists, who can delve deeper and reveal what's really going on within a society. To do this, the journalist needs to get out there and talk to people on the ground. Even then, his or her impressions will be nothing more than partial, but at least they can begin to help the layman to understand the things the eyes cannot immediately see.
Mishra's book does just this. As such, it seems like an almost mandatory read for anyone visiting India, Kashmir, Afghanistan or Pakistan. (The sections on Nepal and Tibet are more discursive, and lack the detail of the other chapters.) Mishra is driven by a curiosity to find out about what's going on in his part of the world, but also to trace the way in which a society he thought he knew as a child was more complex than it seemed, and how it has evolved as a result. His writing on the often frightening changes to Indian culture, after speaking to film stars and politicians, visiting Hindu strongholds and Muslim havens, constantly explores the frayed edges of a new India, where tolerance and pacifism are in increasingly short supply. When he writes about the bombastic Bollywood film LOC Kargil, the whole caboodle of religious divide, Hindu nationalism, the mythic role of Kashmir and Bollywood are brought together.
Because so many people visit India, and because the colonial heritage with regard to India and Pakistan is still so great, there tends to be an assumption that we in the UK know something about that part of the world. Mishra's astute observations help to plug the vast gaps in our knowledge, skewering the way in which these societies are struggling to come to terms with modern materialism whilst maintaining a conviction in the importance of the four great religions that dominate South Asia. In the process he helps to show how Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, as well as explaining why the Kashmiri crisis might well be one without end.
In the last two months, things have taken a turn for the worse in Kashmir, and one wonders how the people we met, Jimmy, Shaquil and co are getting on. I wish I'd read Mishra's book before I visited. The tourist's ignorance, marvelling at an exotic beauty, is all very well, but in the end, if we want to be more than mere than just economic, part-time colonialists, there remains some kind of imperative to make the attempt to be conscious of those places we choose to explore when we find ourselves taking time out from our endlessly busy lives.