Eleven years from the time it was first published, it is clear that Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (available in India next week in a splendid new edition published by Picador, with a new afterword by Mishra) stands as a classic of Indian non-fiction. Reading it this week for the first time, I was struck both by the smoothness of its style - it is a book without any dull bits, and the language has a full, rich flavour - and the strength of its argument, often more implied than asserted, from the picture of small-town Indian life it offers. It is a book that can be just as easily read to pass the time as to understand our age. Unlike most travel books, which suffer from more than a touch of the random and the inessential, it forges something cohesive from the writer's widely scattered rovings. Yet thoughout there is a sense of the thrill of being on the road, of not knowing who or what one is going to come across next.
Among the characters who appear on these pages are Mr.Sharma, a businessman from Ambala and star of one of the book's funniest sequences, in which Mishra realises that, although he is a lowly writer, he is being sized up as a prospective son-in-law ("Ab to suna hai ki kitaab-vitaab likhne mein bhi bahut paisa hai"); Mr.Tomar, owner of a haveli in a village in Rajasthan which he has turned into a hotel, who boasts nonstop about his contacts with the hoi polloi of the social world; a Jain teenager from Rajkot who declares the Hindus and the Jains have the same enemy, the Muslims, and declares that they must be finished off; Rajendra, an acquaintance of Mishra's from Allahabad university who wants to improve himself through reading ("he was the only person I knew who had actually read Dasgupta's five-volume study of Indian philosophy") but cannot come to terms with the fact that he is homosexual; Mrs.Shukla, escorting her daughter to Bombay because she wants to become a model; Salim, the caretaker of a museum in Murshidabad who speaks of how the city kept its peace after the demolition of the Babri Masjid ("Bas thoda ajeeb laga kuch dinon tak, It only felt slightly weird for some days"); and Raghubir Azad, a communist party worker in caste-conflict-ridden Jehanabad, who speaks of how the Ramayana and the Mahabharata legitimate taking up arms against oppression. They are individuals, but most of us know of other people like them: they also become types.
After a while it becomes possible to intuit a scale of values by which the various characters are judged. There are those who exhibit affectation, snobbery and high-handedness - such as Mr.Sharma's teenaged daughter, who throws a fit because a relative has used her bar of Camay soap, or Mr.Tomar with his preposterous blather - and are made the subject of ironical comment. Others exhibit a more serious, even shocking, failing, the absence of any kind of moral compass - such as the young men at the engagement ceremony in Muzaffarnagar, who "boasted about the bribes they had given to municipal officials and sales-tax inspectors, and spoke with awe and reverence of a certain police inspector who had personally killed seven Muslims in a communal riot", or the spiffily dressed teenager from Rajkot with murder in his heart, "oblivious to the morality of his desires and actions". These were people, writes Mishra, who seemed to have "translated the notion of laissez faire into both economic and social terms". Their modernity is a superficial one of dress, social demeanour and consumption; their thinking is barbarous, lacking any sense of good and evil.
On the other hand there are those, like Rajendra, who are striving to make use of their opportunities and to achieve a genuine self-fashioning - "Unlike his compatriots…he realized his incompleteness as a person and strove to overcome that" - and of whom we are given an extended and sympathetic portrait. Still others have become the victim of peculiar predicaments, such as Rajkumar, the owner of a guest house in Pushkar open only to foreigners, not Indians. Asked why, he begins to detail how Indians are filthy and bothersome. "I was struck by the way Rajkumar used the word 'Indians'," writes Mishra. "His foreign guests had 'modernized' him, and in the process had made him a man curiously at odds with his immediate environment, a man out of step with his own culture."
And from the hundreds of impressions of Indian life logged in Butter Chicken — the appalling civic conditions of most small towns; the "aggressive individualism" and ostentation of the newly moneyed classes and their love of kitsch; the cultural impact of satellite television and the adoption of new styles of dress and speech; the hunger for and respect given to wealth, power and prestige regardless of the route taken to them; the nonchalant, unselfconscious, voicing of caste and religious prejudice; the widespread sexual harassment and the ubiquity of pornography — there emerges a kind of double-sided critique of Indian society. On the one hand there is the old feudal, hierarchical India, in which discrimination and injustice are rampant, life is heavily circumscribed by one's caste or sex, and the free expression of personality is suppressed. As Rahul, an acquaintance in Banaras, says of life in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, "The modern idea of regarding people as individuals with their inalienable rights is still centuries away here. For the man with wealth and power everything in his domain, including land and human beings, is his property."
Such a world is antithetical to the spirit of modernity, and there is every reason for wanting to see it changed. But the supposed liberation that has arrived in its place in many parts is itself curiously distorted. To Mishra, while middle-class Indians show a great desire to embrace the the modern, all too often their modernity is only something tacked on to their old lives, such as their participation in consumer culture. It is an ambiguous revolution which has mostly to do with wants and aspirations and very little to do with thought or ideas, and there is often something grasping and pathetic, if not frankly disturbing, about it. The relevance of this argument has not diminished in the decade since Butter Chicken was published. "No other book defines as clearly, and with such troubled irony, our last decade of change," writes Amitava Kumar.
One of the book's best portraits is that of Mary Roy, mother of the novelist Arundhati Roy, describing her struggles against the Syrian Christian Church over inheritance rights and her complicated efforts to forge "an independent modern identity" in which all that is taken as given is reassessed. What faults the book has have to do with a tendency to read certain things too strongly, such as attendants in airconditioned textile shops in sleepy Kottayam "who, listlessly looking out from amid their brilliantly lit enclosures, gave off a strange forlornness", or business executives in an airport lounge: "Here, under the fluorescent lights of the departure lounge, they were set apart, they were an exalted breed".
But for all that it is a serious work, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is a very funny book: Mishra can be both appalled and amused by what he sees and hears, and the characteristic confusion and comedy of Indian life leaps off these pages. By contrast the writer's prose today has a more detached, austere tone. Some of the humour is in the recorded speech of others, such as Mr. Sharma's "Aajkal to behenchod scheduled caste backward caste ka raj hai; Brahman saale scheduled caste ho gaye hain", or the objections of a Bengali tourist to the hit song "Choli ke peeche kya hai" being played on a bus. Elsewhere it is puzzlement building into incredulity. Leaving Udaipur, Mishra's car comes to a halt before an unusually high speedbreaker, and is immediately surrounded by a crowd "of suggestion- and advice-givers". Still more people come out from shops and houses to watch: "From the expectant faces around us, we could have been stunt-jumping a row of burning buses". If Indians can feel such consternation at life in India, then how must it be for foreigners? Mishra finds himself one night in the waiting-room of Banaras station, full of sleeping people:
Deserving special mention are the chapter on Murshidabad (pages 223-230 in the new edition) and the beautiful note of grace on which the book ends - I would quote it here but that would detach it from its context.
I tried to doze off in the manner of the people beside me, but failed. I turned instead to following the progress of three large-sized rats, who fearlessly scurried about the floor, nimbly making their way among the recumbent bodies. Once, they accidentally climbed over a sleeping bag and started burrowing into it, mistaking its fluffiness for something edible, and woke up its occupant.
After a brief struggle inside, a startled-looking white face emerged from under the sleeping-bag.
'Jesus Christ!' he exclaimed. 'What the fuck was that?'
Some pieces by Mishra: a three-part series of essays on Kashmir published in the New York Review of Books in 2000 (1, 2 and 3); "The Restless Children of the Dalai Lama", on the Tibetan struggle for autonomy; and "Gaining Power, Losing Values", a recent piece about the governments of India and China in the New York Times .
And here are some other essays from different perspectives: Consumerism in India: A Faustian Bargain? , a recent five-part series by Stephen Zavestoski, who writes the blog The Curious Stall; "Why Indian intellectuals and activists are hostile to the market" by Ramachandra Guha; "Democracy and Capitalism in India" by Gurcharan Das, and "Markets and Morals", the 1998 Hayek lecture by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Other Middle Stage posts about Indian non-fiction writers: Ashis Nandy, Amartya Sen, Minoo Masani, Sasthi Brata, Ramachandra Guha, Mirza Abu Taleb, and Krishna Kripalani.